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Frenchman's Art Preserves L.A. Pioneers

L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

November 07, 1999|Cecilia Rasmussen

The Spanish and Mexican contribution to early Los Angeles is well documented in everything from place names to plazas. Far less well known is the part played by 19th century French immigrants, among them Henri Penelon, the city's first professional artist.

In fact, among all Los Angeles' French pioneer families--Vignes, Sainsevain and Viole--none was better known at the time and more quickly forgotten than Penelon.

More than a century before Los Angeles matured into a genuine art center, Penelon used photographs and oils to depict the city's history. His quiet career spanned more than two decades, during which he captured on canvas and in photographs Southern California's leading Mexican families.

That was all but forgotten until the 1950s, when Penelon's granddaughter walked into the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History with two of his paintings.

Although his surviving artwork in local museums gives little indication of formal training, the 28-year-old Penelon, who was born in Lyon, arrived in Los Angeles in 1853 and immediately set up shop as a "French" artist and photographer.

The sun-drenched pueblo already boasted three other amateur photographers and 200 French residents. Armed with the tools of his trade--a brush and lens--Penelon set up a gallery on the west side of Main Street, between 1st and 2nd streets. It was not far from where the early French settlers had planted their roots at Alameda and Commercial streets.

Eventually, he purchased more parcels of land with his Parisian friend and business partner Adrien Davaust.

When Penelon wasn't painting, he helped take care of the sick and comforted people during bereavement and other hardships as one of the founders of the French Benevolent Society.

Four years after Los Angeles' first great horse race in 1852, Penelon captured Jose Andres Sepulveda--whose family name would later grace a boulevard--and his winning Australian-bred horse, Black Swan, on canvas. Black Swan was famous for racing 18 miles along San Pedro Street against Pio Pico's California-bred Sarco. The purse: $25,000, in addition to 500 horses, 500 mares, 500 heifers, 500 calves and 500 sheep. Today, the painting hangs in the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

Penelon also began producing playing-card-sized prints from glass negatives. The craze for these had begun in France in 1854 and spread to the United States. The images were called cartes de visite, and people used them as calling cards to be handed to servants. The artist also did a big business in hand-painted photos.

His first public exhibition opened in 1861, when the old Plaza church underwent a radical remodeling and Penelon added ornamental touches to La Placita's interior and exterior. On the front of the church above the door, he painted the madonna and child enthroned with angels, and then inscribed on the newly built brick wall: "Los Fieles de Esta Parroquia a la Reina de Los Angeles, 1861."

(Although most of his work at the church has vanished, some believe the ornately framed Stations of the Cross--currently on loan to a church in Mexico--were created by Penelon.)

Teaming up with Swedish photographer Valentin Wolfenstein--who had applied for a job with him a few years earlier and was turned down because he was too young and inexperienced--helped Penelon's career take off.

He was prosperous enough to marry Emilie Henriot, 25 years his junior, and they had a daughter, Hortense, and a son, Honore.

Penelon also continued to paint. Using a thin layer of paint (the mark of an unschooled artist), he produced what is probably his best known surviving painting, an idyllic scene of a swan and a rabbit. It is one of the few he signed ("H. Penelon 1871") and is on exhibit at the Natural History Museum's Seaver Center for Western History Research.

The pueblo's prominent Mexican families remained not only Penelon's best customers, but also his best friends. He spoke fluent Spanish, and they readily welcomed him into their society, calling him "Horatio" and "Honore."

Before Penelon died in 1874 in Prescott, Ariz., at age 49, he also produced embroidered saddles and grim-faced portraits of the pueblo's business-minded founders.

Today, Penelon seduces us into the past with his paintings of Jose Miguel Yndart, Antonio Maria Lugo, Vicente Lugo, Antonio Avila and Francisca Romero de Coronel, all on view at the Seaver Center, which holds 13 of Penelon's oil portraits. His artwork constitutes nothing less than the family album of a city that film would transform into a global visual powerhouse.

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Rasmussen's new book, "L.A. Unconventional," a collection of stories about Los Angeles' unique and offbeat characters, is available at most bookstores or can be ordered by calling (800) 246-4042. The price of $30.95 includes shipping and sales tax.

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