Jean Stern received Knight of Arts and Letters Insigna [fr]
Jean Stern received Knight of Arts and Letters Insigna from French Consul General Christophe Lemoine on September 13, 2017. The ceremony took place at the Irvine Museum Collection.
Find Christophe Lemoine’s speech and photos of the event.
Dear Jean Stern,
I am extremely pleased to join you, your family and your friends tonight at the Irvine Museum in order to celebrate your accomplishments as Executive Director and as an art historian.
As such, you have played a leading role in the rediscovery of Californian impressionism, and have fostered a broader understanding of the proximity of French and American cultures.
I would like to thank everyone for being here, and especially your wife Linda and your daughter Hannah, who have been very helpful in the preparation of this ceremony, as well as your daughter Carrie, who unfortunately couldn’t be here tonight.
To be understood by everyone, I will speak in English, even though I know that as our countryman you remain much attached to your French roots and the French language:
I’ve been told that you decided you would rather be frequently confused for a woman than change your name to John, and that your involvement in raising your daughters to be good French women implied hours on the phone with Carrie, helping her improve her French!
You were born in Morocco, where you lived until 1955: your family then settled in the United-States when you were nine years old. Your father, Frederic Stern, was a successful art dealer and an ambassador of French art, which his gallery in Los Angeles specialized in.
You were raised surrounded by fine art, and with your brothers Louis, who couldn’t join us tonight, and George, who is here with his family, you helped your father run the gallery from a very young age: you often say you have 60 years of experience in the art world! It is quite naturally that the three of you dedicated your careers to art, in various ways. You started by being the scholar of the family since, after studying Art and History at California State University, San Diego and UCLA, you became a teacher and an art historian.
It is in the early years of your career that your passion for the landscape paintings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries grew. Most of the greatest Californian plein-air artists of that period were so little renowned then, that you often recount how you were able to purchase a painting by Edgar Payne for $400! Such paintings were more likely to be found in antique or even furniture stores than in galleries. Their rehabilitation is in large part due to your tireless work.
In 1978, you became the director of the prestigious Petersen Galleries, and turned it into the first gallery to define itself as a dealer in Californian plein-air art: under your lead, the Petersen Galleries bought and restored paintings, and brought them to public recognition, through exhibitions and the publication of catalogues that documented them. Public acknowledgement followed and several galleries, private collectors and scholars started putting their emphasis on what you named Californian Impressionism, coining the term in 1982, and is now a renowned and universally appreciated art movement... Even though it still hasn’t fully reached Texas apparently:
I hear that your daughter, Carrie, keeps an eye on landscape paintings in Austin’s antique shops, as you once did, and asks your opinion, sometimes finding her own forgotten piece of art!
As the foremost specialist of this movement, you were called upon to become the Executive Director of the Irvine Museum, the development of which you have overseen since its inception in 1992. The Irvine Museum has since become a very powerful force to bring attention to Californian impressionists. It has benefited continually from your dedication as a curator, with renowned exhibitions, but also as an art historian.
The Museum indeed publishes monographies and general works, some of which you wrote, such as California Light: A Century of Landscapes, Paintings by the California Art Club. It also has a vast educational program, sending out books to school libraries and hosting school field trips. In the same spirit, the Museum will soon move to its new location, on the UCI campus, closer than ever to education.
By this continued dedication to your different roles, as an art historian, a curator and a teacher, you keep turning people towards Californian Impressionism and underlining its specificity, and thus exposing its similarities and differences to its French roots. You promoted Franco-American artists such as Paul de Longpré, as well as underlined the French component of the work of Guy Rose, for instance.
The way you typically start your lectures, comparing two paintings by William Bouguereau, your favorite painter ever, and Claude Monet, to show the novelty of the impressionism movement embodied by Monet, is the perfect illustration of the tribute you always pay to French art, and its necessity to understand Californian painters, many of whom had studied in France. While underlining Californian art’s specificity, you thus raise awareness of the influence of French art.
In France, on the other hand, impressionism is considered as a movement specific to our country.
Being French yourself, you know how touchy we can be, and were very careful not to use the term “impressionism” to name your traveling exhibition Masters of Light when it was presented in Paris, at the Mona Bismarck Foundation. It was a remarkable success, and your ability to conduct conferences in French also contributed to reaching a broader audience. Thanks to you, French ego had to be put aside to recognize the deep correspondence between French and American art history of the time. In general, the renown that Californian Impressionism has gained, vastly under your impulse, enhances the feeling of cultural and artistic proximity between the United States and France, your two countries.
The passion for art that leads to such dedication is a passion for beauty, and first of all the beauty of nature. A collector of plein-air art but also of botanical art, you collect rocks and fossils, love dinosaurs, planets, and all “unusual things”. You have always been full of wonder for the beauty of nature, taking special trips with your family to gaze at the stars, or see the Petrified Forest in Arizona. Passionate about nature but also history, and especially Roman History, you also found one of your favorite spots in France, in Provence, where your two interests can meet.
Your passion for beauty is an active one, it leads you to explore the world and see for yourself all the wonders Nature has to offer, to collect beautiful things and knowledge, but also to share them. You recently donated your Pre-Columbian art collection, gathered when you were younger, with the mother of your daughters, to the Gilcrease Museum, for all to enjoy. When you daughters recall their childhood, they paint the picture of a man who always names and explains things, who shares knowledge and passion, for whom transmission is an essential value.
By displaying the works of art you loved, authoring, or contributing to, dozens of books, and giving more than a dozen lectures a year, with a recognized sense of pedagogy, you go on sharing, day after day.
The same energy makes you a mentor for many contemporary artists, whom you advise, encourage, recommend to art collectors and sometimes even exhibit at the Irvine Museum. Your expertise and fairness are renowned and also make you a much sought-after judge of landscape-painting competitions.
Not only have you rehabilitated Californian Impressionism of the past, but you contribute to making the plein-air resurgence of today, also known as Californian Impressionism, a vibrant one. This has led you to receive several “lifetime achievement” awards from the plein-air community in recognition of this extraordinary involvement.
You describe art as having only one definition that makes sense: something that enriches your life.
Through every aspect of your activity, making it possible to display and appreciate past works as well as producing new ones, you allow more lives to be enriched by art. For this you should be warmly thanked, and I thank you today.
I know that despite your awards, you are not at ease with the term “lifetime achievement”, that seems to imply that there are no more achievements possible.
So, I won’t use it, and will say that, for your long, brilliant and ongoing career, for the major impact you had on American Art History, and for the awareness of French influence and proximity you raised, I am honored, dear Jean Stern, to bestow upon you the medal of Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters.
Cher Jean Stern, au nom de la République française et par les pouvoirs qui nous sont conférés, nous vous faisons Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.