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March 12, 2007

Arthur Mathews -- California's Best Artist?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I saw the show almost by accident.

You see, I bought the book months ago so it slipped my mind that it was associated with the show and I also forgot when the show was taking place.

By chance, we had to kill some time before Nancy's daughter-in-law's birthday party Sunday, so I thought we should go to the Oakland Museum of California because I knew that it had a collection of California Impressionist paintings. But its Web page reminded me that California As Muse: The Art of Arthur & Lucia Mathews was still on (it stared October 28th and ends March 25th).

I found the show fabulous and regret that I failed to see it sooner and didn't give California Blowhards readers a timely heads-up to go see it.

(A good many of Arthur and Lucia Mathews' works are in the Oakland Museum's collection, along with paintings by California Impressionists. Unfortunately, the museum normally doesn't seem to devote much viewing space to these works, which is why the special exhibit is especially important.)

Arthur F. Mathews (1860-1945) was, in my judgment, the best California artist of the pre-Modern era and one of the very best ever. Certainly he was top dog in the Bay Area from the 1890s to around 1920. For many years he was in charge of the San Francisco School of Design. Later, he and his wife Lucia Kleinhans Mathews operated an Arts & Crafts firm, the Furniture Store that built Art Nouveau and A&C furniture and picture frames for an affluent clientele. Many paintings in the show are framed by the Furniture Company and are works of art in themselves. He also was extensively involved with mural painting in important public buildings; his architectural background was probably of use in this.

Mathews was trained in architecture for a while (relatives were in the trade) but then switched to painting at the School of Design. From 1884-89 he studied in Paris at (for Americans, where else?) the Académie Julian.

The show included some early paintings with a decidedly Academic tinge, but within a few years of his return he had evolved his flat, muralistic style featuring colors partly neutralized by their complements.

Below are some examples of Mathews' work. Unfortunately, image pickings on the Internet are still slim so what you see isn't as good as it should be. My advice is to look for the show-related book linked above at a Borders, Barnes & Noble, museum bookstore or wherever you can find halfway decent selections of art books. It's available in both hardcover and paperback -- same size, different binding.


Youth (circa 1917)
Mathews painted many pictures of women dancing. To the general public, these probably represent his "signature" pieces, and this picture is on the cover of the book/catalog linked above. Such dancing (think Isadora Duncan) was popular during the first quarter of the 20th century. If you can, take a look at some college yearbooks from that period and you'll likely see a section devoted to coeds in flowing robes stretching and gesturing in ways that seem both quaint and somewhat incomprehensible to our eyes.

Cabinet with painting - 1910
I saw much better Furniture Company items at the show, but this is the best I could get off the Web. Most items I saw weren't curved like this.

Adventure - circa 1914
This is a mural panel in the California state capitol in Sacramento which contains many works by Mathews. Public art tended to be symbolic / allegorical in pre-Modernist days.

Afternoon Among the Cypress - circa 1904
Besides including California scenery as backgrounds to his pictures of dancing women and allegorical works, Mathews painted pure landscapes. Many of his landscapes are of the Monterey Peninsula area not far south of San Francisco.

Woman and Child Picking Poppies - circa 1893
This was painted when Mathews had abandoned Academic-style painting and was evolving his mature style.

Spring Dance
I'll close with another of his dancing women paintings because there were plenty in view at the show.

Yes, Mathews' paintings seem "old fashioned" to modern eyes. But they are well designed and executed -- pleasant, yet interesting works that I wouldn't mind hanging on my wall were they available and affordable.

And why do I rate him above the contemporaneous California Impressionists? Because he could do humans as well as landscapes; aside from Guy Rose, most California Impressionists tended to stick with landscapes.

Speaking of California Impressionists, I'll try to get cracking on an article about them soon.



posted by Donald at March 12, 2007


Splendid, Donald! Thanks for introducing us to another great painter.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on March 12, 2007 7:00 PM

Fun and informative, tks. I've seen some of his paintings but had never put together much of an impression of him. I love the era -- Arts and Crafts with touches of Art Nouveau, designy/patterned, wholesome/mystical ... Much under-appreciated, it seems to me. That combo of clunky American earnestness and sophisticated symbolic elegance can look corny to present-day eyes, I suppose. But I find it sweet and touching -- Victorian Americans trying to open to some refinement and sexiness. Funny line, btw: "take a look at some college yearbooks from that period and you'll likely see a section devoted to coeds in flowing robes stretching and gesturing in ways that seem both quaint and somewhat incomprehensible to our eyes."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 13, 2007 1:29 AM

Not entirely on topic, but The Telegraph has a nice picture of a Monet painting that I wasn't familiar with.

Posted by: dearieme on March 13, 2007 1:51 PM

Mathews is a mannerist. Nothing wrong with that. But the extreme stylization of his work makes it hard, for this viewer at least, to get past admiration for the manner in which he presents his dancing sylphs, and feel any connection to them, one way or the other.
This is no less true of a "light" or positive mannerist like Mathews than it is of a dark mannerist like Egon Schiele, or Klimt.
In a way, both the positive and negative mannerist's work has a hothouse quality about it. It's as though so much of life has to be excluded in order for each to achieve his special, highly formal effect, that the resulting work has an airless quality to it.

Posted by: ricpic on March 13, 2007 8:41 PM

Fantastic - this is someone that I was not aware - beautiful paintings.

Posted by: teppof on March 13, 2007 11:41 PM

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