The Arts and Crafts Movement, which started in England under the leadership of William Morris in the 1880s, advocated a unity of the arts in which architecture of the house and all aspects of its interior were in harmony and designed by craftsmen. It flourished in the Bay Area early in the 20th century with architects like Bernard Maybeck, John Hudson Thomas and many others.
In painting and the decorative arts its great protagonists were Arthur and Lucia K. Mathews. The current exhibition at the Oakland Museum, the place that holds the largest collection of their work, provides a superb overview of their work: murals, easel paintings, furniture, interior design. It is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue by Harvey L. Jones, who also curated the show.
Arthur Mathews (1860-1945) originally studied architecture before making a career as a painter. He went to Paris, enrolled at the Academie Julian, and was impressed, above all, by the Greek-inspired Symbolist murals by Puvis de Chavannes. After returning to San Francisco, Mathews painted a series of pictures of dancers, mostly women, in long sweeping gowns, rhythmically swinging their extended arms and often playing ancient musical instruments. They suggest the performances by Isadora Duncan, who inspired the building of the Temple of Wings in Berkeley.
His painting Youth (c. 1917), set in a finely carved and decorated frame is a prime example of what is known as the California decorative style.
Arthur Mathews also produced mythological paintings whose veiled eroticism reveal Victorian sentiments of the time. His portraits were incise depictions of his sitters, done with a vigorous brush. His later Tonalist landscapes, many of them of the Monterey or San Francisco Bay, were done with soft contours and muted colors and convey his painterly response to the sea, the sky, the black oaks and somber cypress trees. These paintings found an echo in the silent landscapes of his student Gottard Piazzoni, whose murals for the San Francisco Public Library are now housed in the new de Young Museum.
Lucia Kleinhans Mathews (1870-1955) was Arthur’s student, business partner and an excellent painter in her own right. In 1889 she went to Paris where she studied with James Whistler and was surely aware of the work done by Gaugin and his Symbolist confreres as well as by the Nabis (prophets in Hebrew). Her landscapes, done around 1910 with their reductive flat rendering of space conform to precepts of Modernist painting. Her exquisite small oils on board, depicting people in Paris parks were, for this writer, the most pleasing works in the exhibition.
In accordance with the practice of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Mathews opened the Furniture Shop in San Francisco in 1906, an enterprise which produced custom-designed furniture and other objects for well-to-do clients of taste. These pieces were done with a great sense of craftsmanship and a fine feeling for decoration. Many of the paintings in the show are held in appropriate carved and painted ornamental frames which were an integral part of their work in which there was no distinction between art and craft.
CALIFORNIA AS MUSE: THE ART OF ARTHUR AND LUCIA MATHEWS
Exhibition runs to March 25 at the Oakland Museum of California, Tenth and Oak streets. 238-2200. www.museumca.org.
Youth (1917) by Arthur F. Mathews. Oil on canvas, 38 x 50 inches, with
Furniture Shop frame. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of
Concours d’Antiques, Art Guild.