The Irvine Museum, an artistic gem, is celebrating its twentieth anniversary as the leading American museum specializing in the art of California from 1870 to 1950. The exhibition is featuring some of its most important and most requested paintings from its collection of California Impressionist paintings.
The grand landscape, California Landscape with Flowers by Granville Redmond, greets visitors as they enter and sets the tone for the beauty of the views of California as it once was. “It is the unspoiled landscape that no longer exists, as it appeared over one hundred years ago, long before the massive influx of population and building that followed the end of World War II,” said Executive Director Jean Stern. He smilingly added, “Completely deaf, Redmond was a friend of Charlie Chaplin and appeared in some of his movies.”
Founded by Joan Irvine Smith in 1993, the museum has organized a remarkable series of sixty-five exhibitions, seventeen of which have toured throughout the United Sates and one to Europe with venues in Paris, Krakow and Madrid.
“We made the momentous decision to define our museum,” explained James Irvine Swinden, the museum’s president and eldest son of its founder, “not as a brick-and-mortar structure designed by a prestigious architect, [the museum is housed in the ground floor of an office high rise] but instead to define it as the collection itself and devote our funds toward documenting and preserving this historic style. I have come to the realization that art has the capacity to show us both what we have lost and to instill us with the resolution to save what we still can. We have published seventeen books that document this California style.”
According to Stern, 50 paintings are displayed at a time from over 2,000 in its collection, including those borrowed from other collections. Currently, two exhibitions are traveling in the East: 58 in one and 35 in another. The collection, originated by James Irvine, encompasses three periods: traditional, impressionism and modernism in three collections — those owned by the museum and held in trust, the second of Joan Irvine Smith and the third by her son, James Irvine Swinden.
The new show, Lasting Impressions, features the works of many of the Museum’s most popular and important artists. A still-life bouquet, Roses, by Franz A. Bischoff (1864-1929) reveals the master’s accurate renditions of the elegant flower bathed in his bold almost Fauvist colors. Mission Bells, San Juan Capistrano by Arthur Grover Rider (1886-1975) is a light-filled, vibrant visual poem of the historic bells. One of the museum’s most progressive paintings, The Charleston, painted in 1926, by Frank H. Myers’ (1899-1926) is a Cubist-inspired masterpiece showing a group of people dancing to a jazz band.
“California Impressionism is renowned for its recognition of the significant number of women artists of the period who were not recognized in the east,” said Stern. “The 1920 Spell of the Sea by Anna A. Hills (1882-1930) views Moss Point Beach, painted not in brushstrokes but in little palette knife strokes. She was one of the founders of the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918 and served as its president.”
Stern arrived in the US in 1955 at age 9 with his family from Casablanca. His mother was a Sephardic Moroccan; his father Ashkenazi from Hungary. Following his service in the French Foreign Legion, his father, Frederic Stern, then an art dealer, decided to move the family to the US to escape the Morrocan Revolution. The sponsorship of the Jewish Federation made the immigration possible.
Stern, along with his brothers Louis and George, became second generation art dealers in the Los Angeles area. After deciding that he did not want to be an art dealer, he earned a BA in history and an MA in art history. He was a college instructor in art history before taking a position in 1978 as curator, and later director of the Petersen Galleries in Beverly Hills.
“In 1992 I met Joan Irvine Smith, who was building a world-class collection of California Impressionist paintings,” Stern said. “She became interested in me after reading my essays and books I authored and decided I was the man she wanted to head her new museum.”
Smith hired Stern to open and be executive director of the newly founded Irvine Museum, a position he has held for 20 years. In his career, Stern has written essays on more than 30 art books, authored numerous books and presented more than 250 lectures on topics ranging from American and European painting to ancient Jewish coinage. He has taught art history at San Diego Mesa College and San Diego State University. As a consultant, he also appears in “Impressions of California,” a PBS documentary series on art in California and on “Plein Air: Painting the American Landscape,” a 2007 PBS series.
In recognition for their dedication and service, Stern and his wife, Linda Weingarten Stern, have been honored by the American Jewish Community (AJC) of Orange County, with the Samuel Gendel Community Service Award. Linda also participates in activities and programs of the Irvine Museum and serves as secretary on the board of directors of the Historical Collections Council of California, a non-profit affiliate of the Irvine Museum that distributes grants for worthy art education projects to museums throughout the state. More than 3,000 sets of the museum’s publication have been gifted by the museum to libraries in public and private schools and colleges, as well as local, county and state public libraries.
In conjunction with Lasting Impressions, the museum is displaying eight works of art created by local children of their favorite paintings inspired by the museum’s collection, according to Curator of Education Dora James. In the past 20 years, several thousand Orange County students, grades three through five, have participated in field trips to the museum in buses funded by the museum.
“They are our future,” Stern said. “Many are immigrants like I was. They really like the art.”
Lasting Impressions: Twenty Years of
the Irvine Museum
continues through June 6.
The Irvine Museum
18881 Von Karman Ave.,
11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Closed Monday, Sunday,
between exhibitions and
for major holidays.
Docent tour: Thursday, 11:15 a.m.
Admission: $5 general; FREE for children, students and seniors (60+) and the second Wednesday of every month
Structure parking for visitors, free with validation from the museum