Running at the de Young Museum through April 17, “Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo” transports us to the U.S. West of the post-Civil War decades, when white settlers and business interests were claiming and mining Native American lands, with devastating results — disease, environmental destruction, forced relocation — for indigenous populations. The exhibit looks at encounters that transpired between 19th century, Paris-born landscape painter Tavernier (1844-1889) and Native communities across the United States, with a focus on the Elem Pomo community at Clear Lake (Lake County).
Organized by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and presented in collaboration with Elem Pomo cultural leader and regalia maker Robert Joseph Geary and Dry Creek Pomo/Bodega Miwok scholar Sherrie Smith-Ferri, the show features paintings, prints and photographs by Tavernier alongside Pomo basketry and regalia.
The centerpiece painting, “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California” (1878), depicts a notable interaction that occurred between Pomo Indians in their homeland and non-Native outsiders.
Described by Fine Arts Museums director Thomas P. Campbell as a “timely exhibition that brings alternative perspectives to narratives that have dominated the interpretation of American history and art from this period,” the exhibit considers how U.S. westward expansion affected the Elem Pomo peoples. It also shows their cultural resilience.
A product of the Barbizon school of his native France — the mid-19th century movement, mostly involving landscape painting, favoring realistic styles and loose brushwork — Tavernier moved to the United States in the 1870s and, commissioned by Harper’s Weekly, traveled westward and created paintings and illustrations of Nebraska, Wyoming and California landscapes.
He also painted the cultural life of Native American communities he encountered. During these interactions, he witnessed struggles relating to the rapid increases in white settlement, and the forced relocations of Native communities from ancestral lands onto reservations.
He eventually landed in San Francisco where he became an active Bohemian Club member and enjoyed acclaim as a painter, and then relocated to the Monterey Peninsula and, later, to the Hawaiian Islands. In Hawaii, another place where white settlers were threatening Native ways of life, he founded the Volcano School. His Hawaii canvases in the exhibit include the exquisitely volcanic “Sunrise Over Diamond Head” (1888).
Tavernier wasn’t the first artist to paint Native American traditions, but “he did capture some unique moments,” says curator Christina Hellmich, of the Fine Arts Museums.
The Native figures in his works come across as legitimate cultural presences whose survival is under threat, not merely figures in spaces slated for white settlement.
Additionally, Hellmich says, Tavernier was an excellent painter whose work both satisfied Barbizon adherents and reflected personal artistic approaches. These included vertical canvases (on which he painted California’s ultra-tall redwood trees), and the use of the pastel medium.
In “Artist’s Reverie, Dreams at Twilight” (1876), a Monterey landscape, he includes fantastical elements: apparitional imagery, bright orange streaks in the sky. Barbizon realism appears tinged with 20th century surrealism, or even 1960s psychedelia.
His portrayals of Native American culture include “Gathering of the Clans” (1876) and the show’s centerpiece, “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California.”
Praised by a local newspaper as the “most remarkable picture ever painted on the Pacific Coast,” the latter work, a six-foot-wide oil painting, features a ceremonial dance called Mfom Xe, or “people dance,” performed in an underground roundhouse to protect Pomo peoples and land from ills brought by white settlers. In addition to the 100-plus Indians who are dancing, standing or sitting, we see three outsiders, who stand out in their non-Native garb: Mexico-born San Francisco banker Tiburcio Parrott y Ochoa, who commissioned the painting from Tavernier; Parrott’s Parisian business partner, Baron Edmond de Rothschild; and French military officer Comte Gabriel Louis de Turenne d’Aynac. In a dark twist that connects past with present, Parrott also was the owner of the Sulphur Bank Quicksilver Mining Company, which would, over decades, severely harm Pomo life by poisoning the lake with mercury. The location was eventually designated a Superfund site.
“Through this exhibition, I hope to educate the world about the beauty of my people and my village,” says Geary, who at the exhibit’s press preview talked about the meaningfulness of the cultural ceremony and the sacred space that Tavernier depicts. The roadhouse painted by Tavernier still exists today, Geary adds.
At the same time, the exhibit makes clear that complete accuracy wasn’t always part of Tavernier’s operating method.
Aspects of his work were “problematic,” Hellmich says, explaining that not all of the items Tavernier included on his detailed canvases were actually present at the events at which he was placing them. The baskets featured in the “Dance” painting were his own additions to the scene, for example.
“He knew who his patrons were,” Hellmich says, adding that Tavernier’s buyers often favored pictures that were more sensational or dramatic than reality.
Also on view are more than 40 pieces of ceremonial regalia, including headpieces and necklaces and Pomo-crafted baskets made from local plants — items crafted by artists from several generations. Pomo culture is enduring.
Exhibit organizers present the baskets as an immensely significant component of Pomo culture, and they emphasize the skill and artistry for which Pomo basket makers are known worldwide. The featured baskets serve many functions: carrying, storing, cooking, gift-bearing. Decorative selections include cute tiny baskets popular with non-Native buyers.
Traditional basketmaking is thriving in the Pomo community, says Smith-Ferri, an authority on the art form. It is helping Pomo women make ends meet and enhancing feelings of community, she adds.
“People are doing it for love and to stay connected,” she says. “You need to cultivate this relationship with the world around you.”