From the son of a Parisian candymaker to a painter of fiery volcanoes in Hawaii, Jules Tavernier (1844-89) led a short but colorful life.
Trained in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, he was an artist and adventurer who traveled, after fighting in the Franco-Prussian War, from France to England to New York, where he found work as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly.
For that magazine, he undertook (with collaborator Paul Frenzeny) a cross-country trip sketching the newly opened West over the Great Plains to San Francisco.
A show of nearly 100 works by Tavernier at the Crocker Art Museum begins with wood engravings that Tavernier and Frenzeny created as they traveled through uncharted territory following wagon trains and visiting Indian encampments.
From a scene of ice skaters in Central Park to an ironic scene of Indians contemplating a cigar store Indian, they chronicled life in the new territories for Easterners eager to see new scenes.
The richly detailed engravings include scenes of polygamous Mormons, Mexican houses in Colorado, the interior of a Chinese laundry, stops on the transcontinental railroad, workers smelting ore and a frontiersman skinning a buffalo.
One of the most dramatic depicts an Indian sun dance at Red Cloud’s camp in Nebraska, where Tavernier spent a good deal of time on his own.
The show continues in a second gallery with an anomalous painting of Tavernier and Frenzeny in a hot air balloon that seems more illustration than painting.
But a series of colorful and evocative oil paintings of teepees on the plains at sunrise, an Indian chief in full regalia and an Indian village at dawn follow, as do remarkable scenes of California.
Painted in a style reminiscent of 19th century French Barbizon paintings, which take a quieter approach to nature than the grand mountainous sublimities of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill, they bring a new spirit to early California painting.
Often using a narrow vertical format, Tavernier captured romantic scenes of towering redwoods, hunters in the woods and an informal self-portrait in buckskins with his hunting dogs. These paintings are remarkable for their dark tonalities broken by flares of campfires, glowing pipes and florid sunsets breaking through dark clouds.
By the time these were painted, Tavernier had settled in San Francisco and become an important member of the art community. One image shows Tavernier and Frenzeny around a campfire at Bohemian Grove, the site of revels by the Bay Area’s bonhomous artists.
At the height of his career in the late 1870s and early 1880s, Tavernier was the toast of San Francisco and Monterey, where he had started an art colony. He received the patronage of San Francisco’s wealthiest businessmen and was highly regarded by his peers.
At the center of the show, one of Taverneir’s most famous (or some would say infamous) paintings, “Artist’s Reverie: Dreams at Twilight,” depicts the artist sitting at a campfire, smoking a pipe while watching a wraithlike muse rise up in the smoke from the fire.
In the dark passages of the landscape and in the fiery dramatic sky, hidden faces emerge, giving the painting a fantastical and macabre quality that shocked some of his followers. Reminiscent of works by Gustave Dore, it seems a precursor of symbolism.
Yet Tavernier was capable of painting fresh, delicate landscapes like “Road to Donner Lake” and a scene of April showers in Napa Valley.
He also turned to foreign subjects with a Parisian street scene and a gorgeous painting of sailboats in the Nile. Returning to a darker palette, he created a powerful scene of Point Lobos with stones and detritus from the ocean in the foreground.
Having grown tired of Monterey, he returned for a while to San Francisco, but plagued with debt and drink, he sought new adventures in Hawaii, an untouched territory.
Entranced by the promise of an unfamiliar landscape, he began painting volcanoes even before he left for Hawaii. Once there, he became the progenitor of what was to become known as the “volcano school of painting.”
In these works, he was able to give full range to his fascination with fire, producing dramatic scenes of fiery infernos spewing lava under dark skies with ghostly moons.
Some of these are so over the top as to be called potboilers, but other Hawaiian scenes, among them “Sunrise Over Diamond Head,” have a moody beauty that transcends that appellation.
Broke and descended into alcoholism, Tavernier died in Hawaii at the age of 45. Remarkably, the Crocker exhibition is the first solo show of his work in 140 years, surely a gross oversight given the range of his work and the colorfulness of his life.
On a walk-through of the show, chief curator Scott Shields said: “Of all the artists of that period, I would most like to have known him.”