I often come into contact with American tourists who stay at my Bed & Breakfast and I always ask them where is the best place in America as far as climate is concerned and I nearly always get the same answer – the area around the coastal town of San Diego. In my blog today I am looking at two landscape artists, husband and wife, who concentrated their work around the beautiful areas of Southern California. Let me introduce you to Mr and Mrs Wachtel.
Elmer Wachtel was the older of this married couple, born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 21st 1864 but it was not until 1882, when he was eighteen years of age and had completed schooling, that he crossed country to live in California. His new home was to be San Gabriel, California where his brother was foreman of the Rose Ranch. He had married the sister of the artist Guy Rose. Guy Rose was a student of John Bond Francisco who had settled in Los Angeles. Francisco had become a major cultural figure, performing as a violinist, painting, teaching and entertaining in his home and his studio on Albany Street. He combined his two great loves art and music and helped form the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra in 1897 and served as their first concertmaster. Studying with Francisco, Elmer had found the ideal “fit” as he was interested in art and was also an exceptionally talented musician, having taught himself to play the violin. In fact he was such a talented musician that he at one time was the first violinist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which was founded by William Andrews Clark, Jr., a millionaire and amateur musician.
It was not until 1894 that Elmer decided to enrol at an art establishment to learn more about drawing and painting and he moved back east to New York where he joined the Art Students League which had been founded in 1875 by a group of artists, both male and female. They had all been students at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Many of these aspiring artists decided to break away from the Academy citing the reason that the Academy’s art tuition was too conservative and unsympathetic to their new and modern ideas about art. Whilst here, Wachtel studied under William Merritt Chase, the American painter and leading American exponent of Impressionism.
Elmer returned to California in 1896 and stayed at the San Francisco home of William Keith, the Scottish-American painter who was famous for his Californian landscapes and in fact was often referred to as the “Dean of California painters”. Elmer Wachtel eventually left San Francisco and returned home to Los Angeles. During this period, he supplemented his income as an artist and an art teacher and by playing his violin in a number of orchestras.
California had been opened up to folk from the East by the Santa Fe railroad in the late nineteenth century and many of these travellers from the East were artists who wanted to experience the beautiful Californian landscapes and the natural light which bathed these lands. One such visitor was Marion Kavanaugh.
Marion Kavanaugh was born on June 10th 1876 in Milwaukee. She came from an artistic background. Her mother, Jean, was an accomplished and well respected artist and her great grand-father a Royal Academician. She received the most thorough art education studying in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago under John Vanderpoel, the Dutch-American artist and teacher and was tutored in New York, like Elmer Wachtel, by William Merritt Chase. Following the completion of her studies she taught art in some Chicago public schools and later attained a post as tutor at the Art Institute of Chicago where she taught for two years but life in the classroom was not for Marion. Slowly she built up a reputation as a portraitist and an accomplished painter of child portraits. Marion Kavanaugh had now built up a reputation as one of America’s great watercolourist and her skill as a landscape artist and tonalist was much admired. Tonalism is a style of painting in which landscapes are depicted in soft light and shadows, often as if through a coloured or misty veil.
In 1903, Marion received a commission from one of the vice presidents of the Santa Fe Railroad to paint murals of Western landscapes for the company’s San Francisco ticket offices, in return he offered free passage to California on one of the company’s trains . To achieve that commission she travelled west and visited many sites all the time making sketches along the way which she found would be conducive for her commission. She stopped off at New Mexico, Arizona and California. Whilst in California she called in at the Cooper Ranch in Santa Barbara where she stayed for several months as a guest of the owner, the entrepreneur and agriculturist, Ellwood Cooper. Cooper commissioned her to paint some landscape scenes around his ranch. It was during this commission that she began to paint the eucalyptus trees which were found close by and it was these beautiful trees that were to appear in many of her works of art.
Many of the paintings she completed for Ellwood Cooper were exhibited and they won critical acclaim. One person who viewed her work was none other than William Keith. Some believe that Marion Kavanaugh worked for a short time with him and that he suggested she visited Elmer Wachtel in Los Angeles and studiywith him. She agreed to the suggestion and so in 1903 Marion Kavanaugh and Elmer Wachtel met for the first time. Even though the circumstances of their first meeting may be just conjecture, what is certain is that there was a definite chemistry between the two artists for one year later in 1904, forty-year old Elmer Wachtel and twenty-eight year old Marion Kavanaugh married in Chicago. After her marriage to Elmer, Marion took his name but also added her maiden name after dropping the “u” from it and became known as Marion Kavanagh Wachtel. The couple returned to California and settled down in the Mount Washington area, close to Pasadena where they built themselves a home and a studio. The couple lived in the Mount Washington area of Los Angeles until 1921. They then moved to the Arroyo Seco area close to Pasadena.
They spent almost twenty-five years travelling around together painting, en plein air, the various landscapes in the south west of the United States. Often they would be seen painting and sketching the awe inspiring Southern California landscape and they travelled great distances to capture the views and light conditions which they translated into spectacular paintings. They traversed and painted the coastline between Gaviota and Conception Lighthouse (just north of Santa Barbara, California), the Cooper Ranch (north of Santa Barbara), Matilija Canyon and Ojai, California. They would head further south to the San Luis Rey River and the Cerisa Loma Ranch which was close to San Diego and in 1908 they hiked their way across the arid deserts of Arizona and New Mexico availing themselves of the opportunity to capture on canvas the historic pueblo villages on the Moki and Navajo reservations.
Marion worked in watercolours unlike her husband who worked in the medium of oils. She was a member of many art societies such as the American Watercolour Society and the California Watercolour Society and on two occasions in the 1920’s Marion Kavanagh Wachtel was granted one-woman exhibitions at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art.
Their happy marriage came to an abrupt end in August 1929 when Elmer Wachtel died, aged 65, while on a Mexican painting trip in Guadalajara. Following her husband’s death, Marion gave up painting and exhibiting for a number of years. When she returned to her beloved art, besides using her favourite painting medium, watercolours, she began to dabble in oils, the favourite medium of her late husband. She exhibited her works on both coasts of America and became a very popular and revered landscape artist.
Marion Kavanagh Wachtel died at her home in Pasadena on May 22nd 1954.