The California Missions in Art: 1890 to 1930

by Jean Stern


With the growth of population of the early 1880s, Los Angeles began to attract professional artists. By the late 1880s several artists were already permanent residents. Within a decade there was an assorted group of young artists in Southern California who were trained in the impressionist style. Many had come south as they were unable find a niche in San Francisco, where the tastes and demands of the art establishment called for more traditional styles. Others were visitors who traveled here in search of picturesque and unusual subject matter and from time to time settled here. To these painters the romance and beauty of the old missions proved a strong attraction.

The small, seaside community of Santa Barbara was founded in 1786 when the Mission Santa Barbara was established near a large village of Chumash Indians. After secularization, the mission continued to function as a church without interruption for the benefit of the American population that had settled there.

Alexander F. Harmer (1856-1925) was Santa Barbara's most prominent artist. One of the most colorful of California's artists, Harmer had run away from home in Newark, New Jersey, at thirteen, made his way west to Nebraska, enlisted in the United States Army at sixteen and served duty in California.

He petitioned for release from the army so that he could enter art school at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. There he studied with the two great American Realists, Thomas Eakins and Thomas P. Anschutz. His interest in the West compelled him to re-enlist in the United States Army, choosing the cavalry in hopes of being stationed in Indian Territory. As fortune would have it, he served in the Apache Wars in Arizona. The sketches of that campaign won him a position at Harper's Weekly as an illustrator.

By the early 1890s he was settled in Santa Barbara as a successful artist and lived there the rest of his life. He turned to portrait commissions and historical paintings of the Spanish California era, including many important works of the California missions.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, 1886 is one of the earliest fully developed professional paintings of the historic mission. The view is of the front courtyard looking across to the soldiers' barracks on the far left. The scene is populated by an assortment of people, some of them wearing day-to-day clothing and others in their finest attire. Two saddled cow ponies wait patiently in the hot sun while the Mexican cowboys talk to the padre. Remarkably, the grounds are utterly stark in appearance. There is no suggestion of gardens, grass or flowers, and only two stunted bushes adorn the otherwise barren pillars. Off to the right, we can see a few branches of the mission's distinctive California pepper tree.

Harmer's rendition of San Luis Mission, 1892 (page 92) shows the large church nearly ruined. Large cracks cover the exterior walls, the results of California's frequent earthquakes. The chapel dome on the right is partially collapsed, and all around, exposed walls of adobe are slowly melting in the elements.

Los Angeles had three prominent artists in the 1880s. They were John Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), his wife Elizabeth Putnam Borglum (1848-1922), and Elmer Wachtel (1864-1929).

John Gutzon Borglum trained in Los Angeles and San Francisco and painted large narrative works in the Barbizon style depicting California in the accepted Western conventions of the day. One such series of his paintings dealt with stage coaches. Sheep Grazing, Mission Capistrano, 1897 gives an engaging glimpse of the mission at a time when Southern California was an agrarian society. Borglum would later turn to sculpture and be best known for the monumental presidential portraits carved on Mount Rushmore.

His wife, Elizabeth Borglum, first came to Los Angeles in 1881. She was known as Elizabeth Jaynes Putnam or Mrs. J. W. Putnam before she married Borglum in 1889. She likewise worked in the tonalist-Barbizon esthetic. She had studied art in San Francisco, with William Keith in 1885 and J. Foxcraft Cole (1837-1892) in 1887, both of whom were well entrenched in the Tonalist-Barbizon style. Her Mission San Juan Capistrano, 1895 shows the arcades in late afternoon with gentle shadows falling on the pillars. In the years following secularization, the Capistrano mission was plundered of its roofing tiles and timbers. It is noteworthy that by 1895, as the painting shows, the restorations had not yet included re-roofing the arcades.

The most influential early artist in Los Angeles was Elmer Wachtel, who came in 1882 and supported himself as a concert violinist as well as a painter. Even though he studied with the American impressionist master William Merritt Chase in New York, Wachtel's early works are markedly in the dark and moody tonalities of the Barbizon aesthetic, with glimpses here and there of an elegant line reminiscent of Art Nouveau.

One of Elmer Wachtel's earliest views of the Capistrano mission is a small but exquisite painting of the arches, done sometime in the mid-1890s before restoration of the roofs over the arcades and before the artist was influenced by Impressionism. Compare Wachtel's watercolor, Mission San Juan Capistrano with the large oil painting of the same title by Elizabeth Borglum, dated 1895. Wachtel's Mission Santa Barbara at Sunset (page 84) is also an early work, with its characteristically moody use of color in keeping with Wachtel's Barbizon affiliations.

Wachtel realized the romantic aspect of the Capistrano mission when he painted Moonlight, San Juan Capistrano. The drama of the composition is emphasized by the ghostly presence of the mission as it materializes in the soft light of the moon. His large daylight representation of Capistrano, entitled California Mission (page 49) gives the viewer a direct look into the ruins of the Great Stone Church that fell in the earthquake of 1812.

In time, and with the influence of Impressionism, Wachtel lightened his palette and used brighter color harmonies. California Mission is, by contrast, full of light and color and exhibits a tremendous sense of depth and atmosphere. This is the view of Mission Capistrano that would greet visitors as they first approached the buildings. The most prominent features are the old campanario, or bell wall, and the semicircular "mission revival" gable, an architectural feature that has come to symbolize the mission but in fact was not part of the original design. In addition, this perspective includes the majestic California pepper tree near the corner of the arcade. It is thought that this tree was planted in the 1870s, and one can get a good idea of the date of Capistrano mission paintings by the relative size of the tree. Here, the tree appears to crest five or six feet above the arcade.

A remarkably similar view of the Capistrano mission was painted by George Gardner Symons (1862-1930), a Southern California visitor at the time who would later settle in Laguna Beach. San Juan Capistrano Mission is painted from what must surely be the same vantage point (and possibly the same day) as that used by Wachtel, leading to the intriguing prospect that these artists were working side by side.

Benjamin C. Brown (1865-1942) visited California as early as 1885 and settled in Pasadena in 1896, where he taught painting to supplement his income as an artist. His style is boldly impressionistic, with a profusion of bold colors applied in strong, definite strokes. Sunrise, Mission at Pala near San Luis Rey, painted about 1898, shows Brown's brilliant use of masses of small daubs of color. Brown captured the crisp, cold light of early morning as it creeps down the mountainsides towards the newly awakened community of Pala. A related painting, The Mission, shows Mission San Luis Rey from a distance. As with many of the California plein-air artists, the landscape is often the subject of the painting, with the historic mission as an integral part of the larger picture.

Early in his career, Brown exhibited in a New York art gallery and was meeting considerable success. The art dealer suggested that they could boost sales by concealing that Brown was a Californian. Brown protested loudly, and from that point he always put "California" boldly below his signature on the finished painting.


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