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Jules Tavernier & The Elem

A striking 19th century Jules Tavernier painting at first glance seems focused solely on native Pomo dancers performing before a large group of Elem Colony indigenous people gathered in an underground roundhouse on the eastern shore of Clear Lake. 

Yet the rediscovered 1878 masterwork, now the centerpiece of a special exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, tells a larger, more dramatic story of a North Coast tribal encounter with an emerging dominant white culture. The Metropolitan Museum of New York is sponsor of the West Coast presentation of a painting that was in France and out of public view for more than a century.

“It is historic because the painting is one of the earliest pieces of California art to capture North Coast native people on canvas,” said Sherrie Smith-Ferri, a Mendocino County resident and recognized national scholar on Pomo people.

Smith-Ferri said, however, as important is the powerful twist in a historical narrative that lurks in the shadows of Tavernier’s painting “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake”. 

Artist Tavernier depicted the presence of a wealthy San Francisco investor who commissioned the painting, and his noble French banking partner who was given it as a gift upon its completion. 

Curators at the Met acquired the painting at auction in 2016 and researched and documented the importance of the Tavernier painting before presenting it publicly during a retrospective of the French-born artist’s work in New York, and now San Francisco.

The painting documents an encounter in the 1870s between the Elem Indian Colony in Lake County and wealthy white investors who believed native land was theirs to own. The painting was commissioned by San Francisco’s leading banker at the time, Tiburcio Parrott, as a gift for his French business partner Baron Edmond de Rothschild. 

Met curators realized the painting “celebrates the rich vitality of Elem Pomo culture, while also exposing the threat posed by White settlers, including Parrott, who was then operating a toxic mercury mine on the community’s ancestral homelands.”

Parrott’s Sulphur Bank Mine would plunge the Elem Colony into decades of economic and social upheaval, and pollute the eastern end of Clear Lake, the state’s largest freshwater lake. In 1990 the long-closed mine was officially declared a federal “Superfund” cleanup site.

Tavernier’s work “is a beautiful but bittersweet painting,” said Smith-Ferri. It is a large oil painting, measuring 4 x 6 feet, and is a masterful display of Pomo dancers, their regalia and tribal basketry. 

Smith-Ferri, a retired director of Mendocino County’s Grace Hudson Museum, is a key collaborator in the development and presentation of the special Met sponsored exhibit of Tavernier’s work. 

The exhibit “Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo” was first staged at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last fall. The Met then assisted in bringing the exhibit to the de Young where the painting is being displayed for the first time ever in Northern California. The exhibit is now in its final weeks at the de Young Museum, with a closing scheduled April 17.

The Elem painting is the centerpiece of an exhibit that in all features a collection of 60 Tavernier paintings, prints, watercolors, and photographs, and important examples of Pomo baskets, headdresses, and other regalia. About a dozen Pomo items on display are on loan from the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah, and others are from the Mendocino County Museum in Willits. 

Tavernier was a French born artist who came to prominence in 19th century California where he had studios in San Francisco and Monterey. He later lived and worked in Hawaii, where he did a series of paintings of the Kilauea Volcano and won rave reviews. In 1889 Tavernier died of alcoholism at his studio in Honolulu.

Met curators after recognizing the painting’s historical importance asked Smith-Ferri, a recognized Pomo basketry scholar nationally, to join a special team that included Robert Joseph Geary, an Elem Colony tribal cultural leader and regalia maker, and Eastern Pomo artist and tribal curator Meyo Marrufo to bring a Pomo perspective to its planned Tavernier exhibit.

“Our goal was to show that ‘California native art’ was alive and well and thriving long before non-Native people showed up,” said Smith-Ferri.

As their culture was pushed to the margins, Smith-Ferri said many Pomo artists turned to making baskets and other artifacts for commercial sale to support themselves and their tribes. The works are beautifully done and show native skills, but they lack connection to every day tribal life.

Smith-Ferri said Pomo artists are returning to making baskets and regalia meant to stay within the native community.

“We have come full circle. We were here then, and we are here now. The art survived,” she said.

Sherrie Smith-Ferri

Smith-Ferri’s collaboration with the Met and the de Young is a highpoint in a distinguished career.

She is a member of Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Rancheria band of Pomo Indians. Her father Bill Smith was the first native studies instructor at Sonoma State and Santa Rosa Junior College. Smith-Ferri earned her doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of Washington. Besides guiding Ukiah’s Hudson Museum for two decades, Smith-Ferri has consulted on Indian basketry-related exhibitions nationally including several for Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. She is currently working with the Dry Creek tribe in Sonoma County to create a tribal museum and archives.

Smith-Ferri said the Elem painting captures in exquisite detail the regalia worn by Pomo dancers, musicians, and the Pomo basketry of tribal artists who are portrayed in the underground Clear Lake roundhouse where about 100 people gathered. 

Standing in the shadows are three white men, who are dressed in gray business suits and shown staring passively at the Pomo dancers. 

Smith-Ferri said normally outsiders would not have been permitted inside a tribal roundhouse, especially at a “people’s dance” that originated for “protection” after Pomos had already experienced enslavement, starvation, and disease.

Smith Ferri said Met research documented that the group represented in the painting included financier Tiburcio Parrott y Ochoa, the Mexican American son of American Consul John Parrott, and Baron Edmond de Rothschild of the French branch of the famed banking family, and a Rothschild aide.

Elizabeth Kornhauser, who oversees the American paintings collection at the Met, in 2016 described Tavernier’s work in detail: 

The artist spent two years creating his masterwork, developing a composition of nearly 100 figures, including the two young Pomo male dancers, who enact a coming-of-age ritual. The dancers are surrounded by the tribe and their white visitors, including Parrott and Rothschild

Thus, Tavernier captures the very moment when the white settlers laid claim to the tribal lands. 

With brilliant technical finesse, he renders the dimly lit interior using highly controlled tonal variation and flashes of color to enliven the scene.

 Upon its completion, Parrott presented the painting to Rothschild, where it remained in his family until its arrival at the Met. 

With the addition of this work, a new narrative is introduced—the ancient presence of the Native American on the land is disrupted by the settlers' belief in their right to ownership of that land.”

Smith-Ferri said for her the Tavernier exhibit underscores how California’s Pomo people and their art not only survived but are enjoying a resurgence. 

Smith-Ferri said on April 2 at the de Young she and other advisors will discuss the Pomo “cultural revitalization” during a public forum. 

“Besides our art, we are seeing significant changes in tribal sovereignty, economic opportunities, and legal frameworks that are critical to the Pomo future,” said Smith-Ferri.

Elem cultural leader Geary told a San Francisco Chronicle art reviewer he believes the current exhibit is a powerful way to underscore how Pomo culture has survived. 

“We’re still here. We’re still dancing. We’re here today. We’re not just something that’s caught in this picture,” Geary told the Chronicle.

Smith-Ferri, Geary and Pomo curator Meyo Marrufo are featured in a short film on a loop at the start of the exhibit. Museum organizers say it provides insight into the ceremony and Pomo art captured by Tavernier in the roundhouse painting: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnUJNcviI0g


"Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo”: Paintings, baskets, regalia. 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Through April 17. $15; $12 for those 65 and older; $6 for students; free children 17 and younger. Free admission for Bay Area residents on Saturdays. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F. 415-750-3600. deyoung.famsf.org 

One Comment

  1. Marshall Newman March 20, 2022

    Excellent exhibit, worth a special effort to see.

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