Tough and resilient, pansies bring a welcome touch of color to winter on the Texas coast. Beloved of landscapers and gardeners alike, the flowers tolerate cold, snow, and ice; even after days of freezing temperatures they recover quickly, and will bloom until the rising heat of summer wilts them away.
Some pansies, of course, never fade. Many years ago, I found a Paul de Longpré watercolor, “Pansies In A Pewter Vase,” at an estate sale. Entranced by the combination of pretty flowers and a beautifully constructed wooden frame, I brought the piece home, and hung it near my desk. Eventually, the artful signature led me to wonder: Who was this de Longpré fellow?
A self-taught artist born in 1855 in Villeurbanne, a suburb of Lyon, France, de Longpré favored floral painting from the beginning:
When I was a little child having my first experience at school, I would make drawings of flowers that my fellow students would buy with their pocket money in place of toffee. Complimentary, was it not?
It never excelled any other tribute I have since received: that group of kids bidding their precious spending money against each other for my sketches of objects.
After his father’s death forced twelve-year-old Paul to leave school in order to help support his family, he joined two older brothers in Paris, where the trio spent their days painting decorative flowers on Victorian hand fans. Establishing a reputation for exquisite decoration after only six years, the youngest de Longpré found his work being sold throughout France, and his finances secured.
Married to a nineteen-year-old seamstress named Josephine in 1874, de Longpré continued painting florals, albeit on canvas. His work became increasingly well accepted, leading him to take the unprecedented step described by Louis N. Richards in a 1904 issue of the magazine Overland Monthly:
In 1895 de Longpré decided to give an exhibition of his paintings. An exhibition of flower paintings exclusively was a thing unheard of, and his friends endeavored to convince him that such an undertaking could never be successful: that his plans, if ever carried out, meant inevitable ruin.
The exhibition was given, nevertheless, and its success was greater than the artist himself had ever dreamed of. The galleries were crowded every day and his pictures brought enormous prices. The critics were unanimous in their praise of the artist’s work and the name of Paul de Longpré was on the lips of everyone interested in art.
Despite the success of his exhibition, the subsequent failure of his bank, the Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris, swept away fifteen years of savings. With only a few hundred dollars at hand, the de Longpré family set off in 1890 for New York, ready for a new start.
During his first years in New York, de Longpré successfully utilized his artistic skills in a multitude of new ways: decorating celluloid mirrors and photo albums, sheet music, shaving mirrors, and perfume bottles. Some of America’s most beautiful seed packets resulted from his talent.
As he worked to rebuild his savings, his floral paintings — primarily watercolors –continued to gain in popularity, and soon were hanging in galleries and drawing rooms throughout the city.
Still, having tired both of the weather and of the need to continually purchase plants to serve as models, de Longpré decided in 1898 to take his family, his ambitions, and his newfound wealth to Los Angeles.
When a curious reporter asked de Longpré to explain his move away from the vibrant cultural scene in New York, his answer was simple enough:
Sated with the culture of the Old World, and with the restless ambition of New York, this famous painter of flowers has come to seek new inspiration in the brilliant, sun-warmed blossoms of California.
That there is nothing here to stimulate the intellectual life of an artist, M. De Longpre frankly admits, but intellectual stimulus is not what he is seeking. He has had that all his life. What he wants now is sunshine and flowers, and he declares that these will content him as long as he can wield the brush. He intends to spend the rest of his days in Southern California.
After De Longpré and his family settled into a large mansion at the corner of West Adams Boulevard and Figueroa Street, he paid his rent in paintings and often was seen “pedaling his bicycle through the quiet suburbs of Los Angeles with palette, paints, and easel strapped to his back, searching for flowers.”
Introduced to the founder of still-rural Hollywood, Daeida Wilcox Beveridge, at an exhibit of his work in Los Angeles, he found Beveridge anxious to promote her new real estate venture. Like any developer eager to attract good people, she recognized the opportunity offered by de Longpré, who could add a bit of culture to the neighborhood.
She offered de Longpré the site of her former Hollywood home for his estate, and the painter accepted, with thanks. The three acre site on Cahuenga Boulevard just north of Prospect Avenue (today’s Hollywood Boulevard) later was enlarged by Beveridge’s gift of an adjoining lot, which allowed de Longpré to expand his gardens.
In time, de Longpré’s Moorish style mansion, studio, and gardens became an enormous tourist attraction, in part because the home was added as a stop on the interurban railway route known, because of its shape, as the “Balloon Route.”
The Balloon Route Trolley trip, the featured route of the Los Angeles Pacific, opened in September 1901. The line ran from downtown Los Angeles through Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Redondo Beach, and back to Los Angeles via Culver City.
The line stopped at beach resorts and included free entrance to some en-route attractions, including Sunset Boulevard, the studio of painter Paul de Longpré, bean fields of Morocco in Beverly Hills, Sawtelle Veterans Home and Old Soldiers’ Home in Sawtelle, Long Wharf, Camera Obscura at Santa Monica, Playa del Rey Pavilion for a fish dinner, Redondo’s Moonstone Beach, Venice, and Palms – Culver City.
In time, the de Longpré estate became the route’s most popular attraction, visited by as many as 8,000 people every month. Tourists could walk from the rail cars directly into the garden, where they could enjoy thousands of rose bushes and other plantings, tour the mansion, purchase refreshments, and select an original watercolor as a souvenir. Postcards celebrating the beauty of the de Longpré gardens spread its fame across the country.
The more traditionally romantic flowers that brought de Longpré his fame were on view in the garden — particularly the roses — but flowers native to his new state were included as well.
“White Poppies” ~ Watercolor, Los Angeles, 1905
(The models for this painting were gathered by Madame Modjeska’s niece in the canyons at the actress’s home near El Toro, and brought to the artist to paint)
Tours of the house and gardens, along with prints of his floral paintings, supported the family until the artist’s death in 1911. Only 56, he had suffered over the years from tuberculosis, and succumbed at last to a serious ear infection.
After his death, Josephine and daughter Pauline moved back to France. Eventually, the mansion was sold; in 1925, both the house and gardens were demolished to make room for new bungalows. Today, parking lots, a CVS pharmacy, and what appears to be a club occupy the land.
Some critics contend that de Longpré’s paintings — especially his romantic still-lifes of roses and pansies — fell permanently out of fashion after his death and are of negligible import today. Others point to his inclusion in collections at the Currier Gallery of Art in New Hampshire, the Irvine Museum in California, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as increasing sales of his watercolors and chromolithographs, as evidence of renewed popularity.
Demand for reprints of his so-called “yard-longs” is particularly strong today. Named for their long, narrow form (usually thirty-six inches long and seven, eight, or nine inches wide), these lithographs were popular at the turn of the century, between about 1890 and 1920. Calendars often were printed on their backs, along with advertising copy for department stores and companies such as Diamond Crystal Salt, Pabst beer, and the same Mandeville & King Seeds for which de Longpré had previously worked.
Initially, yard-longs were known as “yard pictures,” since they often depicted a yard filled with ducks, dogs, kittens, or puppies.
In time, children were portrayed, often by such well-known artists as Maud Humphrey Bogart; the mother of actor Humphrey Bogart, she often used her son as a model.
In time, florals found greater favor, and de Longpré profited from adaptations of his flower paintings to this new format.
Today, little remains of Paul de Longpré’s legacy in Hollywood itself, save for De Longpré Avenue. Paralleling Sunset Boulevard, south of Hollywood Boulevard where the house and gardens stood and north of Santa Monica Boulevard with its vibrant new communities, De Longpré Avenue lacks the compelling resonance of those nearly-mythic names.
Still, the fact that the avenue exists at all seems a fitting conclusion to de Longpré’s story.
In 1903, opposition developed when de Longpré’s friends, including the Beveridge family, attempted to rename Prospect Boulevard in his honor. Despite the fact that de Longpré had become an American citizen, some felt naming the street in honor of a Frenchman was inappropriate.
After some thought, de Longpré wrote an open letter to the Los Angeles Times:
I am not aware that it is a crime to be a Frenchman and I take pride in flying the American flag from my house alongside the tricolor of France. The two peoples have fought side by side for liberty.
However, if the change in the name of a single street in this growing suburban town is thought by my fellow-citizens to be so serious a matter, I will not stand in the way; and if they decide to drop the matter I will acquiesce with good grace.
Eventually, Prospect Avenue became Hollywood Boulevard, but in 1913, thanks to former California Senator and de Longpré friend Cornelius Cole, De Longpré Avenue received its name.
Today, lined with million dollar homes and apartments with exorbitant rents, it’s neither a neighborhood Paul de Longpré would recognize nor one in which I would live. Still, it makes me happy to know that he has his street — and I have his painting.