Director of the Museum Mary Platt, founder of the Museum Mark Hilbert, with Fine Art Connoisseur's West Coast editor Vanessa Rothe

By Vanessa Françoise Rothe

The Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University opened in 2016 and is a shining addition to the great list of fine art museums found along the west coast, which has recently won the sought after “People Love Us on Yelp” award by Yelp, a popular online travel advice site.

Founded by Mark and Jan Hilbert, the collection includes oils, watercolors, sketches, and lithographs of urban and developing industrial scenes, iconic coastal views, ranches, and landscapes of everyday life in 20th century California, portraying and celebrating the beauty and development of the Golden State. Supported by Chapman University, the once private collection is now found in a lovely museum setting and is continuing to expand.

Millard Sheets (1907-1969) “San Dimas Train Station,” 1933, watercolor on paper; One of the main works celebrated at the museum

Boasting top notch representational art created in or around California from 1920’s-1970’s and including a large group of scenic paintings in watercolor, the collection also includes exciting works showcasing Regionalism, Photorealism and Impressionism. From William Wendt’s lush green landscapes, to dark city scenes of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the collection offers a range of themes and scenes to enjoy as we travel through its local history. The owner, Mark Hilbert, proudly parlays these notes as he gives his own Thursday morning tour:

“This is first museum anywhere that is totally dedicated to the display of California Scene and California representational art,” Hilbert said. “The intent is to cast a spotlight on this style of painting and these amazing artists, and to make this art known around the world. California has its own style, its own light, its own distinct landscape.

“California Scene paintings are distinguished from the earlier style of California Impressionism because these works show people and the works of humans: towns, cities, harbors, houses, ranches, cars, trains – people going about their everyday lives. These paintings show the changes taking place across our state as it grew, starting around 1920 – changes that are still happening and reflected in today’s representational art.”

Emil Kosa Jr (1903-1968) “San Francisco,” 1942

Increasingly popular and collectible representational artists working through the mid-century such as Rex Brandt, Emil Kosa Jr, Mary Blair, Phil Dyke, and Milford Zorn are showcased in a beautiful open setting in rotating exhibitions. It is an important fact to note that many of the fine artist at this time had turned to mid-century abstraction, whereas this group remained representational in nature with their works.

During World War II, hundreds of artists were fleeing war-torn Europe and coming to America and many of them made their way out west. About half of the schooling of this time chose to move to modern abstract art, which we tend to think of when the words “Mid Century;” while the other half remained linked to realist, traditional, and “lightly” classical in their schooling and genre.

Andrew Loomis (1982-1959) “The Silver Flute,” 1948, oil on canvas

American Illustration

In addition to these works, a permanent collection and installation titled “American Illustration” takes us a bit beyond California to include top Saturday Evening Post illustrators (such as Andrew Loomis) and celebrates the large number of illustrators that moved to and worked in California, particularly Los Angeles in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50s, working on movie sets and in advertising.

Edgar Payne, an interesting example, was a well-known illustrator creating backdrops for movies, theatre, as well as later creating his own Impressionist landscapes for sale as fine art. These renowned illustrators helped shape the art world in California at this time. Keep in mind that their work was continuously representational in genre and often even leaning to hyperrealist in nature. The illustrators were great storytellers and their works are quite engaging. To this day, if we see a work that is very well drafted, we assume the artist has a background in illustration that developed his/her “tight” drawing skills.

The museum has a fine collection of these Saturday Evening Post covers on display and is currently on the lookout for a prestigious Norman Rockwell to add to the collection. (Perhaps there is a collector out there interested in a fine art museum donation?)

Special Animation Section

Lastly, and along these similar lines, is a new addition to the Museum, a room that showcases animation. Remaining in the California underlying theme, and following the thread of illustrators, the Hilbert museum felt it only natural to celebrate Walt Disney animators, another group of important representational artists from California. These artists had a flare for backgrounds and or character development. The best ‘storytelling’ illustrators made terrific animators, and the Disney team sought their talents. Original backgrounds, movie poster original artwork and two Snow White movie original ‘cel’ paintings crown this selection of works. Hundreds of Cel, short for ‘celluloid’ sheets were painted on one side, backwards, onto transparent sheets and turned over (to hide the visible paint strokes) and then photographed to make each scene of a movie. The originals are rare and highly collectable.

With this grand list of increasingly popular works to view and admire as well as an increasingly growing educational aspect to the Museum, it’s no wonder it has attracted more than 22,000 visitors since its opening.

What else makes the Hilbert Museum a great place to discover? Photos are allowed says director Mary Platt; “When the museum first opened, there was a no-photography policy,” Platt noted. “But that’s old-school thinking that just doesn’t work in a digital age when everyone has a phone camera and is excited to post their cultural experiences…Dropping this barrier to guest enjoyment was a big win-win for everyone – people love posting and talking about their favorite images, and the museum reaps the free publicity of having commentary and photos shared.”

The Hilbert Museum is a stone’s throw from Disneyland in Southern California. If you have not yet discovered it, add it to your to do list. Some exciting upcoming exhibitions at the museum will include:
• “Scenic View Ahead: The Westways Cover-Art Collection” Organized by the Hilbert Museum of California Art in Cooperation with the Automobile Club of Southern California
• “Magical Visions: The Enchanting Art of Eyvind Earle”
• “A New Hope: The Star Wars Art of Robert Bailey”

Entrance and parking to the Museum are free. Visit for more information.

Sign up to receive Fine Art Today, the weekly e-newsletter from
Fine Art Connoisseur magazine.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here