Taking The De Longpré View

“Pansies in a Pewter Vase” ~ Paul de Longpré

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.

Today’s Hollywood, with an overlay showing the location of the original de Longpré home

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.
Tourists arriving at the de Longpré estate via the Balloon Route’s parlor cars

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.

“California Poppies in an Indian Basket ” ~ Watercolor, Los Angeles, 1910
“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.

“Yard of Puppies” ~ C.L. Van Vredenburgh

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.

“Miss Muffet’s Tea Party” ~ Maude Humphrey Bogart

In time, florals found greater favor, and de Longpré profited from adaptations of his flower paintings to this new format.

“American Beauty” ~ Paul de Longpré
“Pansy Waltz” ~ Paul de Longpré

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.

Comments always are welcome.

Living Outside The Lines

Color Us Content ~ c. 1950
Apricot. Bittersweet. Burnt Sienna. Cornflower. Maize. Mahogany. Melon.

Those of us who grew up between 1949 and 1957 may remember those colors with special affection. Clear and vibrant as the bits of nature whose names they bear, they are classic Crayola colors: part of the box of forty-eight crayons that became one of my childhood’s greatest treasures.

Before 1958, the year the box containing sixty-four Crayolas was introduced, the forty-eight piece box was the big box: the box you received as a Christmas gift, or for a birthday, or because you’d contracted something like measles that would keep you in bed for a while.

I received my first big box of crayons for Christmas, with some coloring books thrown in for good measure. A photograph from that year shows me in pajamas and robe, my coloring book canvas spread before me and my father at my side. Our routine — I colored, he watched — continued for several years. He rarely offered advice, preferring instead to comment about my choice of colors, or the stories I made up as I worked.

My mother’s concerns were somewhat different. Each time I settled in to color, I’d hear her gentle, cautionary advice: “Be sure to stay inside the lines.”

Her advice was well-meant, and especially appropriate in my case. Coloring-book novices often stray, smudge, and straggle their way across the pages, but I seemed particularly unable to keep things tidy. My mother worked with me, as did my grandmother. Even a neighbor or two tried a little artistic coaching. Wanting to please, I did my best to keep my apricot, corn flower, and maize inside those little black lines. But every now and then, when no one was looking, I’d sneak a piece of typing paper and just draw.  

Eventually, coloring books were set aside for bigger and better art projects: a squirrel carved from ivory soap; a ghastly papier-mâché puppet with bright yellow hair and a calico dress; a Japanese lady wearing a kimono sketched onto a piece of wood.  I learned to cut paper snowflakes, sent coiled clay vases and ashtrays to the kiln, and once created a presentable corn field with tempera paints. 

But always there was a mold, a form, a pattern to guide my artistic efforts, and standards by which to judge. A “good” squirrel was properly proportioned, snowflakes were symmetrical, and corn fields were meant to look like corn, not fence posts. If I was going to produce art, it seemed I needed to learn the rules.

There were rules to spare. In 8th grade, I was taught that real poetry always rhymes.  Not long after, I learned that real music has no dissonance, and good art always is representational. Even though my coloring books had been set aside, the importance of remaining within the lines remained unquestioned.

Later in life, the consequences of not being able to  control my metaphorical crayons became more serious. My first full-time job, as a customer service representative for Southwestern Bell in Kansas City, involved taking calls from people wanting to connect, disconnect, or change their telephone service. In those days before computers, the information we obtained — names, addresses, employers — was transcribed by hand onto forms resembling graph paper. Each letter or numeral was to be placed precisely within its own 1/4″ square, with no smudges or stray lines straggling across the paper. 

At the end of a six week probationary period, several of us were advised to seek employment “where our talents might find a better fit.” The nicely-phrased suggestion avoided stating the obvious: idiots who couldn’t stay within the lines had no place in the world of Ma Bell.

After the firing, my relief knew no bounds. I’d hated the work, and every day had been a misery.  Despite understanding company guidelines and wanting to do things properly, I seemed incapable of doing so. When friends asked, “Why not do it their way?” I had no good answer, although it did occur to me that the wisdom of my mother’s advice during my coloring-book days had been confirmed. Stay within the lines, and you’ll be fine. Get distracted, lose focus, grow restless or bored, and your days are numbered. 

For the next few years, I did my best to keep within the lines. But by 1975, I was in London on holiday, and ready to hear what the Heptones had to say on the matter.

A reggae band from Jamaica, the Heptones recorded their hit single, “Book of Rules,” in 1973. Part of a musical wave overtaking London at the time, the song appealed as much to Bob Weir — guitarist, lyricist and founding member of the Grateful Dead — as it did to me. Weir told David Gans in 1981 how he came to record the song:

It had been one of my favorite reggae cuts for the last few years.   I finally found the record and copped the tune and recorded it.  Then a few weeks ago, after the record had been pressed up and everything was happening, a friend of Barlow’s found a compilation of verse, a collection of poems from the turn of the century to about 1930.

The poem within the collection that caught Weir’s attention was “A Bag of Tools,” written by R.L. Sharpe (1870-1950).  It was included by Hazel Felleman in her 1936 volume, Best Loved Poems of the American People.

A Bag of Tools

Isn’t it strange how princes and kings,
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people like you and me
are builders for eternity?

Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a stepping-stone.

By the time the Heptones’ Barry Llewellyn and Harry Johnson finished setting Sharpe’s words to music, the lyrics had changed a bit, but the reggae flavor of the newly titled “Book of Rules” was memorable.


The Heptones’ “Book Of Rules”

Isn’t it strange how princesses and kings
In clown-ragged capers in a sawdust ring,
Just like common people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity.
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

And each must make in life his flowing in
Stumbling block ** or a stepping stone,
Just like common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

I say it’s common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

Look when the rain is falling from the sky
I know the sun will be only missing for a while
I say it’s common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules. 

In the Heptones’ lyrics, as in Sharpe’s poem, the shapeless mass, the indeterminate tools, and the mysteriously veiled rules appear both ambiguous and compelling. The only certainty seems to be that our final creation — steppingstone, stumbling block, or surprising alternative — will depend upon which tools we choose, and which rules we choose to follow.

Letting go of predetermined forms and patterns isn’t easy.  Without obvious lines to guide us, the need for decision, discipline, and structure increases exponentially.  The blank canvas, the silent practice room, or the empty page can induce paralysis as easily as a decision to move outside commonly accepted life-limits induces vertigo.

But that strange combination of joy and terror lies at the very heart of the creative process. As we confront the shapeless mass of our personal vision, in life or in art, we’d do well to look into our bag, and open our book. It may be that the tools and the rules with which we’ve been supplied differ considerably from those received by others.

After all, Sharpe never said there was only a hammer in the bag, and the Heptones never suggested that one rule fits all.

Comments always are welcome.
**In “Book of Rules,” the phrase “stumbling block” sounds like “tumbling black” in Jamaican patois.

 

Seeing With A Grateful Eye

Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda ~ Winslow Homer (1899)

Years before I encountered my first palm tree — decades before I dove into the watery azure, lapis, and turquoise ribbons connecting tiny and often unnamed Caribbean islands — I lingered in shadows of tangled bougainvillea and tumbling poinciana: a world of tropical dreams limned by Winslow Homer’s art.

One of America’s premier watercolorists, Homer moved from New York to Prout’s Neck, Maine in the summer of 1883. While his love of the New England coastline is obvious from his paintings, he often vacationed in Florida, Bermuda and the Caribbean. His unique vision of the islands, combined with mastery of his medium, resulted in exquisite renderings of sun-drenched homes, synchronized palms, and great, vivid falls of blossoms that seem to scent even the printed page. Continue reading

The Great Arkansas Post Office Tour

Tobacco Sorters  (1942-1944) ~ Thomas Hart Benton

In Arkansas and Missouri, the name is ubiquitous. Even the most casual visitor tends to notice, and occasionally asks, “Who is this ‘Benton’ character whose name keeps cropping up?” In fact, it isn’t “this Benton” but “these Bentons” for whom the states’ schools, counties, and towns are named.

The first Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) served five terms as senator from Missouri. A strong advocate for westward expansion, he petitioned Congress to fund a survey of the road to Santa Fe. The petition granted, Commissioners George Sibley, Benjamin Reeves, and Thomas Mather of Illinois took charge of the survey, measuring and negotiating their way across Kansas and New Mexico from 1825-1827. Continue reading

Remembering That Purple Poem

hurivirgaSome years ago,  I published “The Sentinel,” an essay about Florida environmentalist Charles Torrey Simpson and a pair of shells I found washed onto a Texas beach.

The shells, a deep, rich purple, are known in scientific circles as Janthina janthina. Elegant, tiny sea snails, they form great rafts, then float around the world. When Simpson found such a raft in the Florida Keys, he chronicled his experience, and through his notebook entry I was able to identify my own bits of purple.

Soon after I posted about Simpson, one of my readers offered a request.  Her love of all things purple had been stirred by the piece, and she wanted a “purple poem.”  At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a poet, and demurred. As it turned out, she did think of me as a poet, and was convinced  I could produce some verse for her. Continue reading

The Glass Fleuragerie

Iced Buttercup ~ Terry Glase

Far up the mountain, at a place he calls Buttercup Ridge, Montana photographer Terry Glase searches each spring for the eponymous flower: Sagebrush Buttercup or, as the botanists would say, Ranunculus glaberrimus. Describing a visit to the ridge in 2015, Terry writes:

After about a half mile of hiking toward a trail I intended to visit today, I tired of all of the snow and ice and turned back. There were other places to go, one of which was Buttercup Ridge, where the very first wildflowers bloom every year about this time.
It’s a small area, about 50 feet by 100 feet, atop a very steep, narrow, rocky, cliffy ridge. Why buttercups bloom there nearly two months before they bloom anywhere else is a complete mystery to me.
They do though, after all, bloom in western Montana. Somewhere in their DNA they know that, and they also know that, before spring comes, they may see temperatures of -20ºF and two feet of snow, but they bloom anyway.

Apart from its early appearance, the simple flower displays other, quite delightful, characteristics. In post after post, Terry points to different faces of a flower he describes as being in turn whimsical, impetuous, shy, and private. And yet, when I discovered his photo of the little ice-covered buttercup, it reminded me of another, quite different flower.
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Theo Jansen: Walking on the Mild Side

Theo Janssen, walking his rhinoceros

Perhaps walk isn’t quite the right word. March, perhaps. Or trek. Perhaps even creep would do, despite the word’s slightly passive connotation.

Whichever word you choose, watching Dutch artist Theo Jansen’s kinetic sculptures trundle across a beach is akin to witnessing some strange, primordial creature emerge from the mire and muck of a forgotten world and make tracks for higher ground.

His creations, called Strandbeests, or beach animals, are constructed from PVC pipe. Through a progression of refinements, including the addition of lemonade bottles, he’s helped them evolve into mobile, wind-powered creatures that seem filled with life. When first encountered, they astonish, compel, and amuse: scuttling over the landscape like giant, improbable crabs.
Continue reading