Mission San Juan Capistrano

Revisits Its Past

Mission San Juan Capistrano: An Artistic Legacy

by Gerald J. Miller


Those brooding ruins of Mission San Juan Capistrano, those shaded walls, those time worn pathways and brightly colored gardens are what made the Mission the most often portrayed structure in America.

You can visualize Mission San Juan Capistrano as a a work of art with its majestic ruins of the Great Stone Church standing in reverent solitude attesting to an era long past. You can see it walking along ancient cloisters amid the time softened beauty of old adobe buildings. Sitting in the cool shade of the padres with its four crusty bells hanging as silent sentinels, their bronze tongues no longer clanging to the touch of an ancient hand. You can feel the serenity behind massive walls which still shut out the noisy world and preserve the peace within, encircling the patio in the tradition of a classical Greco-Roman peristyle.

Mission gardens, renown for their beauty, compliment the functional, artistic simplicity of its buildings with rich, redolent flowers. Red bougainvillea spills over a lovely arch on the main corridor, bright water lilies float languidly on the surface of an old Moorish fountain in the center of the patio. Flowering trees and shrubs brought by ships from distant gardens of the world fill the Mission in a manner reminiscent of the famous gardens of Spain.

Soft lights and shadows, brilliant colors and timeless beauty lured hundreds of Impressionist painters to the mission from 1890-1930. They came on horseback, cart train, Model T and bicycle. They painted scenes of the old mission from virtually every angle. And they self their paintings to tourists to sustain themselves. But it was not simply the allure of the mission itself which attracted so many artist.

The artists were encouraged by the mission's pastor, Father St. John O'Sullivan. When Fr. O'Sullivan arrived in 1910, dying of tuberculosis, he felt a great empathy with the ruined, decaying old mission and likened it to the state of his own frail body. In the time left to him he determined to restore the mission to its former grandeur and to bring about a glory in its gardens which would rival those of the famed Alhambra in Spain. A lover of beauty and art, he sought to immortalize the mission as a precious glimpse of a glorious past by inviting artists to come to the mission and paint.

Father O'Sullivan was enamored with the Impressionistic structure, or plein-air style, prevalent with the artists in California at the time. It was a style all about light, color and the natural beauty of the open air. It had been the warm open air living of California that brought Fr. O'Sullivan for reasons of health to Capistrano. Due to the love of his work, a healthful climate and the grace of God, he was able to work until 1993.

During his tenure at the mission, Fr. O'Sullivan's hospitality and the mission's beauty brought famous and aspiring painters from all over the world. Joseph Kleitsch, noted Belgian portraitist, stayed at the mission, and at the nearby Laguna art colony, while he painted brilliant color scenes in the mission gardens and completed the famous portrait of Fr. Sullivan (see below).

Another artist, John Gutzon-Borglum, also painted at the mission. Gutzon-Borglum was best known for his sculpture, especially at Mt. Rushmore. He painted the mission in its decay while his then better known wife, Elizabeth, captured the beauty of its graceful arches. Colin Campbell Cooper painted there in 1916, sold some works, and gave on to Fr. O'Sullivan. Fannie Duval painted a beautiful emotional scene of little girls in white dresses skipping through the cloisters on the way to the chapel for their first communion. Artist Charles Percy Austin often stayed at the mission and donated several paintings; most notable was the scene of silent screen star Mary Pickford's first wedding"(see Mary Pickford's Wedding" below and to the right) after Fr. O'Sullivan had performed the marriage rites. Some other artists that enjoyed the mission and its hospitality were Franz Bischoff, Alson Clark, William Wendt and many more.

All of these artists and more were featured in a unique and ambitious exhibition of major works, that presented all 21 California missions, on June 17 and 18 in 1995 at the mission in San Juan Capistrano. The exhibition was jointly sponsored by the Irvine Museum and the mission which allowed over 50 major works to be shown. Romance of the Bells: The California Missions in Art is a 128 page book illustrating the pieces shown at the 1995 exhibition.

The 1995 exhibition contained a large selection of mission paintings form the Joan Irvine Smith collection, several form Mission San Juan Capistrano, the Bowers Museum, Rancho Mission Viejo, and form private collectors such as Gerald and Bente Buck, Peter Ochs, and others. It was the first exhibition of Impressionist work showing the California missions as subjects for art by foremost artists.

With the help of major galleries, artists, and important private collectors, the historic mission continues to revisit its proud past, inspired by Fr. O'Sullivan, both as a renowned subject of art and as an active participant in the encouragement of the fine arts. As Orange County's most eminent cultural center, Mission San Juan Capistrano hopes to encourage interest in California's regional Impressionist art and in its artists.


About the author

At the time of writing this essay, Gerald J. Miller was Administrator at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

(above: Gerald J. Miller at Mission San Juan Capistrano)

(above right: Charles Percy Austin 1883-1948, Mary Pickford's Wedding, Oil on Canvas. Collection of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Photo courtesy of Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Irvine Museum)


Please click on the names of the below paintings to view images of the art. All objects are part of the Mission San Juan Capistrano collection.


Resource Library Magazine 1997 editor's note:

The Mission's art collection is growing larger in recent years. Over the past three years the mission has acquired by gift and purchase a number of Contemporary Impressionist paintings by established artists. According to the Mission, a planned permanent gallery will house these and other objects on the mission grounds.

The above text was published in Resource Library Magazine in 1997 with with permission of the author.


Resource Library 2012 editor's note:

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Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for Mission San Juan Capistrano in Resource Library.

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This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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