At a time when edgy contemporary art proliferates museums and galleries, the paintings and drawings at the Hilbert Museum of California Art focus on socially relevant scenes, created during the 20th century. The California Scene Paintings depict people and settings in cities and towns, parks and amusement centers, theaters and schools, at work and at play. One of the landscapes in the museum collection is Preston Blair’s “Bunker Hill” (1938). This nostalgic watercolor portrays the gothic style mansions, which were demolished or moved in the 1960s, making room for towering steel and glass structures, now in downtown L.A. Other art pieces illustrate lifestyles, bohemians, the beat generation, surfers and hippies.

In the three years since its opening on February 28, 2016, the museum has become a major destination for art lovers from the O.C., from across the country and abroad. The Hilbert, on the Chapman University campus, averages 20,000 visitors a year, according to Mary Platt, museum director.

Mark Hilbert, museum co-founder, with his wife Jan, explains that the venue’s mission is in part to tell the story of how the film and animation studios brought artists to Southern California from all over the world. “Because of the film studios, there were more artists working in representational styles here than just about anywhere else,” he explains. Mark and Jan Hilbert received the Arts Orange County “Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award” last October for their philanthropy and for the creation of their museum.

Complementing the California Scene Paintings is the museum’s recently acquired “concept” or “production” art, created by artists working at animation studios, particularly at Disney. These illustrations, often referred to as “cels,” became prototypes for famous animated cartoons and features, including “Three Little Pigs,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “Snow White,” “Cinderella” and ”Fantasia.” (Many Disney illustrators were fine artists themselves, creating their own paintings and drawings in their spare time.) Also on view is Mary Blair’s gouache on board concept art for the “It’s a Small World” ride, created for Disneyland. Other important artists in the collection include Rex Brandt, Lee Blair (Mary Blair’s husband), Phil Dike, Emil Kosa Jr., Roger Kuntz, Fletcher Martin, Barse Miller and Millard Sheets.

The museum’s current “Bay Area Scene Paintings” exhibition, running through April 27, 2019, features more than 60 watercolors, oils and acrylics. It is curated by Gordon McClelland who has wanted to mount this type of show for decades; he explains that he often visited the Bay Area during the 1960s, 70s and 80s, observing the area’s magnificent vistas, landscapes and architecture. While there, he met with art collectors who had acquired many of the seminal paintings now in the Hilbert Museum exhibition. He took photographs of the paintings, noting their titles, the artists’ names and those of the collectors. Fortuitously, for McClelland and the art-going public, Mark Hilbert decided last year that the museum was ready for a Bay Area art show.

The oldest painting in the exhibition is “View of Fort Point, Golden Gate, San Francisco” (1870) by Joseph Lee; the newest is “The Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point” (2016) by Suong Yangchareon – both works captures the breadth and natural elegance of the San Francisco Bay. Another early painting is the luminous “View of San Francisco” (1874), depicting a golden bay and sky and several ships from that period. This oil by William Coulter romanticizes the San Francisco Bay, evoking the styles of Thomas Moran and Alfred Bierstadt, who painted landscapes of the American West.

Most artworks in this show were created from the 1920s to 1970s, affording the viewer a look at the classic mid-century San Francisco, before major redevelopment occurred. Yet, one early example of development is “The Bridge Builders” (1926) by Vernon Jay Morse. This landscape, with a long view of the Golden Gate Bridge construction, includes the unfinished bridge in the background with a large crane in the foreground.

Several watercolors by Jade Fon, an artist of Chinese ancestry, illustrate the vibrancy of downtown San Francisco and its large Chinatown during the 1950s. His “California Street” and “China Town,” feature deep red tones, Chinese style architecture, street lamps, cars and throngs of people. Looking at these paintings, the viewer can almost taste the pungent flavors of Chinese food. The artist’s “Emeryville” (1960s) depicts the area along San Francisco Bay where hippies and other outsiders gathered to create “Funk” or “Assemblage” art out of the detritus that washed up on the mudflats. Dong Kingman, another Chinese American artist, portrayed the funkier aspects of his beloved city. His “Black Cat Café” (1943) shows the exterior of the bar and adjacent downtown buildings, where writers, artists and actors, along with longshoremen, gathered.

Even more striking are several works by Jack Laycox who employed black paint in cityscapes, creating nighttime scenes that are filled with drama and moodiness, that conjure the look of film noir movies from the mid 20th century. His “Cable Car Ride” (1960) is centered on several cable cars going up the steep city streets, while pedestrians clad in dark overcoats and hats walk alongside them. The artist’s “Evening on the San Francisco Embarcadero” (1959) presents a broad view of the waterfront between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Bay Bridge. He painted this at a time when an unsightly freeway (now demolished) divided this important area with its docks and a ferry; yet he captures a blighted area that seems to glow from the streetlights and lighted buildings.

Another noteworthy watercolor is “Washington Street, San Francisco” (1970s) by a barely known artist named Sun Ying. This magnificent artwork is distinguished by the carefully rendered sheets of rain pouring down onto pedestrians as they stroll through the well-manicured city streets.

Walking through this unusual exhibition feels like strolling back in time through a city that was visually stunning with its natural elements and man-made structures, and which welcomed a vast variety of settlers, visitors and especially outsiders.

Hilbert Museum of California Art

167 N. Atchison Street
Orange, CA 92866
Phone:  714-516-5880

Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday and Monday, Closed

Admission is free