Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Artist: Henri Penelon

Certain modern-day Angelenos say they're into their art (usually meaning they're auditioning for an art film so weird even I won't watch it) and grumble that no one appreciates them. They have nothing on Henri Penelon, the city's first artist.

Henri Joseph Penelon* was born in Lyon, France, around 1827. The exact date of his arrival in Los Angeles is unclear - he was not listed in the 1850 census, but Harris Newmark claimed Penelon was in the Pueblo by 1853, and tax records indicate he owned a property on Calle Principal (now Main Street) by 1856. (Surviving photographs indicate his studio was on the second floor of the Downey Block, also home to the Lafayette Hotel, on Main between First and Second.) Penelon had a business partner by the name of Adrien Davoust, who co-owned the Main Street property.

Penelon was one of the founding members of the French Benevolent Society, founded in 1860. Before the French Hospital was built in 1869, Society members helped care for the French community's ill and injured. Nowadays we'd say he did volunteer work in the community.

In 1861, heavy rains and flooding spelled disaster for the pueblo of Los Angeles. La Placita, the Plaza Church, was pretty much destroyed. Penelon was contracted to paint the rebuilt church inside and out. And paint he did.

Henri Penelon most famously painted a mural of the Madonna and Child over the church's door, flanked by angels (probably the city's first public work of art). He lettered the church's marble tablets. He may have painted the church's ornately framed Stations of the Cross (which are consistent with his other work).

In Harris Newmark's words, "he added some ornamental touches."(Ouch.) Supposedly, some of the Pueblo's more artistically inclined residents hated the mural and found the new church distasteful. (Ouch, again.)

To make matters worse, there was a persistent suggestion that Penelon, who made most of his living from photography, painted over photographs instead of starting with a blank canvas. While Penelon had little (if any) formal training, no one has ever produced any evidence of this ridiculous rumor being true. (And we think today's Twitter-feuding celebrities are childish jackasses...)

Surviving photographs indicate that the mural was painted over sometime between 1932 and 1937, and plastered over in 1950. A tile mosaic was installed in the same spot in 1981. The lettering on the marble tablets was visible at least as late as 1932; it isn't clear if it still dates to 1861 (the lettering would now be 155 years old; your guess is as good as mine). The Stations of the Cross are, to my knowledge, still on long-term loan to a church in Mexico. (Ouch...again and again.)

Painting murals is hard work, and Penelon was assisted at La Placita by a new arrival from France - Bernard Etcheverry, then 21 years old. We'll meet him again in a future entry.

Penelon was married to Emilia Herriot, twenty-five years younger than he was (sources disagree on whether Emilia was born in France or San Francisco, but she was certainly of French parentage). Their daughter Hortense was born in 1871, with son Honore following around 1874. 

It has been said that Penelon hand-tinted photographs (a common practice until color film made tinting obsolete). Supposedly, at least one other photographer contracted with Penelon to tint his pictures. The Museum of Natural History's archive of Penelon's known photographs shows no evidence of tinting. It is certainly possible, however, that he did tinting for other photographers without necessarily tinting his own pictures (or, alternately, that his surviving pictures just didn't happen to have been tinted). Without physical evidence, we may never be completely sure.

Still, Penelon was a working artist with a family to support. It is hard to imagine that he would turn down paying work, especially if it meant not having to take so many out-of-town photography jobs. (In a situation all too familiar to today's aspiring stars, Henri Penelon took pictures to pay the bills, but his true love was painting, and as photography replaced traditional portraiture, he worked as a photographer so he could also afford to keep working as a painter. The backs of his photographs bore the stamp "H. Penelon, Artistic Gallery, Los Angeles" - which could reference either trade - along with an artist's palette.)

In an interesting twist of fate, Penelon once turned down a young Swedish photographer who applied for a job, deeming him too young and inexperienced. The photographer, Valentin Wolfenstein, set out to prove Penelon wrong - and the two later took turns working for each other.

Henri Penelon was a portrait painter. In fact, the only known painting of his that is not a portrait is an idyllic scene called The Swan and the Rabbit (interestingly, it is signed "H. Penelon 1871"; his portraits weren't signed). His other subjects were all people - nearly all from well-to-do Californio families (Penelon was fluent in Spanish and friendly with Californios, which probably helped him secure patrons).

One portrait in particular may very well be suffering from a case of mistaken identity. Long assumed to be Concepcion Arguello of Monterey, it was later assumed that she must be Concepcion Arguello of San Diego, a relative of Pio Pico. To make things even more confusing, the portrait was later identified as Feliciana Yndart by an acquaintance. A picture of Sra. Yndart in the Natural History Museum's collection is said to strongly resemble the painting, and another surviving Penelon portrait is of Jose Miguel Yndart, Feliciana's husband.

Penelon's best-known portrait, however, is likely the equestrian portrait of José Andres Sepulveda (who owned most of modern-day Orange County), astride his winning racehorse Black Swan. That portrait now belongs to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana (if making a trip, call ahead to confirm that it is on display). As of this writing, it is the only one of Penelon's surviving works that I have seen in person.

Penelon is also credited with introducing the carte de visite to Los Angeles. Cartes de visite were tiny prints or photographs used as calling cards. In Penelon's case, at least two surviving examples were hand-painted.

Henri Penelon traveled to Prescott, Arizona on a photography assignment in 1874. He died suddenly during the trip (none of my references list a cause of death) and is buried in Prescott.

The 1880 census lists Emilia and Hortense living with relatives, with Emilia keeping their house. Curiously, I could find no reference to Honore. The 1888 city directory lists Honore as a student living in Boyle Heights (which was, at the time, LA's first suburb).

In the 1950s, Penelon's granddaughter walked into the Museum of Natural History (which was also the county Museum of Art; LACMA wasn't a separate entity yet) looking to donate two of his paintings. Less than a century after his death, none of the Museum staff knew who Henri Penelon was (OUCH!). Today, thirteen of Penelon's surviving paintings belong to the appointment-only Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. I sincerely hope I will be able to see them myself one day.

If you have deep pockets (or at least deeper pockets than I do), please consider sponsoring Penelon's equestrian portrait of Don Vicente Lugo. I, unfortunately, don't have that kind of money.

Want to see one of Penelon's earliest photographs? Just look at the background image for this blog. Not only is it the earliest known photograph of Los Angeles, it is credited to Penelon.

Even though his surviving works are now prized by those in the know, LA's first artist remains forgotten.

*Penelon's first name is often incorrectly written as "Honore", "Horacio", and/or "Henry"; historians searching old records for the man should make a note of this. (As someone whose first AND last names have been brutally butchered too many times to count, I am acutely aware of spelling errors when researching my own people.)

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