Vistas of the past

California Impressionist landscapes from the Irvine Museum are now at Laguna College.

August 26, 2010|By Cindy Frazier,
  • Dora James, curator of the Masterpieces from the Irvine Collection, chats with Dennis Power, president of Laguna College of Art & Design, next to Alexander Harman's "Mission San Juan Capistrano."
Dora James, curator of the Masterpieces from the Irvine… (DON LEACH, Coastline…)

The Irvine Museum is known for its splendid collection of California landscapes and a selection of its paintings is now being shown at Laguna College of Art & Design in a wide-ranging exhibit, "Masterpieces from Irvine Museum," that has a surprisingly historic aspect.

The Irvine Museum, founded in 1992 by Laguna resident Joan Irvine Smith and her late mother, Athalie R. Clarke, is "the only museum in California dedicated to the preservation and display of California Impressionism or Plein-Air paintings, an art style that flourished in California from 1890 to 1930," according to the museum's website.

Plein-Air painting flourished during the years when California was being discovered and developed, and painting the natural beauty of the state was especially embraced by those artists who called themselves Impressionists, according to Dora James, the Irvine Museum's curator of education.

"Impressionism started in France in the 1860s and came to California in the 1890s," James said. "Artists came here from Chicago and the Midwest because the light of California was similar to the light in the south of France."


But unlike the French Impressionists, who focused their artistic gaze primarily on urban scenes, society life and manicured parks, the California Impressionists were drawn to the wild landscapes, the ocean, mountains and deserts that make up the "golden state."

The exhibit at Laguna College, also called "El Camino de Oro: Journey through Early California," takes the viewer back to the pristine views of some of the state's most treasured spots, including Yosemite, and an exquisitely beautiful spot near Yosemite that is now deep under the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

James has a treasure trove of fascinating facts and interesting trivia about early California and the artists who flocked here, many to Laguna Beach, which was originally conceived as an art colony.

In the early years, the Santa Fe Railroad would allow the artists to ride for free, and even eat for free in the railroad stations, she said. In return, the painters provided original "posters," wonderful oil paintings that the railroad used in its stations all around the country, to advertise the wonders of the west and promote tourism by rail.

The Mission at San Juan Capistrano became a favorite subject of the painters, especially since it was near a railroad stop, she noted.

The exhibit takes the viewer through the varied facets of California's early natural beauty, from the desert to the sea.

Coastline Pilot Articles Coastline Pilot Articles