Review by Erica D. Hirshler
The Art of Arthur and Lucia Mathews

Harvey L. Jones, with a contribution by Kenneth R. Trapp. The Art of Arthur and Lucia Mathews. San Francisco: Pomegranate Communications in collaboration with the Oakland Museum of California, 2006. 272 pp. 250 color and bw illus., bibliography, index. $65.00.

Arthur and Lucia Mathews were among the leading practitioners of the so-called California Decorative Style, a term recently coined to define the work of a group of late-nineteenth-century artists who combined the allegories and classicism of the American Renaissance with the bright colors and distinctive topography of their native California. Together the Mathewses presided over the San Francisco art world at the turn of the last century, and when their universe was destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1906, they worked together to ensure that art and aesthetics would play a role in the rebuilding process. Along with local businessman John Zeile Jr., they founded the Furniture Shop, providing commercial and residential clients with designs, furnishings, and decorative objects that would allow them to incorporate the uplifting power of art into their lives. Their vindication came with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, which sought to demonstrate not only that San Francisco had risen from the ashes but also that empire had undeniably moved westward, and its new capital was California, the Mediterranean of the modern world.

Jones’s exhaustive book, issued in conjunction with the exhibition “California as Muse: The Art of Arthur and Lucia Mathews,” is the first major publication to document and illustrate the Mathewses’ artistic careers; it follows a more modest effort, also by Jones, produced by the Oakland Museum in 1972 (reprinted by Peregrine Smith in 1980 and 1985) in conjunction with an earlier traveling exhibition.  Jones’s new volume includes short contributions by two other writers. Kevin Starr, the senior scholar in the study of California history, wrote a foreword introducing the couple’s aesthetic vision and their commitment to public art. Kenneth R. Trapp, a specialist in American decorative arts and crafts and a former curator at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, offers an overview of the Furniture Shop. A comprehensive bibliography of archival and primary sources is credited to Kathy Borgogno, a curatorial specialist at the Oakland Museum of California. The rest of the substantial text is by Jones, who wrote a long chapter on Arthur Mathews, a shorter one about Lucia Mathews, and a brief essay on the Mathewses’ art press and their publication, Philopolis.

Arthur Mathews’s early interest in architecture and decorative illustration affected the rest of his career, and following his Parisian training at the Académie Julian, he returned to San Francisco to become one of the city’s leading teachers, muralists, designers, painters, and theorists. His wife, Lucia Kleinhans Mathews, one of his former students, produced decorative watercolors and an astonishing group of carved and painted boxes, frames, desks, and other furnishings. Together the couple promoted the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, designing aesthetic interiors and furnishings and promoting their use in the small magazine they produced from 1906 to about 1920. Their works have been included in a number of exhibitions about California art and in several devoted to the Arts and Crafts, but their contributions are little studied outside California, perhaps because so little of their art exists beyond the collections of the Oakland Museum of California. (With the exception of one painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and one fine covered jar at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the public collections of the Mathewses’ work are in California.) Jones’s book, with its copious and large illustrations, mostly in color, will bring the Mathewses’ contributions to a much wider audience, both popular and scholarly, which in turn should help bring these highly talented artists into the canon of American art.

Jones’s enthusiasm for Arthur and Lucia Mathews is unreserved, and his chapters about each of them include a wealth of information gleaned over years of careful research. The text brims over with details, both biographical and technical. The chapter on Arthur Mathews is particularly dense. Arthur’s long painting career is treated thematically, and the exact subject of each of his many paintings of classical and historical subjects described completely, notwithstanding the accompanying color plates that make detailed taxonomy seem superfluous. (There are also a few moments of frustration, when the reader finds a description that does not match an illustration, a situation that could have been easily resolved had the plates been numbered and text references given, or if collection locations had been included for unillustrated works.) Props and costumes are precisely identified, mythological figures explained, and contemporary press reports are quoted, sometimes at length. Jones’s approach is iconographic and explanatory, leaving no element undefined, and it feels somewhat antiquarian in its  methodology. Jones provides a complete inventory but offers little analysis—stylistic, historical, or otherwise. For students of paintings, this strict thematic approach is frustrating, as it provides no overview of the development of Mathews’s artistic style or any sense of how one subject relates to another. Easel paintings are removed from public mural commissions, even though the two media, in which Mathews worked simultaneously, often share themes and solutions. Likewise, the painter’s Symbolist-inspired Eve of about 1897, with its penumbral light and sensuous curves, is fifty pages away from the similarly rendered Pandora, while the lithe water nymph in The Wave, undated but perhaps made about the same time, is thirty pages further along. A chronology of the artist’s career would have helped, but the book does not include one.

In addition to the abundance of details—for example, we learn from the text that a postage stamp commemorating the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was reprinted in a different shade of yellow-orange in order better to reproduce Mathews’s 1913 composition, The Discovery of the Bay of San Francisco by Portola—every variant of a given composition seems to be included in the book; thus we see twenty of Arthur’s very beautiful late landscapes of Monterey, although perhaps five to eight of the best canvases would have been more than sufficient to explore the theme. What does not appear in Jones’s study is context—of the 250 illustrations included, only four are by other artists. One is Puvis de Chavannes, the most admired public muralist of the late nineteenth century, who is mentioned very briefly along with the Nabis, whose work Mathews might have seen in Paris. Still, there is no discussion of decoration and mural painting in general, a hot topic in late-nineteenth-century art, both in its own day and in current art historical scholarship. Neither is there an analysis of the role the City Beautiful movement might have played in Mathews’s achievements as a muralist, nor are his murals discussed in situ. Admittedly, few of them survive in their original locations, but their appearance was no doubt conceived and shaped by the architecture surrounding them. The symbiotic relation of murals and the buildings they decorated was a subject discussed at length in the art press during the 1890s, and Mathews was likely familiar with those discussions, even if the buildings described were in Boston, New York, or Washington. Mathews was a juror for the fine arts display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, another important site for public murals, but what he took from the fair, whether he embraced it or rejected it, is not addressed in the discussion of his own decorative work for public and private clients in San Francisco (which he began in 1896) or later for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Little attention is given to any of the patrons of either Arthur or Lucia Mathews, and one is left without a clear understanding of who bought their paintings, and if they had an influence on the artists’ production. John Zeile Jr., who supported the couple’s work at the Furniture Shop, also remains somewhat of a cipher.

In his essay on the Furniture Shop, which lasted from 1906 to about 1920, Kenneth Trapp mentions Zeile and his position as a financial backer of the business, which was located on the site of the home Zeile had lost in the 1906 earthquake. Trapp confesses that few details are known about the relationship between Zeile and the Mathewses, or about the connection between the Mathewses’ shop and another business on the same premises, Beach Robinson. Using surviving archival records and photographs from the firm (several reproduced in the text), old advertising material, and city directories, Trapp weaves a narrative about this small enterprise and its work for both corporate and individual clients. He notes that in some instances, they tailored the style of their furniture to meet their clients’ needs, whether traditional or more modern, and he discusses the comprehensive nature of some of their commissions, notably the Masonic Temple of 1913, for which the Mathewses designed not only the furniture but also the complete interior. Trapp also attempts to attribute some of the work of the Furniture Shop to either Lucia or Arthur (save for the standing desks, which seem to have been a joint effort), and he describes and catalogues Lucia’s decorative objects (lamps, boxes, frames, etc.) in a precise and detailed inventory.

The book’s tight focus on the individual (even Arthur and Lucia are discussed separately) leaves the reader without a clear understanding of the Mathewses’ position in the larger world of art, even within the world of California art. It is unfortunate that some recent studies of California’s art have cast figures like the Mathewses as escapist antimodernists who failed to understand the multicultural reality of their region. Their positive outlook and their depictions of the state as an edenic sanctuary have caused some scholars, among them the authors of Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900–2000 (University of California Press, 2000) to describe them as members of a conservative Anglo-Saxon elite, anxious to maintain their traditional position of authority, whose aesthetic agenda was equivalent to the boosterish and self-serving advertising campaigns of the area’s railroads and fruit growers. Jones does not address any of these issues, although he could easily have rebuffed such claims. Antimodernist idealists the Mathewses may have been, but their belief in the power of beauty to uplift the human spirit should not be so easily dismissed. Scholarly readers will also yearn to know how the Mathewses intersected in some way, perhaps simply through illustrated journals, with English and other European designers whose furniture forms and decorative motifs relate so closely to Lucia’s. Recently published studies of a number of American women artists could have given depth to Jones’s discussion of Lucia’s withdrawal from oil painting and her subsequent devotion to watercolor, still life, and the decorative arts. Similarly, one wonders about the relation between Arthur Mathews and his New York equivalents—figures like Thomas Dewing and Robert Reid—and also between Mathews and pictorialist photographers, among them the California artist Anne Brigman, whose sylphlike nudes in mysterious settings seem at least visually akin to some of Arthur’s compositions.

These ruminations prove that there is further work that can be undertaken on Arthur and Lucia Mathews, but such contextual studies could never take place without the raw materials—the facts, the objects, and the reproductions. If Harvey Jones has raised more questions than he has answered in his book, then he should take great pride in having introduced these fine artists to a wide public as worthy subjects for continued examination.

Erica E. Hirshler
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

American Furniture 2006