Irvine Museum showcases ‘Moods of California’ and the state's Impressionists

They say there’s no change of seasons in California.

“They” are wrong.

At least, that’s what the Irvine Museum, and its latest exhibition, “Moods of California,” will have you believe. Through Feb. 8, the museum is presenting 39 paintings that capture the Golden State in various seasonal states, as well as its different ecological regions.

The paintings — oils on canvas, mostly from the early 20th century — illustrate that the climate can be as varied as the landscape. The museum has categorized the state into seven distinct ecological regions: North Coast, Central Coast, South Coast, Shasta-Cascades, Sierra Nevada, Central Valley and desert.

The exhibition, which opened Oct. 7, showcases artists’ representations of those contrasting landscapes, offering a glimpse at an undeveloped, untarnished California from the not-so-distant past.

Some well known California Impressionists are on display, including William Wendt, Granville Redmond, Guy Rose, Edgar Payne, John Bond Francisco, Franz Bischoff, Paul Grimm and Elmer Wachtel.

Other artists may not be as well known, but have been selected because of the quality of their work, sensitive depictions of California landscapes and their affiliations with the aforementioned artists. These include Paul Lauritz, Sam Hyde Harris, Hanson Puthuff, Henrietta Shore, Marion Wachtel, William Alexander Griffith, Alice Chittenden and Marion Wachtel.

“These are artists who were born in California, or artists that came to California and remained here, stayed here for awhile and produced work in California,” said Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum since its founding in 1992 and opening in 1993.

Stern co-curated this exhibit with Dora James, the museum’s curator of education.

“People are always asking for some of our landscapes, so there are some very nice examples from some of the famous artists,” Stern said. “Some have stormy skies, some have desert scenes — there’s a little bit of everything. Some are brand new to the museum, borrowed from other collectors, and have never been exhibited here. Many of these have been requested.”

Technically, the 24-year-old museum — housed on the ground floor of 18881 Von Karman Ave. — is now known as the Irvine Museum Collection at UC Irvine. The museum donated its collection — largely comprised of California Impressionist paintings, valued at $17 million — to UCI in November 2016.

Simultaneous with that gift, UCI announced that it would construct a museum of California art to house the collection. The cost of the new museum — to be called the UCI Museum and Institute for California Art, or UCI MICA — is expected to be $200 million, Stern said.

Officials are hoping to complete the museum in the next five to seven years.

The Irvine Museum donation was the campus’ largest single gift of art to date, the announcement said. Officials with the university and the Irvine Museum also remarked that an art museum was in the original plan outlined by the campus’ architect, William Pereira.

“With this gift, UCI is receiving one of the finest collections of California Impressionism of any entity in California, and perhaps the world,” Stephen Barker, dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, said in the announcement. “A permanent collection with such depth in a single genre significantly raises the university’s profile.”

Barker will serve as director of UCI MICA.

Stern, a longtime specialist and scholar in California Impressionism, will relocate to the UCI campus with the museum’s move. He’ll become director of the California Impressionism collection.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me and to the museum,” he said. “It will allow us to make a very lasting impact on the culture of California, and I’m delighted to be a part of it.”

Highlights from ‘Moods of California’

Some paintings that truly deserve a look include “Mount Wilson” by Shore, “Poppies and Lupine” by Redmond, “Crocker Grove, Del Monte Forest” (1915) by Detlef Sammann, “Blue Mountain” by Grimm, “Long Lake, Sierra Nevada” by Marion Wachtel and “Rugged Peaks” (c. 1920) by Payne.

Phil Dike, generally considered a California regionalist and not an impressionist, has a worthy painting on display, “Well of Gold” (c. 1928). The same goes for Phil Paradise, whose oil on canvas, “The Corral” (c. 1935), depicts horses looking anxious with the development of an oncoming storm.

For director Stern, this exhibition is another opportunity to showcase the museum’s strengths as it plans its transition.

“We’re a big, important part of the United States, but there’s never been a show on California (Impressionism) in the National Gallery, or any of those big Eastern museums,” said the recent recipient of France’s Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) award.

Christopher Lemoine, consul general of France in Los Angeles, presented the award to Stern at the museum in September.

In his lectures and writing, Stern frequently draws comparisons between French and California Impressionism, and points out that many of the early California artists were students and friends of the French painters.

“We need to speak up for our own art, and our own tradition, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Stern said.

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Chris Alexakisart