As Jean Stern, Irvine Museum Executive Director, tours his current exhibition, “Upon a Painted Ocean,” he looks forward to the museum’s move in the next decade to the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art; a multi-faceted venue to display and research all genres of art from the Golden State.
Yet few people realize that Stern, a quiet self-effacing art historian, is one of the first people to promote late 19th to early 20th century California paintings, particularly those in Impressionism. He exhibited and sold works in this style in the late 1970s, while working as Executive Director of the Petersen Galleries in Beverly Hills. He is credited with coining the term “California Impressionism,” as he explained in a recent interview. And painters Franz Bischoff, Alson Clark, Elsie Palmer Payne and William Wendt were relatively unknown artists when he first exhibited their work.
With his impressive expertise, heiress and art collector Joan Irvine Smith (who has a life-long love of California Impressionism) eventually hired him to develop and direct her Irvine Museum in order to exhibit and educate the public about California Impressionism.
The museum, which opened in 1993, installs three exhibitions a year, each displaying about 50 art pieces. Its most popular show, “Masters of Light,” was created for European viewers, most of whom had never seen California Impressionism. The show was exhibited in 2002-03 at the Mona Bismarck Foundation Museum, Paris, at the International Cultural Centre, Kraków, Poland, and at the Centro Cultural del Conde Duque, Madrid, before returning to Irvine, where it was enthusiastically received by the art-going public.
Many French viewers remarked that the paintings were a lot brighter than they expected, Stern explains, particularly when compared with the impressionist works from their own country. He adds that French people were interested in the paintings’ subject matter, in the California lifestyle during the early 20th century, in the huge beaches and the proliferation of wild flowers. The exhibition, more than four years in the making, was curated by Stern, assisted by the Irvine Museum staff. “It was assembled from 14 of the most important private collections of California paintings, and from the museum’s own collection,” he explains.
Subsequent Irvine Museum exhibitions included: “Romance of the Bells” (2010), featuring close-ups, landscapes and etchings of California’s missions, from 1769 to 1823; “Inner Visions: Women Artists of California” (2012) with oils and watercolors illustrating the harmonious Southern California settings; and “The Nature of Water: Our Most Precious Resource” (2016), depicting the variety of forms in which water appears in artworks, through streams, rivers, lakes, oceans, rain and snow. The museum has published nearly two dozen art catalogs, and its exhibitions have traveled to more than 70 art venues around the country.
Stern spent his early childhood in Casablanca, Morocco. His father, Frederic Stern, an art and antique dealer, was a Hungarian native who immigrated to France, where he served in the French Foreign Legion, and later moved to Casablanca. Jean’s mother, Sultana Ifergan, was a southern Morocco native. The peripatetic Frederic then moved the family to Los Angeles in 1955, where he founded the Frederic Stern Gallery, exhibiting French landscape paintings.
While growing up, Jean Stern and his two brothers worked in their father’s business, learning about art and art dealing. With that auspicious beginning, the Stern family evolved to become a Southern California art dynasty. Jean’s older brother, Louis Stern, founded the well-known Louis Stern Fine Arts in Los Angeles, specializing in impressionism, post-impressionism and modern art. His younger brother, George Stern, is an L.A. art dealer, emphasizing historic and contemporary plein air art. Steven Stern, Jean’s nephew, is carrying on the family tradition as a Santa Monica art dealer.
In 2017, Jean Stern received the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture. He has received lifetime achievement awards from the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, the Plein Air Painters of America and Plein Air Magazine.
Today, overseeing the Irvine Museum, he looks back at his many decades promoting, curating and writing about California Impressionism. And as he contemplates his eventual retirement, he is reinvigorated by the museum’s impending move to the University of California at Irvine. The genesis of that move occurred in 2014 when James Swinden, Irvine Museum president, called Dr. Stephen Barker, Dean, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, and currently Executive Director of the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art (IMCA). Swinden proposed to Barker that the Irvine Museum donate its 1,200 19th and 20th century paintings, sculptures and works on paper to UCI.
“I decided it was time to find a permanent home for the collection,” Swinden explains. “It seemed important that it reside on the Irvine Ranch, and where better than UC Irvine?” That donation occurred the same week that Barker and UCI were offered a gift of the Gerald Buck Collection of 3,500 treasured works of modern California art.
With the approval of UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman, the combined collections became the foundation of IMCA, a university-based museum that will specialize in all periods of California art. Scheduled to open early in the next decade, IMCA will be built on the UCI site that William Pereira, the university’s original architect, designated for a museum in 1962. “This will be the greatest museum for California art anywhere in the world,” says Barker. Stern is excited about this development, adding that being part of UCI will enable the Irvine Museum collection to be part of a world-class institution.
As IMCA plans for its opening (with an unknown date at this time), the Irvine Museum with Stern at the helm will continue to mount exhibitions, while attracting 16,000 visitors a year, plus numerous school children.
The museum’s upcoming exhibition “Poems Without Words” will feature landscape paintings by “the usual suspects,” as Stern explains, or by masters of California Impressionism, including Edgar Payne, Hanson Puthuff and William Wendt. Surrounded by the majesty and energy of these seminal artworks, it is questionable that Jean Stern, now in his early 70s, will want to retire in the near future.
UCI Irvine Museum Collection
18881 Von Karman Avenue, Ste. 100
Irvine, CA 92612
Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Current exhibition: “Upon a Painted Ocean: An Ode to the California Coast” through March 30, 2019
Upcoming exhibition: “Poems Without Words” – April 6, 2019 to August 10, 2019