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A Two-Fisted Painter

Jules Tavernier, a legendarily adventurous and versatile 19th-century artist, is paid homage in his adopted state of California.

Jules Tavernier, A Balloon in Mid-Air, 1875, oil on canvas, 30 x 50 inches

Jules Tavernier, A Balloon in Mid-Air, 1875, oil on canvas, 30 x 50 inches

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Jules Tavernier was a pioneering artist—not in the sense of a radical modernist shifting our concept of what art can do, but in the more literal sense of actually tramping through unexplored risky territory and bringing back paintings to document it. In 19th-century America, where the French-born Tavernier made his home, art still served a reportorial purpose, giving sedentary town- and farm-dwellers their first look at such things as volcanoes in Hawaii, mountainous wildernesses in California, and life on Plains Indian reservations—all of which Tavernier painted in a variety of styles. He was the founder of the Monterey Peninsula art colony and also one of San Francisco’s first Bohemians. A man of inextinguishable energy, he produced 33 fully-finished paintings in the course of a six-week trip to the Russian River country in northern California.

The critic Jerome Hart wrote of him, “He could do anything with a brush—or without a brush, for he could paint with his spatulated thumb. His brain worked like lightning, and when he was taken in travail with an idea, his wonderful hands—for he sometimes painted with both of them—strove to keep up with his electric brain.” He was known for vigorously applying paint to whatever surfaces were at hand—one hand or both hands—including walls in San Francisco and Monterey, a cigar box in Wyoming, curtains, doors, and even a young woman’s bodice.

The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif., is giving this under-recognized dynamo a one-man show, “Jules Tavernier: Artist and Adventurer,” running February 16 through May 11 and featuring 50 oil paintings and 50 works in other media including drawings, magazine illustrations, and historical documents and ephemera. “This show is the first of its kind, ever,” says Scott Shields, Associate Director and Chief Curator of the Crocker and organizer of the exhibition. “Tavernier didn’t have a career retrospective during his lifetime, because he died too young. He’s never been accorded his own project.” The show, notes Shields, coincides with the 125th anniversary of the artist’s death, at the age of 44, in 1889.

Tavernier was born in Paris in 1844, the son of an English expatriate candy maker and his French wife. Jules’ father, John, changed his name from Taverner to Tavernier when he crossed the Channel. Despite his roots, and despite the fact that he spent nine formative years in London as a child, Jules always spoke English with a heavy French accent. The elder Tavernier’s brand was built on “Tavernier’s Drup,” basically a lump of sugar dyed pink and flavored with banana essence, which proved popular and led to a series of other creative, colorful confections. Jules may have inherited some of his sense of color from his father, who sent him to develop and refine it at Félix Barrias’ atelier in Paris, where he studied from 1861 to 1865. In 1870–71 he fought in the Franco-Prussian War, carrying paints and brushes along with his rifle; he sold a satirical canvas of Napoleon III surrendering to the Germans at Sedan and used the
proceeds to buy food and wine for himself and his fellow soldiers.

Amid the postwar chaos he fled to England, where he got a job as an illustrator for the London Graphic. A staff engraver for the Graphic invited Tavernier to join him on a trip to America, where they would both find work as itinerant sketch artists for the newspapers and magazines. Tavernier agreed, leaving Europe behind forever. After stops in Bergen County, N.J., and New York, he embarked on a cross-country tour for Harper’s Weekly with a Franco-Hungarian artist, Paul Frenzeny, in 1873. During this trip Tavernier stayed with the Sioux chief Red Cloud on his reservation, where he witnessed a frightening, flesh-torturing Sun Dance and had an aching tooth extracted by Sitting Bull himself. In Utah he painted scenes of Mormon life, including the quarrying of marble for the Mormon Tabernacle in recently-founded Salt Lake City. The trip ended in San Francisco, where Tavernier established a home and studio that became a go-to destination for all members, bona fide or wanna-be, of the emerging Bohemian subculture. No less a countercultural figure than Oscar Wilde dropped in for a visit while on his own cross-country tour.

It was in California that Tavernier discovered his richest vein of material for landscape painting. Although he had reveled in the exotic and striking scenes of the high plains, he was opposed to the Hudson River School approach to landscape that was then popular. Somewhat paradoxically, Tavernier’s attitude to the California scene was anti-dramatic, and he preferred a Barbizon-like style that emphasized serenity and did not mind adding imagined details. His April Showers, Napa Valley, in the exhibition, is a good example of his California landscape work. In the Golden State he also painted one of his most famous canvases, A Balloon in Mid-Air, from 1875. The bulbous, soaring balloon dominates the landscape, which is seen from above in a perspective unavailable to artists at any previous time. The painting seems to encapsulate the 19th century’s twin, conflicting obsessions with new technology and pristine nature.

In 1884 Tavernier, having made San Francisco uncomfortable for himself by running up debts and insulting the wrong people, went to Honolulu in search of new subject matter and, possibly, peace of mind. He found what he called “an artist’s paradise.” He wrote a friend saying, “There is material here for a lifetime in the way of figures, landscapes, marines, mountains, volcanos, etc.” It was the volcanoes, perhaps reflective of his own fiery, explosive personality, that attracted him the most and gave him the material for his best and most distinctive work. On the big island, he went directly to the erupting Kilauea, whose lake of lava was called Halema‘uma‘u, or “home of eternal fire” by the native Hawaiians. According to Shields, Tavernier “painted till the hair was singed off his head,” producing masterpieces that combined scientific observation with high drama. In his New Lake Volcano, Kilauea, from 1887, rock dissolves into fire, and any distinction between the earth’s surface and its bowels seems to disappear amid swirling clouds of brimstone, turning the viewer into a Dante-like wanderer on the verge of a hellish abyss. A cloud-shrouded moon in a slate-colored sky testifies that there is still coolness somewhere in the world, though too far off to make any difference here.

“Material here for a lifetime,” indeed, but Tavernier had only five years in which to enjoy it. His death, likely hastened by heavy drinking and overwork, cut short a career that was still on an upward trajectory. He left a mini-school of volcano painters behind him in Honolulu, but Tavernier was basically inimitable and never wanted to preside over any circle of disciples. “When he founded the Monterey Art Colony, within a few years people started showing up, and then he got out,” says Shields. “He didn’t want to be part of the group; he wanted to be ahead of the group.”

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: January 2014

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