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They Fulfilled Their Mission

Artists Portraying California's Heritage Did More Than Capture What They Found


Artists have long used California's crumbling missions as subject material. In doing so, they've performed a service: The movement to restore and preserve the buildings drew strength from their pictures.

The Irvine Museum exhibit "Along El Camino Real," a survey of the state's 21 missions in art, marks California's 150th anniversary as a state and is regarded as the most comprehensive collection of the missions in art. More than 58 paintings and etchings dating to the late 1800s offer intimate scenes a traveler saw while walking along the narrow dirt path called El Camino Real, the first and only road connecting all the California missions from San Diego to Sonoma.

"The artists brought the missions' ruins to the general public's attention and showed them what they were losing," said Pamela Hallan-Gibson, a Southern California historian who lives in Sonoma.

"If it weren't for the California Impressionists documenting the missions, we may not have realized the need for the restoration and they would've lost," Hallan-Gibson, 56, said.

"I've seen quite a lot of California Impressionist art, but this exhibit certainly has surprises--works I've never seen before," said Jerry J. Miller, executive director of Mission San Juan Capistrano. "We have to rely on the artwork to remember what the missions looked like."

The San Juan Capistrano mission's history has been punctuated by tragedy. Founded in 1776, the seventh mission in the chain was damaged in an 1812 earthquake that shook the newly built Great Stone Church, killing 40 people. Its seven grand domes and bell tower crashed to the ground. Six years later, the mission was sacked by Argentine pirates.

The earliest pieces in the exhibit are 14 etchings by Henry Chapman Ford, published in 1883. They include a rendering of the San Luis Obispo mission that looks much as it does today. Many artists soon made painting at the missions a rite of passage, particularly at San Juan Capistrano. The site was closest for painters of the Laguna Art Colony and was near the railroad tracks that link San Diego and Santa Barbara.

California Impressionist painters saw the same structures and settings but interpreted them in their own style.

Paintings by Guy Rose, for instance, were done in classical French Impressionist style much the way Monet painted. In contrast, George K. Brandriff worked loosely in broad strokes and bold colors.

The life of the missions is told by about 20 other painters, including Alexander Harmer, William Wendt, Franz Bischoff, Maurice Braun and Alson S. Clark.

The missions continue to attract artists. Kevin A. Short of San Juan Capistrano paints on location at least once a month.

"It's the same as why people look at sunsets every day," Short, 40, said. "Every time I think I know a place, I see it with a different light, and all of a sudden it looks new again." The paintings documenting the missions on canvas touch Miller too.

"When we have an artist here, they see nooks and crannies I've seen before but never noticed," Miller said. "So it's all very fascinating to me because I'm learning so much from the artist about the mission."

Built between 1769 and 1823, the missions were established as institutions to "civilize" the Native Americans and convert them to Christianity. In 1821, Mexico declared independence from Spain and claimed California as a province. The missions were secularized in the 1830s, and by 1850, when California became the 31st state, most were in ruins. Soon after the turn of the 20th century, when artists began to portray the missions as relics of California's romantic past, a serious effort was made to preserve and restore the missions.

The timing of the show is designed to inform visitors about the state's history, said Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum.

"California history is such a cursory part of public education here that most people don't know much about its history," said Stern, who selected in-house works and those from museum founder Joan Irvine Smith's collection for the exhibit.

"We wanted the most interesting paintings in terms of showing the architecture of the missions as they were early on, because they've changed," Stern said.

Many of the missions were dramatically altered during the restoration period, Stern said. Mission San Juan Capistrano, for instance, had no gardens, fountains or enclosed wall before 1910. There was just a dusty, empty courtyard in front of the mission.

The one physical link to all the missions was El Camino Real--the King's Highway--which stretched 700 miles. The dirt road, which appears in several of the paintings, was meant to connect the missions, spaced the distance of one day's walk.

Works in the exhibit indicate how the mission architecture defined the look of Southern California.

Said Stern: "The myth that the missions are evidence of California's bygone glorious golden age is being reinterpreted in the types of modern architecture. From the houses that have the bougainvillea, adobe-style and red-tile roofs, to the Taco Bell stands, [the architecture] reflects a feeling of a Spanish colonial setting. The missions were built in a relatively short period of time, but their effect has lasted to the present day."


"Along El Camino Real: The California Missions in Art," the Irvine Museum, 18881 Von Karman Ave., 12th Floor. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free. (949) 476-2565.

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