Jean Stern wants to take the mystery out of art appreciation.
“If you look at a painting and it looks real to you, it’s a good painting,” the art historian said.
On Friday, Stern will talk about “The Art of Looking at Art” in Paso Robles as part of the Paso Robles Festival of the Arts.
A noted author, curator and lecturer, Stern is the executive productive of the Irvine Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of California impressionist art. He spoke at the San Luis Obispo Plein Air Painting Festival last fall.
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“There’s a special connection to the land that’s present in California,” Stern said, especially in smaller communities such as Bakersfield, Redding and San Luis Obispo. “The people who come to California have a much greater awareness of the beauty of the land. They’re interested in nature, and they want to include nature in their daily lives.”
The Casablanca-born son of a Hungarian art dealer, Stern and his family came to Los Angeles following the events that led to Morocco’s independence from France in 1956. There, his father ran a gallery in the 1960s and ‘70s specializing in French antique art.
“The kids became unwilling apprentices. We learned the business from the bottom up,” recalled Stern, who later earned a masters degree in art history.
After a brief teaching stint, Stern became executive director of the newly opened Irvine Museum in January 1993. The institute is dedicated to the preservation and display of California impressionist art – paintings characterized by loose brushwork, vivid colors and images that capture the natural splendor of the state -- produced between 1890 and 1930.
“Nobody had really done anything on California art” at the time, he said. “It was all around us, in antique stores, sometimes in furniture stores and junk stores. It was very wonderful, very important.”
California impressionism has gradually gained acceptance in the art and academic worlds, thanks in part to Stern’s tireless efforts.
Over the years, he’s produced several traveling exhibitions of California impressionist art; lectured about Californian art in Charleston, Chicago and Krakow, Poland; and appeared on the PBS documentary series “Impressions of California” and “Plein Air: Painting the American Landscape.” His books include “California: This Golden Land of Promise,” written with Joan Irvine Smith, and “California Light: A Century of Landscapes: Paintings of the California Art Club,” written with Molly Simply.
Stern estimates that he gives about 15 lectures a year.
Many of those talks address changing perceptions about art and its value.
“The art never changes. It’s the opinion of the public that changes,” he said. “There are very good paintings that were overlooked by the public because of fashion or taste or apathy.”
For instance, he said, the many landscape painters who call the Central Coast home create works with widespread appeal.
“People are intimidated by abstract art and modern art,” he said. “(Landscape paintings) are very reassuring works of art. They reach us in a place that is ageless in our subconscious.”