Artists in Santa Catalina Island Before 1945

by Jean Stern

 



 

 

Ernest Narjot (1826-1898)

Along with the tourists came artists, the most prominent of which was Frenchman Ernest Narjot. One of the most remarkable and interesting of California's early artists, Ernest Etienne Narjot was born in St. Malo, Brittany, France. He was the son of a modest clerk, although his family had once been part of the nobility, as is reflected by his birth name, Ernest Etienne Narjot de Franceville. A talented young artist, he caught gold fever in 1849, and at the age of 23 left France for California.

Although he participated in the Gold Rush and tried his hand at mining at Foster's Bar, near Downieville, Narjot barely made enough to support himself. Furthermore, he was adversely affected by the effort to limit the number of foreigners working claims in the gold fields, formalized when California passed the Foreign Miners License Law of 1850. This discriminatory law, which was actually aimed at the large number of Mexican miners who had been among the first to arrive, required a payment of $20 per month to operate a claim. Narjot joined a group of other disgruntled French miners who went to Sonora, Mexico, which at the time was ruled by the French Emperor Maximilian. There, they started a colony and seized the gold mines that were operated by the local Apache Indians. In Mexico, Narjot bought a ranch and married Santos Ortiz in 1860. He spent time painting historical scenes and desert landscapes of the border between Arizona and northern Mexico.

On May 5, 1867, the Mexican people overthrew and executed Emperor Maximilian, and the majority of French settlers in Mexico fled for their lives. Narjot and his wife returned to San Francisco, where he opened a studio at 621 Clay Street. There, he painted commissioned portraits and landscapes, as well as book and newspaper illustrations. A major achievement in his career was the commission to decorate the ceiling of Leland Stanford's tomb. While working on this project, he accidentally splashed paint in his eyes, which led to partial blindness in one of them.

Through the 1880s, Narjot established himself as one of California's great painters with a superb series of paintings showing everyday life during the Gold Rush, a subject he knew from first-hand experience. In 1885, he began teaching at the California School of Design, leading the male life study class. Narjot traveled throughout California, painting in such diverse places as Marin and Sonoma counties, New Almaden, Palo Alto, and Santa Monica. He was one of the first professional artists to visit and paint in Santa Catalina Island.

By 1894, Narjot's blindness was complete in one eye and he could barely see through the other. Unable to paint and support his family, he began to suffer from severe financial troubles. Wishing to aid Narjot, a group of 30 prominent California artists, including William Keith, Thomas Hill, and Arthur Mathews, held a benefit sale of their own work to support him and his family. Narjot died in San Francisco on August 24, 1898. Unfortunately, the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed many of his works, which had been hanging in various collections and private homes.

 

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In 1892, the Bannings purchased Santa Catalina Island. Under their ownership, the island continued to grow as an important tourist destination. The Banning family's stagecoach business was on prominent display whenever the public visited the Hotel Metropole. STAGING IN CALIFORNIA, painted in 1889 by John Gutzon Borglum and purchased by Hancock Banning, was one of the most important of the many paintings that were displayed in the Metropole.

STAGING IN CALIFORNIA was the first of Borglum's superb California stagecoach scenes, a subject with which he came to be associated. This was his debut, the masterpiece that ushered in his career as a painter. STAGING IN CALIFORNIA embodied Borglum's concept of the history of the West: a romantic saga, full of drama and heroism.

This popular painting was displayed for many years until it was destroyed in the 1915 fire, when the hotel burned to the ground. Another version of STAGING IN CALIFORNIA is now in the collection of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The stagecoach theme would be used again in RUNNIN' OUT THE STORM, another large stagecoach painting executed a few years later and now in the San Antonio Museum.

 

John Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941)

John Gutzon Borglum was born in a log cabin in Omaha, Nebraska. His father was a Danish Mormon bigamist who had married two sisters. When it came time for his father to choose only one wife, he rejected Borglum's mother and remained married to her sister.

In 1884, when Borglum was 16, the family moved to Los Angeles; not long afterward, his father became dissatisfied and returned to Nebraska. Borglum stayed behind and found work as a lithographer and fresco painter.

Sometime around 1885, Borglum met Elizabeth Jaynes Putnam, whom he called "Lisa". She had moved to Los Angeles in November 1884, and was one of the earliest professional artists in the fast-growing town. A divorcee, she painted under her married name as well as her maiden name, Elizabeth Jaynes (or Janes). Already a competent artist, Putnam had continued her art studies in San Francisco with William Keith (1838-1911) in 1883 or 1884, just before arriving in Los Angeles. Borglum took lessons under Putnam, who encouraged him to go to San Francisco for further study. This he did, from 1885 to 1886.

In San Francisco, Borglum took classes at the California School of Design. At first, he studied with Virgil Williams, who unfortunately died in December 1886. Williams was a classically trained artist who had studied in Paris and Rome. A well-loved teacher, he influenced the early careers of a number of artists, not the least of which was the redoubtable Guy Rose (1867-1925), who studied with Williams in 1885 and 1886 and may well have been Borglum's classmate. Borglum's rigorous academic art training under Williams would later show in his elegant historical paintings and more so in his later work as a sculptor.

While in San Francisco, Borglum sought out William Keith. Elizabeth Putnam had known Keith from the classes she had taken with that artist the previous year. In her role as his mentor, Putnam arranged for the young Borglum to be introduced to Keith, with the intent of advancing his artistic career.

When Borglum returned to Los Angeles, he formalized his relationship with Putnam by sharing a studio with her at 37 South Fort Street. One of Borglum's most important art commissions came to him in 1888, when Jessie Benton Frémont, wife of General John C. Frémont, asked Borglum to paint a portrait of her husband. Although advanced in age, General Frémont sat for the life-size portrait dressed in full military regalia.

The association between Borglum and Putnam grew to love, and the two were married in Los Angeles on September 10, 1889. At the time of their wedding, Borglum was 22 years old and Putnam was almost 41. Together, they became an active part of the nascent Los Angeles art community. Borglum produced a series of large canvases depicting Western historical events and is considered to be one of the earliest important professional artists in southern California.

In 1890, the couple traveled to Paris, where Borglum studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian. While in France, Borglum fell under the influence of Auguste Rodin and soon turned to sculpting. On first meeting Rodin, Borglum remarked that it was not a new experience, but "rather a feeling of coming home."

Returning to the United States in 1893, Borglum settled in Sierra Madre, a small community near Pasadena. In 1896, the couple returned to Europe, staying in London and Paris. After years of growing discord, the couple separated in 1902. He went to New York and she returned to Los Angeles.

John Gutzon Borglum would later gain fame not as a painter but as a sculptor. He consummated his career with the remarkable series of presidential portraits on Mount Rushmore, which he and assistants carved from 1927 until his death in 1941. His son Lincoln Borglum finished the monumental work.

 

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With the growth of the Los Angeles art community, Santa Catalina Island began to attract a number of prominent artists. They went there to paint the beautiful, unspoiled landscape and the charming little village of Avalon.

 

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