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The Arts
December 13-19, 2006

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'Youth' by Arthur F. Mathews

Dance fever: Arthur F. Mathews' 1917 oil 'Youth' features an ornate frame by his wife, Lucia.

California Dreaming

Arthur and Lucia Mathews created a Golden State idyll that still beckons after a century

By Michael S. Gant

IN THE BERKELEY hills, the Temple of the Wings recalls an era, about a century ago, when the influence of dancer Isadora Duncan led students to don Grecian garments and gambol the day away. California—full of the light and warmth of a generous sun—was envisioned as a new Arcadia, a transplanted Mediterranean zone where the pure arts would flourish. Among the prime envisioners of this California Arcadia were the husband-and-wife artist team of Arthur F. and Lucia K. Mathews, the subjects of an extensive new show at the Oakland Museum of California.

Arthur Mathews' murals for public spaces often depict a mythology of California's discovery, complete with bucolic rolling hills, stalwart explorers, modest monks and a line of Duncanesque women clad in loosely draped robes (and, sometimes, stoic Native Americans, awaiting European enlightenment). From our remove, now that the Golden State is battered by excessive growth and riven by political conflicts, the Mathews' idealized golden era can look impossibly naive, but there is no denying its seductiveness.

Arthur F. Mathews (1860-1945) spent four years studying the academic style in Paris, unswayed, or unimpressed, by the work of the Impressionists. He produced competent but stiffly dramatic set pieces depicting hoary themes, such as The Lilies of Midas (1888), in which the ill-fated Z.Z.-Top-bearded king sits in a blinding wash of gold—a painting waiting to illustrate a child's book of Greek mythology. Upon his return to San Francisco, in 1889, Mathews took up teaching and met—and eventually married—a remarkable young student, Lucia Kleinhans (1870-1955). Sometime in the late 1890s, under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Mathews started to move away from genre scenes to more modernist methods in the vein of Whistler. For his 1892 biblical scene David and Bathsheba, Arthur employs a dark tonalist palette with a surprisingly sexual posing for Bathsheba as she lounges unashamed of her nakedness, while a stealthy David tries to sneak a peek.

'Monterey Cypress'

'Monterey Cypress,' a 1933 oil by Arthur Mathews.

Mathews continued to paint moody symbolist scenes, mostly of veiled women consorting in shadows. The best of these, The Wave, shows a bathing nude turned away from us, her bare shoulders emerging from a gentle roil of foamy surf, her torso and legs disappearing into a complex swirl of greens and sandy browns. But at the same time, he lightened his palette as he explored the California coast. Many of his paintings worked changes on the idea of dancing muses. These explorations in the rhythm of the bending body molded by the billowing drapery appear hieratic, as if a classical frieze had been animated with motion and color. In Youth (1917), the stretched-out arms of the dancers create a strong horizontal impetus, almost like a fleshy horizon line.

The 1906 earthquake destroyed many of their creations, but it also seemed to energize the couple. In the aftermath of the disaster, Arthur and Lucia created the Furniture Shop, devoted to a variety of arts, both fine and decorative. Lucia proved to be exceptionally adept at painted woodwork, creating sumptuous multicolored frames for her husband's paintings and gilded wood jars and bowls, patterned with miniature mural scenes. Most evocative is her rectangular box with California landscape vignettes in panels on the side and a mass of California poppy blossoms in a profusion of colors on the lid.

A Lucia Mathews painted jar

A Lucia Mathews painted jar from the Furniture Shop.

In later years, both Lucia and Arthur turned to seashore scenes, perhaps influenced by the rise of the California impressionist movement. Lucia's views of Monterey Bay, with cypress trees filling the foreground, are loose and washy. Arthur's oil landscapes are more mystical. His tall, bare-trunked Monterey cypresses are suffused with the light from gorgeous cloudscapes in various shades of lemony yellow shading to a buttery hue at the edges. The hills and distant seas are painted in flat, almost abstract bands of ochre and blue. These lone cypresses stand out as sentinels—guardians of a fading California paradise.

California as Muse: The Art of Arthur & Lucia Mathews shows through March 25 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. (510.238.2200). The show is accompanied by a major catalog, 'The Art of Arthur & Lucia Mathews,' by Harvey L. Jones; Pomegranate; 272 pages; $40 paper.

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