The California Missions in Art: 1890 to 1930

by Jean Stern



Many of Cooper's Capistrano paintings are not of the mission. Capistrano Train Station (page 61) shows the Santa Fe train station that adjoins the mission. In the background, one can see a series of arches from the western edge of the mission. A large, busy highway now separates the station from the mission. Near San Juan Capistrano, dated May 7, 1916, is a view of Ortega Highway, the present-day thoroughfare that leads from the San Diego Freeway to the mission. The sketch looks west from the mission to where the freeway now runs. Ortega Highway is named after Sergeant Ortega, the chief scout of the Portola Expedition that explored the area in 1769.

Sydney Laurence (1865-1940) is best known as the foremost plein-air painter of Alaska. He arrived in Juneau in 1903 and moved to Valdez in 1904. He supported himself as a photographer but spent the summers prospecting for gold. Failing to strike it rich, he turned to painting and became an important chronicler of the Alaskan frontier. He is renowned for his views of Mount McKinley.

In 1925 Laurence began to spend winters in Los Angeles. He was then sixty years old and could not tolerate the long winters in Alaska. Although he continued to paint Alaskan scenes in his California studio, he occasionally painted plein-air scenes of the Southland. The Evening Star (page 68), a moonlight painting or "nocturne," shows the planet Venus at night hovering above the faintly lit ruins of the Capistrano arches.

Nocturne painting was the specialty of Charles Rollo Peters (1862-1928). Peters was a faithful follower of James A. Whistler (1834-1903), the American expatriate painter who popularized nocturne painting. Starlit Mission, Carmel shows the Carmel Mission in the eerie glow of clear moonlight. The dark setting intensifies the dramatic quality of the mission, a ghostly presence in an otherwise stark clearing.

Arthur G. Rider (1886-1976) was a Chicago area artist who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1910, he attended at lecture by the Spanish Impressionist, artist Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923), and was an immediate convert to Sorolla's color esthetic. He spent several summers in Spain painting the fishing boats on the beach at Valencia. He painted in California in 1928 and, in 1931, he settled in Los Angeles. In Southern California, Rider found once more the intense light of the Spanish coast. He worked as a scenic artist for Twentieth Century Fox and MGM studios, retiring at the age of eighty-four.

Arguably the best colorist of all the California artists, Rider was charmed by the Capistrano mission, and his paintings of it are lively examples of Impressionism in California. Two paintings of the garden and fountain are delightful examples of Rider's vivid color use. These paintings capture the shimmer of sunlight as it reflects off water, stone and brilliant flowers. The play of light among the mission's myriad of blooms is the subject of Flowers, Capistrano Mission (page 121). Rider leads us, with endless little daubs of pure color, along a geranium-bordered path to the wisteria vine that cascades from a pillar. Capistrano Ruins, by contrast, uses subdued color to set a tableau that emphasizes the heroic quality of the ruined church. Even though the painting lures the viewer with a series of overlapping arcs and lines, it is still the superb color that creates the dramatic impact.

California Impressionism, or the plein-air style, entered its decline with the advent of the Great Depression. The changing tastes of the art public, coupled to the uncertainties of the economic climate, led to the conclusion of this art style. Younger artists, many of whom were trained in this style, turned instead to European Modernism as their style of choice. In addition, artistic tastes favored paintings of urban settings and of people in their daily lives. Landscapes and nostalgia went out of style.

Paul Grimm (1892-1974) was one of a few artists who continued to paint in a visually representational style. Born in South America, he came to America with his family in 1899 and settled in Rochester, New York. At the age of eighteen, he won an art scholarship to study at the Royal Academy in Dusseldorf, Germany.

He came to California in 1919 and resided in Hollywood. There he supported himself by doing design and advertising work. Grimm was one of the earliest scenic artist for the fledgling Hollywood studios. Unfortunately, his work, painting backdrops for countless silent movies, was never credited and has gone unrecognized. He moved to Palm Springs in 1932 and remained there for the rest of his life.

After he settled in Palm Springs, he became the most eminent of the California desert painters. He won early popular fame, and his studio-gallery became a familiar stop for residents and tourists. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of his best known patrons.

San Diego Mission, painted about 1950, shows the first California mission essentially as it looks today. Compare Grimm's view with Edwin Deakin's painting of the same mission, done sometime in the late 1890s. The mission underwent restoration in 1931. The most striking feature, the bell wall with five hanging bells, had completely collapsed, and the heavy bells were scattered throughout the area.

Queen of the Missions is, of course, the Mission Santa Barbara, one of the most visited of all missions. Grimm, in a direct, realistic style, illustrates the mission as it looks today.

With the passing of time and the changing of tastes, plein-air painting has once again attained popularity in American art. Now in the last decade of the twentieth century, nearly a hundred years after the style originated, the California missions are once again finding favor among artists, collectors and museums.

Over the past half century, California has confirmed its considerable interest in the preservation and restoration of its historic missions. Great efforts have been made to restore these historic sites, and more endeavors are needed to complete the task. In spite of all that has been done, the ever-present menace of earthquakes, the single most prevalent agent of destruction, is still the greatest threat. These paintings captivate the attention of a public interested in preservation and render a substantial service by demonstrating the worthiness of their cause.


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