With its unique combination of manmade and natural—from the mountains and ocean to Hollywood—California is truly like no other state. It is the Golden State’s majesty and vibrant history that is depicted in the extensive California Scene painting collection at Chapman University’s new Hilbert Museum of California Art in Old Towne.
“California is seen as a place of innovation and is probably the most creative state in the nation in terms of art, movie-making and architecture,” says Jean Stern, Executive Director of the Irvine Museum where they feature California Impressionist paintings. “For more than 100 years, people have come to California to escape the establishment and follow their own set of creative rules, and that is reflected in the works found at the Hilbert Museum.”
Displaying art generally not seen anywhere else, the Hilbert Museum features California Scene paintings highlighting daily life from 1913 to 1989 by iconic Golden State artists like Rex Brandt, Phil Dike, Millard Sheets, Lee Blair, Mary Blair and Emil Kosa Jr.
Opening on February 26th across from the train station on Atchison in a 7,500-square foot building, the one-of-a-kind collection reflects California’s social and geographic history, says Mary Platt, Director of Communications and Media Relations for Chapman University. “The art at the museum tells the story of our state as it grew and changed over the years, from the earlier works that depict horses and farmworkers, to scenes of the Great Depression, to the history of the state’s railway and then freeway system and to the leisure activities the west coast is so well known for, including surfing.”
It is thanks to the foresight and dedication of Mark Hilbert and his wife Janet that a collection of this magnitude exists. A chance discovery of a California Scene painting while searching for art for their new home in 1993 resulted in the Hilberts collecting a body of work over the years that contains more than 1,000 watercolors, oils, lithographs and sketches.
Back in the 1930s during the Golden Age of California Scene painting, these works of art showed at museums across the country. Many California Scene painters worked for Disney and the motion picture industry by day on animation and movie set backdrops, creating a treasure trove of great art in the evenings and on weekends, says Hilbert, who has bought some of the paintings in the collection from California Scene painter descendants and other private parties.
The Hilberts have two criteria for the paintings they choose for the collection. “They must be beautiful, and they have to tell a story or a narrative,” says Hilbert. Some of the highlights of the collection include the Lee Blair painting, “Mary by the Sea,” which shows the painter’s wife standing on a bluff overlooking Palos Verdes when the hills contained no houses. Also in the collection is Ben Norris’s “Discouraged Workers.” This 1936 oil on canvas shows workers in front of a beer brewery. There is also the 1933 “San Dimas Train Station,” which burned down within a year of Millard Sheets completing the painting.
As an accompaniment to the collection, Stern has written the book, Windows in Time: California Scene Paintings from the Hilbert Collection. “It was an honor to write the book, which promises to become the standard reference for the California Scene period,” says Stern of the 336-page visual history that contains 250 photos and took a year to complete.
The museum, which is free to enter and offers free parking, will kick off by displaying a survey of the overall collection and later be divided into a permanent collection along with changing smaller exhibitions. The Hilberts’ wish for the museum is to reach as many people in the community as possible.
“Our hope and dream is to reenergize people’s interest in art,” says Hilbert. “The collection appeals to all ages, and we feel that the tangibility of the paintings with their scenes of everyday life will touch people while teaching them about this great state’s rich history.”
• The Hilbert Museum will be open Tuesday-Saturday from 11 am to 6 pm and closed on Sunday and Monday. Entrance is free, as is parking, which is adjacent to the museum building at 167 N. Atchison St., Old Towne (across from Ruby’s and the train station). Public open house events will be held on February 26th from noon to 5 pm and February 27th from 5:30 to 9 pm. For more information, visit www.chapman.edu/arts/hilbert-museum.aspx.