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New book of Sonoma’s collection of Jorgensen Mission watercolors

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The subdued light in Sonoma’s Mission San Francisco Solano makes it difficult to see the series of small watercolors of California adobe missions lining the walls. It’s intentional – sunlight would certainly fade the subtle hue and line of the 115-year-old paintings, all of them representing the distinctive yet varied architecture of Alta California of 300 years ago.

But next week, with the release of a new limited edition of Chris Jorgensen’s “California Missions,” there should finally be enough light falling on this extraordinary collection of watercolors, painted by the Norwegian artist in the early years of the 20th century, when his skills were at their height and interest in California’s heritage was strong.

The watercolors, executed in the “plein air” style by Jorgensen, documented the entire chain of 21 Franciscan religious outposts established between 1769 and 1833 along El Camino Real, from San Diego de Alcala to Sonoma. Some of the missions were already in disrepair when he came through, so he ended up painting only 18 of them in the condition they were when he visited,

Some of the missions have since been restored, making Jorgensen’s book an odd record of a lost era that has since been regained.

Born in Norway, the young Jorgensen’s drawing talent was recognized early, and by the time he graduated from the then-new San Francisco School of Design in 1881, he was immediately appointed an instructor and assistant director at the school.

A few years later, in 1888, he married Angela Ghirardelli, one of his students and heiress to the celebrated San Francisco chocolatier. His good fortune continued when he became a sort of artist-in-residence in Yosemite Valley, Many of Jorgensen’s Yosemite paintings – produced in water color, like most of his work, rather than the more durable oils – are still on view in Yosemite, many until recently at the hotel formerly known as the Awahnee.

In 1903 and 1904, the by-then internationally recognized landscape painter and his wife traveled by horse and buggy the length of El Camino Real to study and paint the California Missions. The resulting watercolors were shown at many noted galleries throughout America, as well as a 1906 Washington, D.C. exhibition of these and his watercolors of the Yosemite Valley.

The studio he built in Yosemite, where he and his wife lived during summers until 1917, was to become the Yosemite Valley’s first museum, though the couple later moved to Carmel, then Piedmont, where the artist died in 1935.

But how did Sonoma come to possess this significant body of work? In 1950, his son Virgil Jorgensen – by this time a Sonoma resident, active in the Vintage Festival and other local activities – donated the Mission collection to the Solano Mission itself, which in 1814 became the last in the long chain of Spanish missions to be established.

Sonoma Petaluma Parks, in conjunction with the California State Parks, has commissioned the new 80-page book containing 57 full-color reproductions of the California Mission paintings and detail by Jorgensen. The project has taken some 15 years to complete, said museum crator Carol Dodge. “People have been asking for this book for a long time,” she said.

The books will be published as a limited edition of 250 numbered copies in a cloth-bound, clamshell case for $99, and as a hardbound coffee table book for $39.

Both will become available at the Barracks Bookstore and Mission Gift Shop on Oct. 18.

The Mission will host a special evening event that will provide opportunity to buy the book, tour the Jorgensen paintings, and hear a presentation on the making of this special edition, between 5 and 8 p.m., on Thursday, Oct. 18.

Until then, the book is available for pre-sale purchase at stores.sonomaparks.org.