Irvine Museum’s mission
Visiting missions is part of field trips and family road trips, with OC’s own Mission San Juan Capistrano being one of the most visited, and most beautiful. There’s even the California Missions Museum in Sonoma (californiamissionsmuseum.com) that includes scale models of each one.
The Irvine Museum’s current exhibition “Along Camino Real” looks at historic art depicting, or at least inspired by, the missions and the vistas seen from the road connecting them. The missions themselves had fallen into disrepair by 1850, when California became a state. The artists’ attention to them began in the 1890s, spurring efforts to restore and maintain them that continue today.
The California missions were established by Spain starting in 1697 in Baja, with the first one in today’s California founded in San Diego in 1769. They stretched from there to Sonoma along some 600 miles known as El Camino Real. There’s still a short stretch of road with the name in Irvine, near the 5 by the Marketplace. The road evolved into U.S. Route 101, and then the 5 in our area, and the 101 still approximates the route taken by the friars and conquistadores. Sharp-eyed travelers can still spot the commemorative bells that marked the route beginning in 1906.
The exhibit at the museum, which is now part of UCI but is still located in the Irvine Business Complex, includes work by California painters working from 1850 to 1950. They include the well-known Laguna Beach painter William Wendt and Elmer Watchel, whose paintings of the San Juan Capistrano mission from the 1880s include the ruins of the Great Stone Church that fell in the earthquake of 1812.
A similar exhibition in 1995 was held at outdoors at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Called “Romance of the Bells: the California Missions in Art,” the catalogue that resulted from the exhibit provides an excellent review of the era in California art and the highly romanticized view of the missions.
Students of California history know that the population of native California Indians declined by 90 percent following the arrival of the Spanish. Many succumbed while living under the control of Spanish missions. Between 1846 and 1873, the first 27 years that California was a U.S. territory and then state, the Indian population in California went from 150,000 to 30,000, an 80 percent decline. The state’s leading historian, Kevin Starr (who passed away recently) put it simply: “60 percent of the deaths were attributable to disease, the rest to murder.”
Clearly, it hasn’t been the mission of The Irvine Museum to explore the harsher elements of the state’s history, as shown through art or otherwise. Nor should it have been. But we’ll be interested to see if its new affiliation with UCI will allow for teaching moments about some of the Golden State’s less-glorious and romantic stories.