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Arthur and Lucia Matthews

The Matthews: Renaissance Couple of Northern California Art

by Jeffrey Morseburg

For more than two decades the Arthur (1860-1945) and Lucia Kleinhans Matthews (1870-1955) were the most influential artists in the Northern California art scene.  They were the leaders of the California Arts and Crafts movement and teachers and mentors for a generation of Bay Area painters.  Arthur Matthews was a painter, muralist, architect, designer, writer and teacher whose emphasis on poetic compositions and a harmonious, tonal palette shaped the course of artistic development in the Bay Area and on the Monterey Peninsula.

Arthur Matthews was born in Wisconsin but grew up in the East Bay.  He studied drawing as a teenager and then served an apprenticeship at his father’s Oakland architectural firm, which proved invaluable training in his varied artistic career.  After entering some architectural competitions, Matthews worked as an illustrator in San Francisco and studied art with Virgil Williams (1830-1886) at the San Francisco School of Design and at the new Art Students League.  Seeing the need for further study, he left for Paris in 1885 where he studied at the Academie Julien and saw his works not only accepted but “hung on line” – which means at eye-level – at the prestigious Salon.

Matthews returned to San Francisco in 1889 and began teaching the life class at the California School of Design, taking over as director the following year.  As a teacher he had great confidence in his opinions and his withering sarcasm was legendary, but he pushed forth and encouraged those he thought had talent.  One of those talents was a young woman from San Francisco named Lucia Kleinhaus who he began teaching privately and then married in 1894.  In the late 1890s, the couple toured Europe’s museums and then settled in Paris, enabling Lucia Matthews to study at the Academie Carmen under James Abbott McNeil Whistler, one of the most influential proponents of a tonal approach to painting.

Arthur and Lucia Matthews lived in Paris during the heyday of the Art Nouveau era and while Japanese art was at the zenith of its influence on the continent.  The Japonisme movement had a tremendous influence on the art of the time and the Californians absorbed the flattened forms, interlocking shapes and simplified design of Japanese woodblock prints into their own work.  They were exposed to the simplified, classical murals of Pierre-Cecile Puvis de Chavannes and the more complicated, patterned designs of Frank Brangwyn who did the extensive decorations at the Sigfried Bing emporium that gave the Art Nouveau movement its name.  Brangwyn, a Briton who was born in Brugge, was a muralist, painter, printmaker, designer, writer and illustrator and his multiplicity of talents and accomplishments may have encouraged Arthur and Lucia Matthew’s wide-ranging efforts when they returned to California.

Upon their return to the Golden State the Matthews developed their own distinctive approach that is now known as “California Decorative Style.”  This was a unified approach to painting, mural decorations, the graphic arts and the design of frames, furniture and decorative objects.   While Arthur Matthews worked on large, ambitious canvases and prestigious mural commissions for the State Capitol and Oakland Public library, Lucia worked on smaller oils, pastels and watercolors that were beautifully designed and more intimate that her husband’s paintings.  Her approach was more progressive than Arthur’s and some of her works show the influence of Post-Impressionism.  In his major works and murals he strove for a symbolic effect by using classically attired young women threaded together as his subjects. Together they worked on furniture and decorative art, with Arthur painting panels and Lucia working up designs for gilding and decoration.

The Matthews made trips to the Monterey Peninsula together as early as 1897 and the trees and sandy beaches of the area were the inspiration for some of their most important works.  They exhibited a number of Monterey-inspired works at the San Francisco Art Association in 1897 and in Arthur Matthews’ large 1898 solo exhibition at the Mark Hopkins Institute and after a trip to Carmel in 1902, works inspired by the stay were exhibited at the Salon at the Palace Hotel.  Because of the Matthews’ interest in soft, diffused light and compositions with flattened forms and interlocking shapes, the mighty oaks and cypress of the Carmel Valley and Monterey Peninsula helped them reach the zenith of their art.  The couple remained active into their old age, painting, exhibiting and as stalwart members of San Francisco art organizations.  They passed away ten years apart, at eighty-five, two of the most influential painters in the history of California Art. Copyright, 2009-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without specific written permission of the author.

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Contact: jeffreymorseburg@yahoo.com  Phone/VM:  (310) 967-3072

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