Splendide Californie!: Selections by French Artists in California History, 1786-1900

Article excerpt

Nineteenth-century California was not a destination for the faint of heart, given the uncertainties of sea travel and the difficulties of a land crossing through the enormous American wilderness. Yet many visitors from France made their way to the remote territory, starting in 1786, and left enduring accounts of its beauty and growth. Although many of these French documents still await translation, they form a vital part of California's early literary history, enriching our knowledge and understanding of that distant time.

Many of these French visitors wielded the brush as well as, or better than, the quill, yet their pictorial representations of the Golden State are less familiar. This visual collection, however, is as substantial and significant as the body of French travel literature. French images of California date to 1786, with the first sketch of California by the artist Duche de Vancy, who sailed from France with Captain Theoura Laperouse. They include such treasures as DuhautCilly's views of California settlements outside Monterey, and the first view of Yerba Buena, renamed San Francisco, owed to the brush of French Swiss sea-captain and watercolorist Jean-Jacques Vioget. In many cases, however, accounts of the artists' lives remain largely obscure or have been perpetuated with factual errors. Others have fallen into oblivion.

Bringing these pictures and biographical sketches together gives a better idea of how Californian and French cultures met, and how they defined each other. The longer a man is out of his own country, the stronger his ties to it, said Captain Duhaut-Cilly. French travelers-writers and artists alike-- described California in terms of what was familiar to them, be it the abundance of mistletoe in its oak trees, the fantastic vision of Santa Barbara mission as a gothic castle, or the soft, glittering colors of the California quail.

Many French travelers and immigrants experienced a special rapport with California, sometimes with Indians; always, it seems, with the Californios. At mid-nineteenth century, they flocked to California's gold mines earlier and in greater numbers than did most other Europeans. The French largely outnumbered the Chinese in the early days of the Gold Rush. Later still, they brought with them an artistic legacy and habitual bohemian lifestyle that helped shape the Golden State's budding art community. Toward the end of the century, the sons of early pioneers to California revisited their dual cultural roots by studying in Paris and painting in California. Young Ernest de Saisset, for example, torn between his two countries, wrote to his father from Paris in 1890, "I wish, my dear Father, that my country might not be further away than London, or even than New York."

This article is adapted from Splendide Californie! Impressions of the Golden State by French Artists, 1786-1900 (Book Club of California, 2001). The selections presented here, among the most memorable and significant images of California, begin with the observations of daring French sea captains who risked their own and their crews' lives to explore the little-known waters of the Pacific. They sought new outlets for trade, conducted scientific investigations, and challenged the weakening Spanish presence in the West. The educated French public of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries hungered for tales of exploration to uncharted parts of the world. Reports of these scientific voyages were popular and were a source of prestige for the explorers. The professional draftsmen and illustrators who accompanied French-sponsored expeditions around the world were instructed, according to one account, to execute "portraits of the natives of the different countries, their dresses, ceremonies, games, buildi ngs, boats and vessels, and all the productions of the sea and land," to enhance written descriptions of the places visited. [1]

This is how some of the earliest views of California happened to be drawn by French artists. …