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 so badly damaged by a leaky roof that its front wall collapsed into the street. 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). He added an inscription to one of the walls: Los Fieles de Esta Parroquia á la Reina de los Angeles, 1861. (I have no idea what that means. Penelon could speak Spanish quite well, but I'm another story.)

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.)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

One Clever Bastard: John C. Frémont in Early L.A.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century in Virginia, seventeen-year-old Anne Beverley Whiting, whose stepfather had squandered her family's fortune, was married off to Major John Pryor, a wealthy man in his early sixties.

In 1810, the Major hired a French Canadian immigrant, Charles Fremon, to tutor his young wife. By July of 1811, he discovered they were having an affair, confronted the couple, and filed for divorce.

In 2016, this isn't too surprising (for jaded Angelenos, anyway). But in 1811, it was extremely shameful. In spite of the scandal, the Virginia House of Delegates refused to grant the Major's divorce petition, meaning that Anne and Charles could not marry. Undaunted, they moved to Savannah, Georgia and lived together as a married couple. Their first child, John Charles Fremon, was born January 21, 1813.

Charles Fremon's real name was, in fact, Louis-René Frémont. He had escaped from a British prison and changed his name to evade British naval agents. John began using his father's true surname in 1838 at the age of 25.

Much has been written about Frémont's career as a military officer; for brevity's sake, this entry will only concern his actions in Southern California. I will, therefore, skip to the Mexican-American War, a few weeks after the famous Battle of San Pasqual. (Contrary to misconception, Frémont was not in that particular battle.)

Late in 1846, Frémont was ordered to lead 300 men from the California Battalion to capture Santa Barbara. Frémont's unit crossed the Santa Ynez mountains at San Marcos Pass on the night of December 24, 1846 - with great difficulty. It was raining heavily, and the mountains became so muddy and slippery that many horses, mules, and cannon were lost. Still, the men regrouped in the morning, bloodlessly taking the Presidio and the rest of the city.

In January 1847, Frémont and his men were entering the northern San Fernando Valley when an (unknown) Frenchman from Los Angeles rode up, carrying a message ordering Frémont to bring in his men as reinforcements for General Kearny, who had taken Los Angeles. Frémont ignored the message, electing to negotiate with the Californios himself.

A few months previously, Frémont had saved insurgent José de Jesús Pico, cousin of Pio Pico, from execution with the caveat that he accompany Frémont to Los Angeles. Once the troops had set up camp on Mission San Fernando's grounds, Frémont dispatched Pico to the defeated Californios' camp in the Verdugo Hills. (I told you he was clever!)

By this point in the war, just 120 Californio rebels remained, and they were running out of weapons and ammunition. The U.S. forces numbered 1,000, and were quite well-armed. The writing was on the wall. Commandante Flores (who was also a cousin of José de Jesús Pico) was none too happy with Pico for fighting alongside Americans, but agreed that the Californios could negotiate with Frémont as long as he treated them with honor (something Frémont's superior, Commodore Stockton, had refused to do).

A delegation of the remaining Californios met Frémont the following morning. They were prepared to end the war, provided they were treated respectfully and their leaders were included. If that did not happen, they were prepared to adopt guerrilla tactics and even destroy their own properties.

Having been privately promised the future governorship of California by Stockton, Frémont knew making friends with the Californios he would eventually govern would make his job much easier. He declared a détente and invited the Californios to bring their wounded to Mission San Fernando, where they could be attended to by his own surgeon. Negotiations commenced that afternoon, with three Battalion officers, prominent Californio José Antonio Carrillo, and former California Assembly secretary Agustín Olvera hammering out the terms of the agreement.

Andres Pico, brother of exiled Mexican governor Pio Pico, was the leader of the California Lancers and acting governor of Alta California. On January 13, he and Frémont sat down at the kitchen table in an aging adobe house in Campo de Cahuenga and signed the Treaty of Cahuenga. (That kitchen table can now be seen at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.)

The treaty, written in both English and Spanish, called for Californios to give up their weapons, refrain from taking up arms for the duration of the war, and obey the laws of the United States. The trade-off was that Californios were to be allowed the same rights and privileges as U.S. citizens, were to be allowed to return to their homes and ranchos, were not required to swear allegiance to the United States until a formal peace treaty was signed, and were permitted to leave the country if they so desired. (Remember, this was a time when people of color were not considered people in the eyes of U.S. law, and Catholics were eyed with great suspicion by the WASPy majority. Giving equal rights to Californios, some of whom were mixed race, was a major compromise for the time.)

In spite of his intelligence and remarkable abilities, Frémont had poor impulse control and a problem with authority. He finally contacted his superiors after the treaty was signed - his first contact with them since arriving in Southern California. Not only had this smart-assed upstart ignored instructions, he'd signed what they considered an extremely liberal treaty with the Californios - and all without consulting them!

They decided it was best to endorse it anyway.

Other Americans believed the Californios would take up arms against them again. But they didn't. Andres Pico, writing to his brother Pio, deemed the struggle over.

Stockton quickly named Frémont governor of occupied California. Frémont established a headquarters in the old Bell adobe mansion (formerly at the southwest corner of Aliso and Los Angeles Streets) and quickly set about winning the respect of the Californios, going so far as to adopt ranchero-style dress and invite local leaders to meet him at his quarters. This tactic didn't always work (some, like Jose Antonio Carrillo, refused to meet with him), but Frémont understood that when in Los Angeles, one does as Angelenos do. Americans strongly disapproved of Frémont's fraternizing with Californios, but in the end, locals often credited Frémont with saving their lives by peacefully ending the war. Many liked him, or at least respected him. If nothing else, at least he wasn't Commodore Stockton.

The American rumor mill was not kind to Frémont, and perhaps the nastiest rumors concern his (unproven) philandering in Los Angeles. Henry Hamilton, editor of the Los Angeles Star, even claimed to have proof of Frémont's alleged "harem", but never produced any of it. Those vicious allegations would resurface in 1856, when Frémont was nominated for the Presidency by the Republican Party. (Since Frémont respected women enough to demand that the members of the California Battalion swear not to violate their chastity, it seems unlikely that he would have had, as Hamilton put it, a "harem". Hamilton, by the way, was a Democrat and is known to have disliked Frémont's politics.)

Kearny had orders from President Polk and secretary of war William Marcy to serve as military governor. Frémont refused to give up the governorship, and Kearny had him court-martialed. His dishonorable discharge was commuted by President Polk owing to the extent of his services (having a prominent senator for a father-in-law probably helped).

Frémont resigned his commission, purchasing Rancho Las Mariposas in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1847. When gold was discovered in the area, he hired Mexican laborers to mine for gold on his land for a percentage of the findings. This made him quite wealthy and allowed him to purchase properties in San Francisco.

When California became a state in 1850, Frémont was elected to the United States Senate. His re-election bid was defeated largely because he was opposed to slavery and did not want it to spread to the free Western states. (Frémont's opposition to slavery is especially notable since he and his siblings were raised with the assistance of a household slave known only as Black Hannah. In fact, Frémont's mother financed leaving her husband by selling some slaves she owned.)

Frémont went on to continue his military and political career in other parts of the United States...but that's a bit beyond the scope of this entry. There are several books on John Frémont and his wife Jessie. For those interested in the history of conflict and violence in early Los Angeles, I highly recommend John Mack Faragher's recent book Eternity Street.

Campo de Cahuenga, where the Treaty of Caheunga was signed, is in modern-day Studio City. The original adobe was demolished in 1900; the current building is a replica opened in 1950.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Murders Most Foul: Michel Lachenais

While Frenchtown's residents were mostly decent people, a few bad grapes did get into the wine vat. Michel Lachenais was one of them.

Armand Michel Josef Lachenais, by all accounts a large and intimidating man, was born circa 1827 in France's Basque region, and most likely arrived in Los Angeles in the 1850s. He received a town lot in 1857 and was married to Maria de la Encarnacion Reyes, daughter of a respected Californio family. The couple adopted a daughter, Serafina.

In the fall of 1861, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles died (I can find no reference to the deceased's name anywhere). Other French-born residents organized a wake in a private home (Harris Newmark gives September 30 as the date; a newspaper account says it was October 3...your guess is as good as mine).

The non-sectarian French Benevolent Society had been established in 1860 to see to the medical needs of the French community (construction on the French Hospital would begin in 1869). During the wake, after the mourners had been drinking for several hours, Lachenais accused the Society of neglecting the deceased.

Henri Deleval, a normally peaceful man who worked at the Aliso flour mill, defended the Society. Lachenais cursed out Deleval, prompting Deleval to punch him in the face. This angered Lachenais, who drew his pistol and tried to shoot the unarmed Deleval. The gun misfired. Lachenais pulled the trigger again, causing another misfire. Lachenais stepped into the light, reloaded his gun, and deliberately shot Deleval twice in the stomach.

Henri Deleval died later that night. An angry mob of Frenchmen went to Lachenais' ranch, but he had already fled Los Angeles, leaving his wife and daughter behind.

This incident was extremely embarrassing to the city's French community, who prided themselves on being law-abiding at a time when Los Angeles, with a population around 7000, averaged about twenty homicides per year. One French citizen offered a $100 reward (about $2,900 today) "for the apprehension, and delivery in the County Jail" of Lachenais.

After five years of hiding in Mexico, Lachenais surrendered to the Deputy Sheriff. He pleaded self-defense at the trial, and was acquitted. This was likely due in part to his claiming to be afraid of vigilante justice.

The community was furious. The very next day, barber and former councilman Felix Signoret (don't let the job titles fool you; Signoret was a massive man with hands the size of hams) led a vigilante group that overpowered the sheriff and hanged four other murderers who were slated to be defended by the same lawyers who had secured Lachenais' acquittal. Signoret, who had participated in lynchings before, let it be known that the vigilantes would consider hanging lawyers who secured acquittals for murderers.*

Meanwhile, Lachenais just couldn't seem to keep his nose clean. By the fall of 1866, he faced another murder trial. One of his vineyard workers, a Native American man named Pablo Moreno, was bludgeoned to death with the butt of Lachenais' revolver. When the body was exhumed, it did indeed have a badly fractured skull.

There had been no actual witnesses to the assault; Moreno gave a deathbed statement to another Native American before Lachenais could bury him in secret. Lachenais' other employees all stated that he was guilty. However, they could not testify against him in court; at the time, the law prohibited Native Americans from testifying against white men. Maria Reyes de Lachenais testified that Moreno had gotten drunk, fallen, and hit his head on a rock. (Which doesn't explain why Moreno, a former Mission Indian and therefore a Catholic in the eyes of the Church, was secretly buried without last rites in an unmarked, unconsecrated grave.)

The jury didn't buy it. This time, Lachenais was convicted, albeit on the reduced charge of manslaughter (sadly, Native American laborers were of little or no concern to the authorities at the time). He was sentenced to three years at San Quentin.

Lachenais appealed his conviction, and his case was heard by the California Supreme Court (remember, this was the 1860s - less than 400,000 people lived in California at the time). Justice C.J. Sanderson ruled that, since the case was largely circumstantial and since the indictment had been based on testimony from Native Americans (which was inadmissible in court), a new trial was necessary. However, the new trial never took place, and Lachenais was free.

Lachenais went back to farming (near what is now Exposition Park), but kept getting himself into trouble. In July 1870, he was back in court, charged with malicious mischief for illegally diverting water from a zanja. This time, he was found guilty and ordered to either pay a $43 fine or spend 21.5 days in jail. His appeal was denied (it isn't clear whether he paid the fine or went to jail).

A newspaper account states that, just a few months later, Lachenais argued with a man known only as D'Arque and shot him in the face, blinding him. Lachenais was arrested, but there is no evidence he was ever tried for the shooting.

In October of 1869 or 1870 (sources disagree on the year), Maria Reyes de Lachenais died suddenly at the age of 48. It was widely rumored that Michel killed her, although he was never arrested or charged in her death. (Sadly, it's not unusual for abuse victims to cover for their abusers out of fear. I suspect Maria's testimony in the Moreno murder case was concocted to avoid her husband's notorious wrath.)

Finally, Lachenais shot and killed his next-door neighbor, Jacob Bell. It was no secret that he had threatened Bell over water taken from the zanja running between their farms and that the men had disputed the ownership of a piece of land. Lachenais could not resist going to the saloon, drunkenly boasting about murdering Bell, and stating where he had left Bell's body (history does not record whether he was criminally insane, incredibly stupid, or both). This time, he was swiftly arrested for murder.

The people of Los Angeles were fed up with Lachenais' violent behavior. He was due to be arraigned on December 17, 1870. The jailers summoned a priest from La Placita and allowed seventeen-year-old Serafina to say goodbye to her father. But the vigilante committee was determined to act. After a meeting which calmly reviewed Lachenais' life, Felix Signoret once again led the vigilantes, this time numbering about 50, to the jail and broke down the doors.

Lachenais was dragged to the city's hanging grounds - a corral gate at the corner of Temple and New High Streets (which no longer exists). He was made to stand on a large wooden box, with the rope around his neck. Incredibly, this time he did not resist. He did, however, ask to make provisions for Serafina's education** and shouted "I am hung by a set of Germans and Jews because I am a Frenchman!" (I have yet to find any proof of German or Jewish people in the mob - which was mostly Frenchmen.) History records La Placita's priest praying at the site. (Father Lestrade had retired by this point, so the priest was most likely Lestrade's Italian-born successor, Blas Raho.)

One of the youngest members of the lynch mob, incidentally, was 15-year-old Joseph Mesmer, son of French entrepreneur Louis Mesmer. Before he turned 30, Joseph would open one of LA's first bookstores.

Lachenais stated "Well, it's all through, and I'm going into the spirit land to fight the Germans." (The Franco-Prussian war was raging at the time.) He turned to the priest and said "Goodbye, Padre" before proclaiming self-defense in the murder of Jacob Bell. But the mob was having none of it; the hanging took place quickly. Lachenais was allegedly still talking when someone kicked the box out from underneath him.

There is a surviving photograph of the lynching (don't say I didn't warn you). William Godfrey, a photographer with a studio on Main Street, took the picture (and made extra money selling prints of it).

County Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda, wanting to rid Los Angeles County of lynching once and for all, asked the Grand Jury to seek out and charge the mob's leaders. The Grand Jury replied that if the court system had not previously failed to convict Lachenais, the lynching would not have happened.

New High Street no longer exists; per an old map in CSULB's collection, it disappeared underneath Little Tokyo sometime in the past 90 years. However, the former corral site is known to be the current home of the U.S. District Courthouse.

The Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum will be giving a talk on the lynching in October. I hope I will be able to attend.

*Friendly warning: do not mess with French people. I mean it. We have done battle with ravenous wolves (I'm not kidding), we helped the Colonies defeat the British in the Revolutionary War (you're welcome), we overthrew and executed our own ruling class (which includes very distant cousins of mine), we overthrew and executed some of the leaders of the Revolution, we successfully took over much of Europe before (eventually) getting rid of that Italian upstart Napoleon, we make awesome spies/saboteurs, and we fight like hell every time we go to war (barring extenuating circumstances like a severe shortage of soldiers - and we usually win). France's last execution via guillotine took place in 1977 - the year of Star Wars' theatrical release. It's true that we speak a fancy-sounding language, know how to make anything prettier, and are probably shorter than you, but we can still kick your dérriere. So please don't give us a reason to do it.

**Sources disagree as to the exact nature and order of Lachenais' last words. In compiling this account, I relied on recurrence of words, the age of the account given (accounts written soon after an incident are the most accurate), and logic.