Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 15, 1999
Claire Perry Pacific Arcadia: Images of California 1600–1915 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 256 pp.; 60 color ills.; 154 b/w ills. Paper $25.00 (0195109376)
Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University, Stanford, California, April 21–June 27, 1999; San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, California, October 30, 1999–January 9, 2000; Joslyn Museum of Art, Omaha, Nebraska, February 19–April 30, 2000

As suggested by the title Pacific Arcadia: Images of California, 1600-1915, this exhibition and the book that accompanies it study the changing and inducible imagery of the “California Dream” as presented by Claire Perry, curator of American art at Stanford’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts. Perry traces how, over a period of centuries, a variety of pictorial imagery was used to market California as the golden land of opportunity. Perry’s text, based on her doctoral dissertation, not merely catalogues the exhibition, but stands on its own as an important resource on the cultural history of California. The scope and depth of her research, which incorporates history, literature, economics, politics, and environmental issues as well as art history, makes Perry’s study a vital addition to our understanding of this topic.

Pacific Arcadia covers the period of the first European explorations of California to the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, but its focus is the nineteenth century. The text is augmented by more than 200 illustrations representing a range of visual imagery, from early maps to advertisements of the state’s agricultural prowess to paintings of San Francisco as West Coast urban center. Perry delved into the holdings of a number of Northern California institutions to obtain the primary materials necessary to construct her cultural history and trace the roots of the propaganda and find the reality behind the economic ease and fruitful environment of the “California Dream.”

Throughout the book’s six chapters, Perry develops her interpretation of the California image as commodity. Chapter one, “A Terrestrial Paradise,” addresses the earliest representation of California via seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maps and topographical paintings as seen through the eyes of European explorers. Here Perry informs her interpretation of these early maps, which first showed California as an island flanking the North American West Coast, with myths of magical treasure islands from popular contemporary literature. The “documentary” artwork produced by eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century expeditions perpetuated the idea of California’s natural abundance and strategic access to Asia via the Pacific. When the search for the jackpot of natural resources was in the air, the lush, fertile land peopled by the docile, picturesque inhabitants against a backdrop of presidios and missions—which these watercolors and drawings depicted—held the promise of a big pay off at the lottery. As the goals changed, so changed the imagery; but these early works, according to Perry, established the first idyllic visions of California as a “Pacific Arcadia.”

Chapter two, “The Golden Dream,” presents the impact of the gold rush as seen through paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs depicting the mining world as symbolic of the fulfillment of the region’s early promise. Using paintings and lithographic depictions of travel to California, Perry illustrates how “image makers and publishers found a lucrative market in pictures, journals, and books that portrayed the gold seekers as modern ‘argonauts’ . . . in search of the Golden Fleece” (p. 33). Centering her analysis around such works as Charles Christian Nahl’s large oil painting Saturday Night in the Mines (1856), Perry suggests a moral message to miner-related subject matter of the time. After stressing the relationship between man and nature, the theme of the industrious miner, and the establishment of a democratic social order, Perry uses Nahl’s later painting, Sunday Morning in the Mines (1872), to imply a rise of “a superior class of man” to supplant “the flawed elements of California society” (p. 57).

In “Cornucopia of the World,” chapter three, post-gold-rush business turns to the development of agriculture in the central valley, as represented by mood-imbued landscapes like The Sacramento Valley (ca. 1872-73) by Albert Bierstadt. Through these works the natural fruitfulness of California is implied, but they also mask the reality of the land ownership system (p. 66). Comparison to the agricultural landscape of the rural East misled the outside observer as to the true growing (as opposed to farming) practices in California (p. 68). Greasing of the California propaganda machine was also provided by portrait commissions of the local movers and shakers, and still lifes featuring over-life-size depictions of specialty and locally grown products. Of course, the development of orange-crate labels is not overlooked as “one of the most successful formats for the dissemination of the vision of the good life in Sunny California” (p. 91). At times, though, Perry stretches the limits of credulity, leaving me wondering, for example, if the spiritually imbued and morally improving imagery she finds in some of these orange-crate labels actually received the attention of an informed audience, as she suggests (pp. 92-93).

The paintings of Albert Bierstadt and the photographs of Carleton E. Watkins are strongly represented in the fourth chapter, “Rush for the Wilderness,” placing California in a national context. California’s unusual beauty and monumental environment is offered as proof of the long held claim by Americans of their country’s unique and unrivaled natural wilderness. Sent east, these works inspired travelers to come west to experience the real thing; hence, the rise of tourist-travel-related illustrations and promotional brochures. Eventually, the domestication of the California wilderness led to a growth of camping and excursion parties, and in the 1880s and 1890s, “photography replaced paintings, drawings, and lithographs as the most often employed medium for making pictures of the site” (p. 131).

The commercial viability of selling the California image to Easterners, made possible by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, is the topic of chapter five, “Spanish Arcadia,” and its presentation is handled brilliantly by Perry. Early Anglo-American settlers rid themselves of the local Mexican-Californian heritage, eventually “erasing all evidence of the Latin way of life” (p. 136). In the face of declines in business, however, developers reconsidered the lure of the California Old World heritage to tourists. Perry places such works as Ranch Scene, Monterey, California (1875) by William Hahn at the center of the tourist trade as business planned to market California—"the Mediterranean Shores of America"—as an alternative to the European grand tour. Nostalgic scenes of “Old Spanish Days” (still a theme of celebration in many California cities) included paintings of pastoral genres featuring romantic character types in full costume. Visions of quiet mission life added to the postcard-like imagery of California. First begun as “general inventories of land and property in the territory” (p. 153), images of mission ruins in paintings and photographs were equated to the Old World relics of Rome and Athens.

“Urban Visions,” the final and most problematic chapter, lauds San Francisco as a metropolis equal to the eastern and midwestern urban centers of Boston, New York, and Chicago via “bird’s-eye-view” prints and photographic panoramas. Photographic inventories as represented by G. R. Fardon’s San Francisco Album (1856) and multi-panel panoramas providing a 360-degree vista, such as one made by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878, “showed San Francisco as the worthy heir of its eastern predecessors” (p. 177). Depictions of Chinatown as gateway to the Pacific replaced earlier unflattering images and now focused on ethnic dignity via the paintings of Theodore Wores and the photographs of Arnold Genthe. Rising out of the devastation left by the 1906 earthquake and fire, San Francisco’s rebirth as the “Jewel City” is documented in tinted photographs and watercolors of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. However, this chapter is flawed by Perry’s attempts to incorporate too many diverse images—moving from views of the city itself to selected isolated pockets of society (such as the images of Chinatown) and then back again to the broad view of the Exposition—thus fragmenting the chapter and doing little to develop her pastoral theme. By limiting her “urban vision” to Northern California (specifically San Francisco), she gives the impression that Southern California, and its urban centers of San Diego and Los Angeles, had no voice in the “California Dream;” thereby, Perry isolates most of California from the visual dialogue—as California itself had been isolated from the mainland in the island imagery of seventeenth-century mapmakers.

Pacific Arcadia is an excellent collection of essays, and a necessary companion to the exhibition since it places the images into Perry’s contextual view, but it is unsatisfying as an exhibition catalogue; for example, it does not always include the same images as the exhibition and lacks even a checklist of the varied objects on display. The gallery exhibition of Pacific Arcadia contained nearly 200 works and juxtaposed paintings, drawings, and photographs with maps, printed ephemera, books, memorabilia, and promotional advertisements as cultural symbols of the “California Dream.” Perry sees all these items—encompassing high art, popular imagery, artifacts of material culture, and textural material—as part of a multi-media method of persuasion.

Although the exhibition included a number of striking objects, I personally missed examples of Native American art and more art by women; these artists must have played a role in the development of the California dream, but their work is underrepresented in both the text and exhibition of Pacific Arcadia. Unfortunately, appreciation of the “golden” subject matter exhibited was undermined by the dim lighting throughout the galleries, no doubt necessitated by the number of fragile media on display. The cave-like entrance, low light, and deeply saturated wall color set a somber mood which conflicted with the Arcadian thrust and brightly inspirational intention behind the imagery on display, and this mood remained with me throughout the exhibition.

Given the broadness of her thematic construct, multicentury time frame, and interdisciplinary approach, as well as the variety and vastness of the material itself, Perry has taken on a formidable task with Pacific Arcadia. This leads her, on occasion, to overlook the obvious, as in her presentation of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). Perry takes a narrow view of the PPIE, limiting her analysis to San Francisco’s competition with Chicago (the former urban center of “the West”), and its 1893 Columbian Exposition, and to the local merchants’ push to advertise their rebuilding of San Francisco and its commercial potential after the earthquake and fire of 1906. Although these are important factors, Perry misses the opportunity to expand her discussion to include the international implications of the PPIE and place California into a larger context. She does not explore, for example, the importance of what the PPIE celebrated—the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914—nor does she consider the PPIE as one of the most effective distribution outlets of the California image as commodity. Instead of seeing the influence of the PPIE on the future of California, she chooses to look backward and interpret the PPIE as a summary of three centuries of California history. These problems are to be expected given the ambitious scope of her study. Overall, Perry provides us, nonetheless, with a fascinating contribution to the field of California Studies.

Charlene G. Garfinkle
Santa Barbara, California