The Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine presents “Along El Camino Real,” an exhibit that explores the history of the California missions. These outposts were connected by El Camino Real (the Royal Road or the King’s Highway), which today approximates Highway 101.
The first mission in what is now California was founded by Spain in San Diego in 1769. Over the next 54 years, 20 more were established, stretching as far north as Sonoma. In 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain and claimed California as a province. The missions were greatly restricted during this period, and their vast land holdings were taken away. By 1850, when California became the 31st state of the U.S.A., most missions had been abandoned and were in ruins. It wasn’t until the 1890s, when artists began to portray them as relics of California’s romantic past, that a serious effort was made to preserve and restore the structures.
The earliest views of the California missions in our exhibition are selections from a set of etchings by Henry Chapman Ford (1828-1894) published in 1883. The oldest paintings on display are the “Mission San Juan Capistrano” and “Chinatown, Los Angeles” both painted by Alexander Harmer (1856-1925) in 1886. What is now one of the most beautiful gardens in California is shown as a dry, dusty yard, with just a few geraniums against the pillars of the arcade.
Also on display are works by such noted California artists as Alson S. Clark (1876-1949), Alice Coutts (1879-1973), Edwin Deakin (1838-1923), William Lees Judson (1842-1928), Elmer Wachtel (1864-1929) and William Wendt (1865-1946). These paintings show many of California’s 21 missions. The most popular with artists, however, was our own Mission San Juan Capistrano, whose beauty and elegance earned it the nickname “Jewel of the Missions.”