If you've grown up in California, you may remember the missions of California as they pertained to your masterpiece of a three-dimensional model that you had to build in fourth grade, as part of the history of California curriculum. Mr. Jean Stern, the Executive Director of The Irvine Museum says that's where most people's education of California history starts and ends. "It's really not taught in the public schools, in fourth grade, they talk about the missions a little bit, but there really isn't another class until you get to college, and then it's an elective," he says. "It's something that we feel isn't right; people should know about their history." The art of this time period is painterly and romantic, narrative and full of passion. The colors, the compositions, the subjects -- they're all rich with curiosity and adoration, itching for ears and eyes to hear and see these tantalizing stories come to life.
The Irvine Museum has been operating as one of the only admission-free museums in Southern California for over 22 years now, focusing on the Impressionist Period (1890-1930) of art through educational exhibitions, tours, youth engagement programming, and fascinating historically significant books on art and history in California. Their most recent project has been the "California: This Golden Land of Promise" exhibition, which has over 44 paintings and etchings that depict the rich history of this area. Focusing on the untouched California landscape, the Native American tribes that called this area their home, the many missions of California, and the tumultuous history of the changing dynamics between the Spanish, Mexican and American presence in this land, this exhibition displays the chaotic history of California through gorgeous, impressionistic works by some of the great painters the late 1800s.
"California has a unique distinction, you know, within a hundred years, roughly from 1880-1980, going from almost no population in certain parts, like in Southern California, to a huge population," Stern says. "Northern California was relatively sparse until the gold rush--the gold rush brought tons of people over, but not to the south."
The Irvine Museum's focused time period is one of the least understood eras in art, and Stern says that very few people knew there was any kind of art tradition in California during that time. "The Impressionist Period, roughly from about 1890 to about 1930 is the period when California art really grew and expanded, and had a lot of artists come to California. In our collection, there were only two artists that were actually born in California. But, almost all of them died in California," he says. During this time, California grew enormously from very sparsely populated region to a very heavily populated area, primarily thanks to the advent of the railroads in the 1880s. A lot of agricultural empires, including the Irvine Ranch, grew in that period, because transportation was finally available to get the produce out to the rest of the country, because of the railroads. "It's an interesting history," Stern says. "California is a remarkable land, a beautiful land, and it has a history--a very interesting one."
Much of the exhibition focuses on the upheaval of this time, with the Spanish ruled missions, Mexico's separation from Spain, the trouble with the Native Americans and the ranchos, and the return of the missions to the Catholic Church. "Southern California was characterized in the 1860s and 1870s as very large ranchos, which had been formed from the original land the missions had, and those lands were taken away from the missions in the 1830s by the Mexican government."
The paintings and etchings involved in this show tell a rich story in a delicate time, when there really weren't many witnesses. Though the missions played a huge part in the history of this land, with each one garnering hundreds of thousands of acres for each one, the artists didn't take an interest in these fortresses until long after they were abandoned. They didn't look like how they look now. Now, they're gardens and fountains and gift shops, but according to Stern, in those days, they were fortified encampments where Native Americans were forced to stay and were trained to do menial work. "The romanticizing came much later," Stern explained, "50-60 years after the missions were abandoned. Like so many things with films and literature, the romance had little to do with what actually happened there."
"A lot of artists came to California to paint the missions because they were the equivalent of the ancient Greek and Roman ruins," Stern explained. "They were deserted places that were partially collapsed, with all sorts of romantic imagery attached to them."
The Mission Capistrano was the 7th mission founded in the state, and was founded in 1776, according to Stern. For the next fifty years, 21 missions were founded throughout California, stretching as far north as Sonoma County. They were all connected by El Camino Real, the Royal Road or the King's Highway, which today approximates Highway 101. When President Abraham Lincoln returned what was left of the mission buildings to the church in the 1850s, the relics of these religious institutions seemed like distant memories of some spiritual foreign venture, and a serious effort after that point was made to try and preserve what was left of them.
Featuring paintings and etchings by William Wendt, Charles Rollo Peters, Alexander Harmer, William Hahn, among dozens of others, the exhibition "California: This Golden Land of Promise" utilizes local collectors, the community, the permanent collection of the museum and the personal collection of Mrs. Joan Irvine Smith, one of the museum's founders, to display the most interesting visual expressions and experiences of California life during this time. The exhibition also is paired with a book by the same name that has over 400 illustrations and works of art, to help illustrate the fascinating and well-documented history in this text.
The Irvine Museum is dedicated to furthering the education and engagement with California schools, universities, and art lovers, to carry on the history of this area into the future. You'll never look at a mission diorama the same way again.
The exhibition closes May 21, 2015.