Jules Tavernier Masterwork at De Young Museum Shines Light on Elem Pomo


“Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo,” a new exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, explores the remarkable journey of French landscape painter Jules Tavernier through the American West and Hawaii. The centerpiece of the Young Museum presentation is Tavernier’s rediscovered masterwork, “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California (1878),” along with other pieces by the artist and more than 40 pieces of ElemPomo basketry and ceremonial attire.

The images in “Tavernier and the Elem Pomo” show different perspectives of Native American life, the Yosemite area and the vibrant volcanoes on what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii. The primary focus is on the exclusive West Coast presentation of Tavernier’s “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California,” and the Elem Pomo in the1870–1880s, a time when white settlers claimed their land and harmed the local environment with mining. It illustrates how the Pomo people have shown great resilience in spite of struggles to maintain their land and culture.

French Paintings of Western Culture and Beauty

Mention French oil paintings from the last half of the 19th Century and people think of images of the French countryside by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, the urban subjects of Edouard Manet, fleeting illusions of light by early impressionists like Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet. However, French artist Jules Tavernier (1844-1889) was sought a different environment for his canvases.

TavernierFrench raised and trained, Tavernier came to New York in 1871. He was then commissioned by Harper’s to travel and depict the American West. The artist captured scenes on Native American across the Midwest. During the trip, he visited indigenous ceremonies and crafted compositions that showed largely unseen Native culture.

Tavernier eventually resided in San Francisco, where he became a leading painter in the area. San Francisco banker Tiburcio Parrott y Ochoa commissioned the artist to travel with him and his business partner from Paris, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, to visit the Elem Pomo approximately 100 miles away.

The artist traveled to the Elem Pomo village several times to study the culture and eventually create his masterpiece “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California.” Tavernier’s painting depicts the Elem Pomo ceremonial mfom Xe, or “people dance” taking place in their underground roundhouse. The artist particularly chronicles the interaction on November 22, 1875, between the natives; Tavernier; Parrott, who owned the mining company of the Pomo ancestral lands; Rothschild, and other non-Native onlookers. The painting took Tavernier two years to complete. It captures the Pomo dancers and musicians, along with about 100 figures of various ages. The work shows the roundhouse’s dimly lit interior with light shining down to show the rich colors in the scene.

With Tavernier’s local renown, and considerable publicity in area papers, there was much public anticipation to see the work. However, the painting was never shown in San Francisco until last weekend.

Once completed, Parrott gifted it to Rothschild, who had it shipped immediately to Europe. It remained in the Rothschild family until 2013. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased the piece and returned it to the U.S. in 2016. The de Young Museum showcase is the first time the Jules Tavernier masterwork shining a light on the Elem Pomo has been in California, and available for local viewing for more than 140 years.

Pomo People and Culture

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, of which the de Young is part, is also using the Tavernier exhibit to highlight the Pomo people. The roundhouse depicted by Tavernier resembles a basket and the ones still used today. Accordingly, the exhibition also features Pomo basketry. Pomo weavers are masters of myriad techniques and styles of baskets for both practical and decorative use. The exhibit includes historic baskets along with contemporary pieces. The baskets show the evolution of the traditional skills now passed to a new generation of Pomo artists. Some of basket weavers attended the exhibit opening along with Elem Pomo dancers.

“Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo” and the artist’s masterwork “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California” will be on exhibit at the de Young Museum,  shining a light on the artist and the Indian culture until April 17, 2022.

Written by Dyanne Weiss


Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo Exhibition visit December 18, 2021

De Young Museum: Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo reveals a remarkable story about California history and Indigenous communities

The Met: Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California,1878, Jules Tavernier


Photos of Tavernier’s “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, CA (top)” and “Yosemite (Forest Fire in Moonlit Landscape)” by Dyanne Weiss

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