Jules Tavernier at the Monterey Museum of Art

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The Monterey Museum of Art presents Jules Tavernier: Artist and Adventurer running from June 6 through October 20, 2014. The exhibition examines the artist’s career with 100 works including uncharted territories and his signature paintings of erupting volcanoes in Hawaii.

As the son of an English father and French mother, the French artist, Jules Tavernier was one the American West’s pioneering talents and a great adventurer. Trained at Paris’ Ecole des Beaux Arts, the artist first served as a field artist during the Franco-Prussian War.

Tavernier enlisted in a volunteer regiment with other idealistic young men like him – more patriotic pride than combat skills. He stood shoulder to shoulder with fellow artists and musicians of the 84th Battalion of the Compagnie des Marche at the battle of Buzenval, near Paris.

When the Paris Commune uprising began to brew in 1871, Tavernier took advantage of his English citizenship before the city turned into a bloody massacre, and sailed to London for a brief time. In the city, he found work for the London Graphic.

In 1871, he set sail on the Denmark that would take him to New York. There, he worked on woodcuts and engravings for Picturesque America, a leading subscription book that highlighted outstanding artists. He also published work on the war for London Graphic and the New York based,  Harper’s Weekly that portrayed the “dawn of New York rising from the ashes of the great Chicago fire and the Franco-Prussian War.”

His war pictures produced for Harper’s Weekly garnered attention from the paper’s owners. The Harper brothers appreciated the Parisian “fresh from the Paris art world” with his Gaelic accent and a flair for the dramatic. His imaginative and boldly rendered work demonstrated that he was a talented and promising artist.

He teamed up with French artist, Paul Frenzeny to illustrate for Harper’s Weekly. Their first works included The Circus Comes to Town and Spring with buffalo and Native Americans, a foreshadowing of images of what was to come. Harper’s Weekly was so impressed with the two French artists, that they sent them on a yearlong coast-to-coast sketching assignment. The men journeyed through uncharted territory of the “newly opened West,” traversing the Great Plains to San Francisco, following wagon trains and visiting Indian encampments.

The November 1873 issue of Harper’s Weekly announced that the French artists would chronicle an excursion that would commence in New York, to include “the most interesting and picturesque regions” of the West and Southwest, not restricting themselves to the familiar travel route. Instead, the announcement stated, the artists would trek by horseback to locations that “even the hardy squatter, the pioneer of civilization, has not yet erected his rude log-cabin.”

The men did not disappoint. The range of subject matter from their travels produced expressive and richly detailed engravings such as An Immigrant’s Boarding House in New York, Indian Sun Dance, Mexican abodes in Colorado, frontiersman skinning a buffalo, Indian chief in full regalia, and tepees on the plains at sunrise.

Tavernier was multitalented and unpredictable. Not only could Tavernier create etchings, he could paint in watercolor, pastel, oils and monochrome. Fellow artists commented that his work was a “wonder of composition, draftsmanship and color.” However, the artist was also known as an irresponsible “enfant terrible” who was reckless and impulsive. The papers dubbed him the e “bohemian of bohemians,” and true to form, he was constantly in arrears.

After his Harper’s Weekly assignment, Tavernier settled in San Francisco where he became a vital member of the artist community, even joining the San Francisco Bohemian Club, and hosting elaborate parties. By the late 1870s, with his high-spiritedness, he was a favorite in both San Francisco and Monterey, and was credited as the artist who started it all.

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In the dramatic skies of his landscapes, hidden faces began materialize, giving his work a fantastical or macabre quality, almost a precursor of symbolism but unnerving to peers and viewers. Conversely, other work such as his Artist’s Reverie: Dreams at Twilight has a more serene feel as it portrays Tavernier smoking a pipe at a campfire while watching a “wraithlike muse” rise up in the smoke.

Growing weary of California and plagued with debt and drink, Tavernier set sail for Hawaii, an untouched territory at that time. He was captivated with the unusual landscape and began painting volcanoes. He became the predecessor of what would emerge as the “volcano school of painting.” He was able to keep his fascination with fire alive, creating dramatic scenes of fiery infernos and flowing lava below night skies. Tavernier also painted fisherman by torchlight, Diamond Head and Rainbow Falls.

Jules Tavernier led a brief but colorful life, dying from “excessive use of alcoholic drink” at 44 years old. His work was often considered controversial. He employed a range of techniques in his work, from building up glazes in the style of the old masters to an impressionist style with quick brushwork seen in the work of France’s Barbizon painters and strong effects of light. While no official biography was ever written on Jules Tavernier, critics through the centuries have formulated opinions on the French artist, from saying he was “merely a western painter,” to he was a “portrayer of spectacular images.” Of all the French artists in California, Jules Tavernier was a gifted yet cataclysmic artist.

By: Dawn Levesque

Sources:

Antiques and Fine Art 

Chronicling the West for Harper’s: Coast to Coast with Frenzeny & Tavernier

Genius Displayed: Jules Tavernier

Monterey Museum of Art

The Sacramento Bee

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