The Irvine Museum presented CALIFORNIA: This Golden Land of Promise, an exhibition that displayed paintings dealing with our state’s remarkable history. Many of the paintings featured our historic Spanish missions as well as our beautiful landscape.
From the 1540s, California was a distant colony of Spain, somewhat isolated from the mother country until the missions were built. Although the missions in Baja California are older, the first mission in what is now the State of California was founded in San Diego in 1769. For the next fifty years, 21 missions were founded throughout California, stretching as far north as Sonoma County. They were all connected by El Camino Real, the Royal Road or the King’s Highway, which today approximates Highway 101.
In 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain and claimed California as a province. In the early 1830s, a series of laws secularized the missions, thus taking them and their vast land holdings away from the Catholic Church; through the land grant system, they were given to large cattle ranchos.
The Rancho Period, lasting until the American conquest of California in 1848, was characterized by vast ranchos in Southern California, some comprising over 100,000 acres or more. At this time, California’s main product was cattle, not for the meat but for the hides, horns and fat, which was turned into tallow.
By 1850, when California became the 31st State of the Union, most missions were abandoned and in ruins. Through an executive order, President Lincoln returned what was left of the mission buildings to the church. It was not until the 1890s, when artists began to portray the missions as relics of California’s romantic past, that a serious effort was made to preserve and restore them.
The earliest views of the California missions in the exhibition were selections from a set of etchings by Henry Chapman Ford (1828-1894), published in 1883. The oldest painting on display was the courtyard of the Mission San Juan Capistrano, painted by Alexander Harmer (1856-1925) in 1886. In his work, what is now one of the most beautiful gardens in California is shown as a dry, dusty yard, with just a few geraniums growing against the pillars of the arcade.
CALIFORNIA: This Golden Land of Promise was accompanied by two informative and fully illustrated books on the remarkable history of our Golden State: California, This Golden Land of Promise, published in 2001, and Romance of the Bells: The California Missions in Art published in 1995.