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Arthur Mathews was born in Markesan, Wisconsin, and moved to Oakland, California at age six. During his teen-age years, he attended Oakland High School, and worked in his father's architectural office. He later enrolled at the San Francisco School of Design where he studied with Virgil Williams. He also worked as a design-illustrator for lithographers, Britton & Rey.
He studied four years in Paris at the Academie Julian and then became Director of the School of Design in San Francisco, a position he held until the 1906 earthquake and fire. He and his wife Lucia then opened a furniture shop on California Street where they hand-crafted items and rekindled the artistic spirit in San Francisco following the earthquake.
A central figure with his wife Lucia in turn-of-the-century, post earthquake San Francisco, Arthur Mathews devoted himself to reconstruction of the fine arts in the Bay Area. He had diverse talents that embraced architecture, mural painting, furniture making, printing, and urban design, and his style became known as California Decorative. His murals and paintings came to exemplify the Art Nouveau style. He was also a proponent of the American Renaissance style, based on classical disciplines and subject matter of the Italian Renaissance.
In his allegorical paintings, Mathews often included female figures in classical dress and used a Tonalist approach with flat patterns and intense color. Described as "fairy tales for grownups," (Boas), these paintings answered society's need for a sense of refinement and elegance. He was credited with bringing Californians into their first contact with the design and colors of Paul Gaughin and with the Tonalist aesthetic of James Whistler, which he admired in France where he studied from 1885 to 1889. He later was accused of shutting out the influences of Impressionism.
His forceful, dominant personality aroused resentment, and progressive artists rebelled against him because he eschewed the encroaching modernist styles. However, he remained the leading force in the rebuilding of San Francisco. His idea that art should inspire higher meaning and a sense of order in society reached its height in the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940