Focus on the Collection: A Plains Indian Painting by Jules Tavernier

A Plains Indian Painting by Jules Tavernier: a story of recent research to document a painting that has long been a mystery.

One of the puzzles of the Hearst Museum’s collection has been the single canvas by Jules Tavernier.  Donated by Phoebe Hearst in 1918, just months before her death, it came with virtually no documentation.  We have no title, just a description:  “framed oil painting of Plains Indian encampment during a rain.”  Other than the date of accession, we have just a date of 1880 for the year of collection.  Because the painting is rendered in such a loose, impressionistic manner, it was impossible to know where this scene was located or the identity of the local Indians.

A Cloud Effect, by Jules Tavernier, 1880. PAHMA 17-195.


Jules Tavernier (1844–1889) was clearly a talented and important artist, but until now there has been very little scholarship on him.  We know that he was born and trained in Paris, and emigrated to the United States in 1873.  We also know that between 1873 and 1875, he worked his way across the continent, sending in illustrations for Harper’s Weekly.  So we have assumed that our painting was either painted during this time or based on sketches he made then.  Tavernier then divided his time between San Francisco and Monterey, where he founded the local art colony.  In 1884, seeking to escape his debts, he settled in Hawaii, where he painted dramatically-lit scenes of erupting volcanoes until his premature death.

In March, while showing this painting to our members, I was told that the Crocker Museum in Sacramento was planning a comprehensive Tavernier exhibit for next year.  Scott A. Shields, the Crocker’s chief curator, was quite excited to hear about our canvas, which he had not known.  After examining a photo of the painting, Shields and his colleague, independent art historian Claudine Chalmers, were able to quickly come up with a convincing identification.  Although they had a written description of the painting, they had no idea of what had become of it.

Chalmers, who is contributing a chapter on Tavernier’s Native American paintings, had found a description that closely matched our painting.  The San Francisco Chronicle of July 20, 1879, contained a brief report about Tavernier’s studio activities:  "For relief from one of his large pictures which he is painting for the Hopkins mansion, he occasionally finishes an old study.  Among his latest are A CLOUD EFFECT in Nebraska, and a picnic in the rain at Berkeley.  The first has a rainbow, within whose arc the air is so diffused with brightness as to seem like an opening in the sky.  The incidentals are an Indian burial place and wigwams, and the Crow Buttes warmed with a little sunshine in the distance."  An examination of the painting reveals all these motifs, some quite indistinct on a casual viewing, along with a signature and date of 1880.

More than that, Chalmers contacted a friend of hers in Nebraska who reported:  "Out here rainbows, and esp. FULL Rainbows are ALWAYS seen without exception in the eastern sky with a western sun lighting up the droplets. [east would include a view of the Buttes]". He goes on to say that even the spectrum of colors is authentic, and that they at times have double rainbows.

It turns out that Crow Butte, named for a famous battle between the local Oglala Lakota (Sioux) and the Crow, is nearby the former Red Cloud reservation in Nebraska.  According to Chalmers, Tavernier had visited the agency in 1874.  She added that "The title is a mere descriptive one by the critic.  Tavernier worked on these Indian scenes as a way to relax from his other works, and he did not always title or date them.  You are lucky this one is dated.  It means he finished it.  And yes, he was probably just working on it in July 1879, signed it, dated it in 1880 when Phoebe bought it."

So because of our fortuitous sharing of a long-hidden object, most likely never before exhibited, we now have a well-documented painting that we can share with world.


Ira Jacknis, Research Anthropologist


For more information about the upcoming Tavernier exhibit at the Crocker Museum, see: