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.

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


Resource Library features these essays concerning Southern California art:

The American Scene: Regionalist Painters of California 1930-1960: Selections from the Michael Johnson Collection by Susan M. Anderson

Dream and Perspective: American Scene Painting in Southern California by Susan M. Anderson

Modern Spirit: The Group of Eight & Los Angeles Art of the 1920s by Susan M. Anderson

A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-53 by Julia Armstrong-Totten, Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, and Will South

The Arts in Santa Barbara by Janet Blake Dominik

Ranchos: The Oak Group Paints the Santa Barbara Countryside by Ellen Easton

Speculative Terrain - Recent Views of the Southern California Landscape from San Diego to Santa Barbara by Gordon L. Fuglie

Sampler Tour of Art Tiles from Catalina Island by John Hazeltine

Mission San Juan Capistrano: An Artistic Legacy by Gerald J. Miller

Loners, Mavericks & Dreamers: Art in Los Angeles Before 1900 by Nancy Moure

Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the Eucalyptus School in Southern California by Nancy Moure

San Diego Beginnings by Martin E. Petersen

Keeping the Faith: Painting in Santa Catalina 1935-1985 by Roy C. Rose

The Art Student League of Los Angeles: A Brief History by Will South

Artists in Santa Catalina Island Before 1945 by Jean Stern

The Development of Southern California Impressionism by Jean Stern

The Legacy of the Art Students League: Defining This Unique Art Center in Pre-War Los Angeles by Julia Armstrong-Totten

The Development of an Art Community in the Los Angeles Area by Ruth Westphal

A Bit of Paris in Heart Mountain by Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick

A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-53 by Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick and Julia Armstrong-Totten

The Historic Landscapes of Malibu by Michael Zakian

and these articles:

California Impressionists at Laguna is a 2000 exhibit at the Florence Griswold Museum organized by Florence Griswold Museum curator Jack Becker, the exhibition consists of twenty-six paintings by over a dozen California artists and selected works by members of the Lyme Art Colony, providing opportunity to compare and contrast the styles and subjects of the Lyme and Laguna Impressionists. The exhibition examines how the colonies contributed to the very identity of their regions; in the case of Laguna as a new Eden of perpetual sunshine, and for Lyme as a place rooted in traditional New England values. (left: William Wendt (1865-1946), South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 1918, oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Stiles II)

Circles of Influence: Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California Art 1910-1930 is a 2000 exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art which thematically explores Southern California's early twentieth-century artistic development -- from the expanding influences of East Coast artists, to the building of local art organizations striving for independent expression, and finally the early stirrings of avant-garde Modernism. Presenting over seventy paintings, drawn from public and private collections, the exhibition will focus attention on the progressive artists of Los Angeles and their response to national and international art movements.

Clarence Hinkle: Modern Spirit and the Group of Eight is a 2012 exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum which features over one hundred paintings dating from the early 1900s through the 1950s, and includes many paintings that were in the original exhibitions of the Group of Eight, especially their 1927 show at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art.

The Fieldstone Collection: Impressionism in Southern California, a 1999 exhibit at the the William D. Cannon Art Gallery, includes approximately 40 works, created between the late 1800s and early 1900s, depict the natural landscapes of the region in the "plein air" style of the French Impressionists.

The Final Eden: Early Images of the Santa Barbara Region is a 2002 Wildling Art Museum exhibit of paintings, watercolors and prints depicting the Central Coast of California between 1836 and 1960 and celebrating "its rural pristine and fertile nature," selected by guest curator, Frank Goss. It is his thesis that the paradise that once was California, a land of boundless resources and unlimited opportunities, has shrunk through urbanization and exploitation, and the Central Coast, not yet paved over, is "the Final Eden." (left: John Hall Esq. (1808 - ?), "Santa Barbara-Upper California," 1836, hand-colored lithograph.. Lent by Eric Hvolboi

First Generation: Art in Claremont, 1907-1957 is a 2008 exhibit at the Claremont Museum of Art, which traces the art history of Claremont and the region in the first 50 years after the city's incorporation in 1907.

On a clear day a century ago, one could see the peak of Mt. Baldy from virtually every corner of the Los Angeles basin, from ocean to desert. The original inhabitants of this area, the Tongva/Gabrielino Indians, called the mountain "Yoát," or snow. Its siren song has drawn generations of settlers to its shadow. Since the late 19th century, prominent artists have been among those attracted to the foothills of Mt. Baldy and its neighboring peaks-and the city of Claremont, in particular.The exhibit traces the art history of the region, from the work of such artists as Hannah Tempest Jenkins, Emil Kosa, Jr., and William Manker to that of Millard Sheets and his circle in the 1930s. Sheets's influence as artist and teacher extended as well to bringing artists such as Henry Lee McFee, Phil Dike, and Jean Ames to Scripps College, thereby enhancing the existing art community and assuring its lasting influence.

Greetings from Laguna Beach: Our Town in the Early 1900s is a 2000 Laguna Art Museum exhibit which illustrates Laguna's early history through 20 landscapes painted by some of the town's earliest artist residents as well as historical photos and a room-sized installation of a typical period cottage. The paintings include works by Franz A. Bischoff, Conway Griffith , Clarence Kaiser Hinkle, Joseph Kleitsch Millard Sheets, William Wendt, and Karl Yens.

L.A. RAW: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy is a 2012 exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The figurative artists, who dominated the postwar Los Angeles art scene until the late 1950s, have largely been written out of today's art history. This exhibition, part of the Getty Foundations initiative "Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980," traces the distinctive aesthetic of figurative expressionism from the end of World War II, bringing together over 120 works by forty-one artists in a variety of media -- painting, sculpture, photography, and performance

The Legacy of the California Art Club in San Diego chronicles the history of art in San Diego, California from the turn of the 20th century through the beginning of the present century.

Painted Light: California Impressionist Paintings from the Gardena High School Los Angeles Unified School District Collection, hosted by CSU Dominguez Hills in 1999, features works by Franz A. Bischoff, Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971), Maurice Braun (1877-1941), Benjamin Chambers Brown, Alson Skinner Clark, Leland S. Curtis, Maynard Dixon, Victor Clyde Forsythe, John (Jack) Frost, Joe Duncan Gleason, Armin Carl Hansen, Sam Hyde Harris, Clarence Kaiser Hinkle, Frank Tenney Johnson, Emil Jean Kosa, Jr., Jean Mannheim, Peter Nielsen, Edgar Alwin Payne, Hanson Duvall Puthuff, John Hubbard Rich, Carl Clemens Moritz Rungius, Walter Elmer Schofield, Clyde Eugene Scott, Jack Wilkinson Smith, James Guifford Swinnerton, Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, William Wendt (1865-1946) and Orrin Augustine White.

Painted Light: California Impressionist Paintings: The Gardena High School/Los Angeles Unified School District Collection toured to The Irvbine Museum in 1999.

Representing LA, Pictorial Currents in Contemporary Southern California Art, featured at the Frye Museum in 2000, is the first group exhibition to explore the rich and varied representational painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture produced by Southern California artists from 1990 to 2000, and fills a gap in West Coast and Southern California art history by surveying and interpreting about 80 works by 70 artists working in representational or realist styles and approaches.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library.

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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