Arthur Mathews [1860-1945] was an important figure in the Northern California Arts & Crafts movement. The kind of California world he and his contemporaries envisioned had a sweet innocence about it, which appears to our jaded eyes as a kind of inspired folly. Did they imagine that the population would stabilize, industry meld into a placid landscape of genteel sensibility, while ethnic distinctions, greed, exploitation and environmental degradation would simply wither away? They were wrong, of course. The California we know today is nothing like they imagined it should have turned out, or at least as they seem to have imagined it in their art and philosophical statements.
But the vision they did create in their paintings, sculptures, architecture, literature and music still impresses with its charm and elegant play, its satisfying idealized landscape of pleasure and inspired activity. They were terribly serious about it all, and seem to have thought their visions would materialize in due course. Mathews's most famous painting is the one above, of a group of young ladies dancing outdoors. Their attire, their attitudes, their spirit, all bespeak an innocent, indulgent pleasure, uninhibited, and yet mannered. It was a world based on privilege, of course, but the Arts & Crafts advocates didn't think of it that way. Life was going to be better for everyone, and the cream would rise to the top. The cream, of course, would be the artists and social reformers. Politicians, bankers, salesmen, and that sort would be tolerated, but within limits.
If you like this kind of art, you're probably the outdoors type, but not necessarily. It smells of the boudoir and the salon. It's warm and brown and elastic-seeming. It's sensual, and earthy, but not too earthy. It evokes a style of life that probably never existed, but which might have been possible, if you had money, and good taste, between about 1890 and 1915, that twilight era when impressionism and fin-de-siécle were going strong. If all this seems a bit effete to us now, it's still nice to daydream about an afternoon picnic with a bevy of ingenues, all dressed in fetching white togas, their hair pulled back, dancing like Greek goddesses under the spreading oaks along the coastal foothills near Monterey or Santa Cruz.
In honor of which, this latest concoction from the pewter counter of yours truly. The Dancing Ladies Cocktail, in honor of Arthur Mathews, and his lovely palette of a California summer, so many summers ago.
The Dancing Lady
Recipe, by proportion:
1 part sweet vermouth
1 part dry vermouth
1 part Compari
1 part limoncello
juice of one half lemon
Shaken lightly, or stirred with ice, and served up.
Aurelia and Honoré and Rowena like it very much.