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Ariel's Corner
American visual arts

Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo

Lara Cox


Art exhibit review

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Figure 1

Figure 1

Jules Tavernier (1844-1889), Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California, 1878. Oil on canvas. Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, 2016.

1In recent years, scholarship has turned to the underexamined question of a “French Frontier” (Burns 2018; Gitlin 2010, Havard 2016). With Savage State (David Perrault, 2019), the French also seem to be living a recent revival in the cinema genre of the American Western after a hiatus of four decades precipitated by the disastrous performance of Heaven’s Gate (directed by Michael Cimino) at the box office in 1981, starring Isabelle Huppert. The exhibition on Jules Tavernier’s paintings of the Elem Pomo adds a museographic voice to this slowly growing chorus.

2Between August and November 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of New York ran an exhibit that showcased a work thought lost: Tavernier’s Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California, completed in 1878. As the accompanying bulletin reveals, the work is densely rich in meaning, particularly when it comes to the artist’s relationship to the northern California tribe, the Elem Pomo at Clear Lake. Indeed, with over forty-eight artefacts of Pomo culture (including a sizeable collection of basketry), the show mused on the possibility of an alliance between the French and American Indians, also confirmed by Yale historian Jay Gitlin in his Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion. However, just like Gitlin’s assessment of the French as brokers of US expansionism and the displacement of indigenous people, the Met show urges us not to over-idealise this intercultural exchange.

3The accompanying bulletin reminds us of the booming Parisian art market capitalising on French fascination for the American West (one of the earliest examples of which was George Caitlin’s musée indien at the Louvre in 1845), which led Tavernier to California as the century crept into its latter decades. The context behind Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California is no less vexed. The eponymous dance, the mfom Xe ceremony, was invented by the Elem Pomo to ward off the environmental devastations at Clear Lake wrought by White settlers and the Sulphur Bank Quicksilver Mine. Owing to mismanagement and exploitative methods, mercury seeped from the mine to poison the surrounding land and its inhabitants, an ecological catastrophe which only started to be acknowledged by the US government in 1990.

4Tavernier probably wouldn’t have been aware of the anti-white sentiment behind mfom Xe dance he depicted in Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California. Indeed, this work is an exercise in inconsistencies, oversights, and distortions. Robert Joseph Geary, in a preface to the Met bulletin, observes the inaccurate presence of gold jewellery and headdresses more likely to have been worn by the Southwestern Pomo (5) than to his ancestors at Clear Lake. The Met’s resident Americanist Shannon Vittoria confirms Tavernier’s tendency toward a romanticisation of regalia which doesn’t hold up against Romanzo E Wood’s photograph of the inhabitants’ Euro-American attire when he visited an Elem Pomo village in 1877 (39). The bulletin also reminds us that Tavernier fell prey to the trope of the so-called “Vanishing Indian”, staging, through sartorial pomp, the imminent disappearance of ancient customs and clothes into the past.

5That said, the uniqueness of Tavernier in the history of American frontier art should not be neglected, as the contributors to the bulletin stress. Unlike German American Albert Bierstadt, who had an irksome tendency to assimilate minute Indian figures into vast landscapes of the American West, Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California gets up close and personal to the Elem Pomo—so much so that Geary found himself looking into the faces of each figure to see if he could spot his ancestors (4). There is a densely concentrated luminosity at the centre of the composition, which enhances a sense of the transcendental in the apotropaic dance. As curator Elizabeth Kornhauser remarks, Tavernier mixed mica into pastel shades, which no other artist on the West coast had done before, reflecting in his own unique way a prevailing trend in Luminism (of which Bierstadt was a part).

6Jules Tavernier’s Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake was the centrepiece of the Met show, but it was also exhibited alongside a significant number of Elem Pomo baskets. The baskets range from the simple to the elaborately patterned. The contributors to the bulletin anticipate the challenges of showcasing these objects in white-dominated spaces, facing head-on the hurdle of what Carol Williams describes as “Eurocentric notions of legibility” (5) that would reduce these baskets to Western connotations (as receptacles for food, berries, flowers, for instance). Shannon Vittoria makes clear the significance of basketry for the Elem Pomo, quoting Dry Creek Pomo/Wappo/Wintun weaver Clint McKay in one of her subheadings: “[I]t is the very essence of who we are as Pomo” (46). There is, simultaneously, a desire to halt Western viewers’ mystifying gaze upon these objects (à la Vanishing Indian): the most intricately patterned baskets (encrusted with vibrantly hued feathers from different species of bird, clamshell disc beads, pendants made from red abalone snails) were made, just like Tavernier’s canvases, for a burgeoning art market of non-Native collectors (41).

  • 1 An exception to this pattern of invisibilization was organized by the Smithsonian American Art Muse (...)

7Because Native women’s art is still sorely lacking in major US museums,1 one of the highlights of this exhibit was discovering a matrilineal tradition of Pomo women weavers. Viewers learned about Mary Pinto, painted in tenderly luminous nuances by white American Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937), who spent her artistic career painting the Pomo people (Vittoria 43). Joseppa Pinto Dick learnt from her mother. She made micro-sized baskets, impressive because of the patterning woven to make an object smaller than an acorn.

8Made from the plants surrounding Clear Lake (reeds, bulrushes, tule), these baskets are not simply utilitarian and/or ceremonial objects but also memorial traces of the Elem Pomo’s close study of the land over thousands of years, as tribal scholar Sherrie Smith-Ferri (Dry Creek Pomo/Coast Miwok) asserts in the promotional video for the exhibit. She laments the gap between the “glimpse” that viewers have of the mfom Xe in the flat surface of Tavernier’s painting, and the sheer “power” of this ceremony as live event. As she insists, “that power is what helped us survive” (07:55).

9How to recreate the power of the liveand to what end are interesting questions to ponder in an age when decolonisation has become the museum sector’s watchword. Exhibitions are increasingly working at the intersection of live spectacle and the fine arts to increase public engagement. The authors of Curating Dramaturgies: How Dramaturgy and Curating Are Intersecting in the Contemporary Arts (Routledge, 2021) remind us that there is nonetheless a delicate balance to be struck as museums enter a privatised, profit-driven era. Curators will need to figure out ways to harness the explanatory power of scenography and dramaturgy to translate resilience like that of the Elem Pomo, without rebounding on the amusement-park feel that interaction in the museum space all too often approximates.

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“Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, summer 2021. 55pp.

Williams, Carol, “Introduction.” In Indigenous Women and Work: From Labour to Activism. Ed. Carol Williams. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012. 336 pp.

Burns, Emily. Transnational Frontiers: The American West in France. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018.

Gitlin, Jay. Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Havard, Gilles. Histoire des coureurs de bois. Amérique du Nord. 1600-1840. Paris : Les Indes savantes, 2016.

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1 An exception to this pattern of invisibilization was organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, which ran in 2020, and which retains a digital presence in the exhibit’s online gallery: (accessed May 8, 2022).

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
Caption Jules Tavernier (1844-1889), Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California, 1878. Oil on canvas. Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, 2016.
File image/jpeg, 384k
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Electronic reference

Lara Cox, Jules Tavernier and the Elem PomoMiranda [Online], 26 | 2022, Online since 24 October 2022, connection on 02 February 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Lara Cox

ATER d’anglais en arts visuels,. Associate researcher, LARCA (Université Paris Cité)
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

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