Rare painting finds new home in museum

Ferdinand Deppe's 'San Gabriel Mission,' perhaps the oldest painting in California, takes an unusual trip before arriving at the Laguna Art Museum.

November 01, 2012|By Michael Miller
  • Executive Director Malcolm Warner, left, and Janet Blake, curator of early California art, watch as the Ferdinand Deppe's "San Gabriel Mission" is hung at the Laguna Beach Museum of Art.
Executive Director Malcolm Warner, left, and Janet Blake,… (Don Leach, Coastline…)

Ferdinand Deppe's painting of the San Gabriel Mission underwent a long journey before landing in the Laguna Art Museum's permanent collection. But it didn't always travel first-class.

In fact, when collector Nancy Moure first encountered the painting two decades ago at a gallery in Pasadena, the dealer told her that the painting had recently been found in a drawer. And not to protect it from sunlight or dust — the painting was serving as the liner of the drawer.

Moure, though, saw a unique value in the piece and gladly shelled out for it. Thanks to her efforts, Deppe's landscape, which curator Janet Blake believes to be the oldest oil painting completed in California, has a home in the vault at 307 Cliff Drive.

This weekend, the painting, titled "San Gabriel Mission" and painted circa 1832, will hang alongside other works in the museum's permanent collection. The exhibit, which opens Sunday and runs through Jan. 20, features California works from the 19th century through the present.


Amid the many famous names on the artist roster — among them Richard Diebenkorn, Ed Ruscha, William Wendt and Clarence Hinkle — Deppe may sound relatively obscure, but his work serves as a historical keynote of sorts for the exhibit. So just how renowned an artist was he, and how good is his painting?

According to Moure and Blake, the answer to both questions is: not very.

"It certainly speaks to it being a kind of self-taught artist," Blake said. "On the other hand, I think it's quite remarkable in its description. I find the composition very interesting. You have the Gabrieleno Indians there in the front right corner, so I think, compositionally, it's very nice."

Moure, for her part, called it "a primitive painting." But given Deppe's circumstances, that lack of finesse was understandable.

According to a booklet that accompanied the museum's 2009 "Collecting California" exhibit, Deppe was a German explorer who collected natural history specimens from Mexico and later worked as an agent for a hide trader. In between his business endeavors, he traveled through the land that later became California and sketched and painted images of the burgeoning settlements.

"He was like a traveling salesman," Moure said.

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