Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832

Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

Sometime between 1832–35, the German naturalist, explorer, trader, and self-taught traveler-artist Ferdinand Deppe produced two almost identical paintings documenting his visit to Alta California (a province of Mexico in what is today the state of California). [1] The paintings feature the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, founded by the Spanish Franciscans in 1771 on Tongva land. The Franciscans were one of several mendicant orders who established missions in the Americas from the 16th through the early 19th centuries to spread Christianity to Indigenous peoples and to acquire land for the Spanish Crown.

Deppe painted the majestic, snow-capped San Gabriel mountains with strong contour lines against a cloudy purple-blue sky. The mountain range looms large over a lush, sun-dappled landscape in which European and Tongva people interact peacefully. Such scenes of human figures seamlessly interspersed into panoramic settings typify American, Mexican, and European 19th-century Romantic painting. Like other 19th-century Romantic thinkers, Deppe saw landscape painting as a means of documenting the topographical, geographical, and botanical features of the San Gabriel Valley while simultaneously presenting nature’s spiritual and poetic possibilities. [2]

The church at the mission (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

The church at the mission (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

Though the painting was not commissioned by the Spanish Franciscans, there is still an obvious colonial message presented within this landscape. Tiny figures dressed in red garments partake in a Catholic ceremony in front of the mission edifice. From a European perspective, the scene provided evidence of the successful conversion of the Tongva to Christianity. However, if we look beyond this, we can get a sense of the more diverse experiences of European, Mexican, Anglo-American, and Native peoples on the northern frontier of New Spain during the waning years of the Spanish colonial era.

 

Kiiy (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

Kiiy (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

“Hut to Temple”

The viewer is invited to enter the picture from the bottom right, where a kiiy (a Tongva domed hut made of thatched tule) is prominently featured. Deppe uses soft golden hues to render the effects of sunlight on the side of the kiiy and has paid special attention to defining its rough texture.  

Mission (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

Mission (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

Date palm and kiiy (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

Date palm and kiiy (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

In the middle ground, a turquoise blue stream (actually, an irrigation ditch) forms a diagonal division across the picture plane, suggesting cultural progression from the thatched kiiy in the foreground to the stone mission in the middle ground. [3]  At the time of his visit, tule grew wild along the banks of the San Gabriel river. Though the stone mission church took primacy in the actual mission space, in Deppe’s painting the kiiy, a “Native” product of its environment, occupies an important position. By placing it in the foreground and emphasizing its material affinity with the landscape, he suggests that not only did Native life and culture survive after Spanish colonization, but that something natural, intrinsic, and ideal could still be gleaned from it. A date palm, a plant imported by the Spanish Franciscans, is painted beside the kiiy. Deppe has carefully painted the fronds of the leafy tree with bright yellow and white highlights, creating the effect of sun streaming through them. A few date fruits are visibly hanging in its branches. Here, the exotic tree helps to reinforce the Romantic idea of America as a utopia or Biblical Eden. Similarly (and conveniently), 16th–18th century Spanish Franciscan texts and mission fresco cycles often presented the Americas as a flowery garden paradise, a promised land, or a Heavenly (New) Jerusalem; the Franciscans viewed their American missions as a “New Temple” of Jerusalem. [4] 

Flicker quill headband, 62 x 14.4 x 0.5 cm, collected by Ferdinand Deppe before 1837 (California) (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin)

Flicker quill headband, 62 x 14.4 x 0.5 cm, collected by Ferdinand Deppe before 1837 (California) (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin)

European traveler-artists in the Americas

Deppe was in Mexico from 1824 through 1827, following the tradition of Alexander von Humboldt and other European naturalists and proponents of Romanticism who explored the American continent in the early 19th century. There, he collected natural history, including zoological and botanical specimens. During his subsequent visits to Alta California in the late 1820s and early 1830s, which had opened up to foreign visitors after becoming part of the new Mexican Republic in 1824, Deppe’s collecting changed to include “ethnographic material” such as Chumash and Ohlone basketry, ceremonial headdresses, and belts made from woodpecker and mallard feathers, quills, olivella, and abalone shell. This shift in focus was typical of the period, which saw a rising interest in ethnology (the comparative and analytic study of cultures). 

Left: Ear ornament, bone, feather, glass beads, cord, abalone shell, 15 cm long, collected by Ferdinand Deppe before 1837 (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin); right: Woven feather belt, 187 cm long, collected by Ferdinand Deppe before 1837 (California) (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin)

Left: Ear ornament, bone, feather, glass beads, cord, abalone shell, 15 cm long, collected by Ferdinand Deppe before 1837 (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin); right: Woven feather belt, 187 cm long, collected by Ferdinand Deppe before 1837 (California) (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin)

In 1832, Deppe visited several California missions with his friend Alfred Robinson, a merchant from Boston. They were invited to a feast at Mission San Jose, where they observed Native dancers performing. Robinson recalled the way that the dancers’ bodies were painted and adorned with feathers. Many of Robinson’s descriptions match the mission objects collected by Deppe, which were later displayed in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin and the British Museum. 

Figures (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

Figures (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

If we take a closer look at the figures in Deppe’s San Gabriel landscape, we see a few Tongva men wearing headbands and taparrobos (loin cloths), but several others in European attire. They are not pictured wearing the elaborate Native regalia the artist collected at the nearby missions. This discrepancy points to Deppe’s multiple roles, intentions, and patrons: the “natural history” specimens he collected were clearly aimed at a different audience than his landscape paintings. Deppe was not only an artist, but a trader, a naturalist, a horticulturalist, and an ethnology collector, so he catered to a diverse clientele, including private collectors of Romantic landscape painting and European ethnology museums with an interest in acquiring and displaying American objects. His work also appealed to wealthy American land investors, including Daniel Hill, a property owner in the Santa Barbara region at this time, who purchased this San Gabriel landscape and later donated it to the Santa Barbara Mission.

Priest and trader (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

Priest and trader (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

An inhabited landscape

By the 1830s, inhabitants of the missions had extended beyond the Spanish Franciscan priests and the Native populations. In the left foreground, a priest interacts with a trader. Mission activities ranged from religious to agricultural to economic: raising cattle, trading, housing and entertaining travelers, and producing goods such as citrus fruits, wine, soap, hides, and olive oil. Deppe presents the converted Tongva as laborers and producers who are essential to the mission’s modern economy. 

Figures in front of kiiy (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

Figures in front of kiiy (detail), Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832, oil on canvas, 42 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches (collection of Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library)

In front of the kiiy, a Don (a Spanish settler or former soldier awarded a land grant) converses with a Tongva man. Though there is stark contrast between the nude Native and the finely dressed European, the significance of their exchange is expressed through their sturdy male bodies, upright postures and positioning in the right foreground.  

Four Tongva women stand and sit on a mat next to the kiiy, while a child crawls toward the group accompanied by a dog. In contrast to the men, the women’s bodies are curvilinear, and one of them is placed with her back to the viewer, which creates the sense that they are comfortably involved in their own conversation. They wear European-style white blouses and their bayetas (skirts) create circular shapes on the rectangular mat. The placement of the women on the ground or leaning on the date palm serves to physically and symbolically connect them to the land. The visual association of women—particularly Native women—with the natural world and men with culture/civilization was typical in both 19th-century U.S. American and Mexican landscape traditions.

Theodoor Galle (after Johannes Stradanus) "The Discovery of America," from Nova Reperta, c. 1600, engraving, 27 x 20 cm, published by Philips Galle (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Theodoor Galle (after Johannes Stradanus) “The Discovery of America,” from Nova Reperta, c. 1600, engraving, 27 x 20 cm, published by Philips Galle (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

While Deppe’s San Gabriel landscape certainly draws from a range of 19th-century artistic, scientific, and philosophical discourses drawn from European Enlightenment ideas about man and nature, it is not far removed from early European representations of the peoples they encountered in the Americas. For example, in Theodoor Galle’s 1600 engraving of “The Discovery of America,” Native people wearing feathered headdresses abound in lush, bountiful landscapes, and Indigenous female bodies (representing America) contrast with authoritative European male figures. In Deppe’s image, more than two hundred years after Galle’s, the women’s gestures—slightly open arms, shy upward glances, bodies gently leaning towards the standing male figure—continue to indicate supposed Native receptivity to European power.

California’s first oil painting?

Today, Deppe’s landscapes are touted in state promotional literature as the first oil on canvas paintings produced in and depicting California. In actuality this painting belongs to the history of the art of Mexico. They were produced when Alta California was a part of the Republic of Mexico, and there are indications that while Deppe made sketches onsite in San Gabriel, he completed the painting in Mexico City.

By the time of Deppe’s visit, Mexico had declared its independence from Spain and taken control of the missions. During the years 1833–36, the missions and most of their land was seized from the Franciscans and sold off to Mexican rancheros and private citizens, despite the Mexican government’s original intent to return the land to Native Californians. Deppe may have captured the last glimpse of San Gabriel before its secularization in 1834. The viewer is led to believe that the artist has painted his actual observation of the southern California landscape at this transitional moment, but his chosen subject matter and formal choices reveal an imagined mission landscape—one still very much tied to a European colonial project.  

Notes:

[1] Ferdinand Deppe produced two almost identical paintings of the San Gabriel Mission. One of these, sold to Santa Barbara area property owner Daniel Hill around 1836, is in the collection of the Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library. The other is in the collection of the Laguna Art Museum.

[2] He would have been familiar with several key Romantic thinkers centered in Jena, Germany in the late 18th and 19th centuries, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Alexander von Humboldt.

[3] Many of the Alta California missions featured plain Neoclassical façades derived from the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius’s De Architectura (30–20 B.C.E.). 

[4] For example, Deppe’s imagery evokes the 17th-century Romantic poet John Milton’s description of Eden in Paradise Lost 1667.


Additional resources

Ulf Bankmann, “A Prussian in Mexican California: Ferdinand Deppe, Horticulturalist, Collector for European Museums, Trader and Artist,” Southern California Quarterly, volume 84, number 1 (Spring 2002), pp. 1–32.

Samantha Burton, “‘For the California of Today’: Visual History and the Picturesque Landscape in Edwin Deakin’s Missions of California Series,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, volume 18, number 1 (Spring 2019).

Michael Komanecky, “‘The Treasures of Sentiment, The Charms of Romance, and the Riches of History’: Artists’ Views of California Missions,” California Mexicana: Missions to Murals 1820–1930, edited by Katherine Manthorne (Los Angeles: Laguna Art Museum and Getty Publications, 2018), pp. 173–95. 

Katherine Manthorne, California Mexicana: Missions to Murals (Los Angeles: Laguna Art Museum and Getty Publications, 2018).

Katherine Manthorne, “Humboldt and the American Pictorial Imagination,” Unity of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and the Americas (Bielefeld/Berlin: Americas Society, Kerber Verlag, 2014), pp. 43–55.

Emmanuel Ortega, “The Mexican Picturesque and the Sentimental Nation: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Landscape,” The Art Bulletin, volume 103, number 2 (2021), pp. 129–55.

Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). 

Alfred J. Robinson, Life in California: During a Residence of Several Years in that Territory (San Francisco, California, 1846).

Erwin Stressemann, “Ferdinand Deppe’s Travels in Mexico, 1824–1829,” The Condor, volume 56, number 2 (March–April 1954), pp. 86–92.

Andrea Wulf, Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (New York: Knopf, 2023).

Cite this page as: Dr. Cynthia Neri Lewis, "Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, Alta California in May 1832," in Smarthistory, October 11, 2023, accessed May 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/ferdinand-deppe-san-gabriel-mission/.