Park City Museum lecture highlights the ‘Great Frontier’
Exhibit curator will give a virtual event
The story of 19th century French artists Jules Tavernier and Paul Frenzeny is one of friendship.
The pair spent 1873 traveling across the American frontier documenting the scenery, people and wildlife in woodcuts that were printed in Harper’s Weekly Magazine in New York City.
“To do something like this for a whole year, on the road, being together in the tents, and collaborating on each one of their engravings is a feat,” said Claudine Chalmers, curator of the exhibit “A Great Frontier Odyssey: Sketching the American West” that is currently showing at the Park City Museum. “I don’t know of any other duo of artists who have done that.”
Chalmers will give her insights on their friendship and mission during “A Great Frontier Zoom Lecture” that will run from 5-6 p.m. on March 25. The lecture will be hosted by the Park City Historical Society, which oversees the museum.
Chalmers’ road to discovering Frenzeny and Tavernier started in France. She was born and raised in France, and went to school in Cannes and Nice.
“My high school sent me to California as the first exchange student from Cannes to Palo Alto, where I spent a year of immersion,” she said. “That’s when I fell in love with California.”
After completing her graduate and post-graduate studies in France, Chalmers settled in Mill Valley in the Golden State, where she and her family have lived for 30 years.
“I wrote my dissertation of the French adventure during the San Francisco Gold Rush, and as an appendix to that was a list of quick biographies of French artists who depicted California in the 19th century,” she said. “Among those was Jules Tavernier who was, by far, the most talented.”
Soon afterward, Chalmers’ friend, James McClatchy, who was the owner of the Sacramento Bee, sponsored her to write a book that focused on French hardships in California in the 19th century.
“After that I became so passionate about collecting all the woodcuts done by Frenzeny and Tavernier,” she said. “I just couldn’t stop myself.”
To date, Chalmers has written three books about these two artists, and was able to discover new things about them through her research.
“Their story has lots of components that are unusual,” she said. “They weren’t just the average wood engravers. They were both highly trained artists, especially Tavernier, who was a colorist.”
During their time touring the West, Frenzeny learned how to create a quick gouache portrait, something that Tavernier was known for, Chalmers said.
Frenzeny later used that skill during his own career that included illustrating works such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” she said.
Tavernier, on the other hand, developed into one of the most accurate painters of his generation, according to Chalmers.
“That’s particularly important because he became known as the painter of the American Indian,” she said. “His accuracy made his work particularly helpful for his clients, but also useful for the next generation of Western artists that came after him.”
In addition to sharing the same nationality as the artists, Chalmers was drawn to the two men’s works through their trek through the West.
“I discovered the American march west through them as I collected their work,” she said. “I also empathized with the hardships they went through to cross every state together as they carried their tents and their equipment they used to sketch and paint.”
Through her research Chalmers also identified why she loved the United States.
“It is because of the space,” she said. “The sense of space is liberating to me. It’s not just geographic. It’s personal. It’s professional. It’s intellectual. There is room for every way your life can expand here.”
That’s one big difference between the U.S. and France, Chalmers said.
“In France we have piled centuries and centuries of laws and rules and conditions on top of each other,” she said. “After I went back to France from my year in Palo Alto, it felt mentally heavy for me, so I decided to come back here.”
The idea to curate the “A Great Frontier Odyssey: Sketching the American West” exhibit came after she co-created a Tavernier exhibit with Scott A. Shields, associate director and chief curator at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.
“There was a side show of the exhibit that was about Frenzeny and Tavernier’s trek across the U.S., and when that show ended, I realized their work was too important to be forgotten,” Chalmers said. “They documented the real West, not the glamorized West. And their work should be considered a historic document, because it’s just the most accurate rendering of what happened.”
Chalmers, a daughter of a photographer, also prefers visuals to words.
“To me all the books in the world don’t give me all the information I get from an image,” she said. “So it’s exciting to present the story of the American West visually, because each sketch has its little details, it’s little secrets. I’ve spent a lot of time with each of them. I know them by heart, and that’s the treasure I have in sharing what I’ve learned.”
Chalmers is looking forward to the Zoom chat, because it will give her a chance to return to Utah, albeit virtually.
Back in the early 1960s, while she was working for her master’s degree in American land art in Ohio, Chalmers decided to take a cross-country road trip, which included a stop at Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty sculpture at Promontory Point.
“It was mind boggling,” she said. “I was with a friend and we took photos.”
The excursion also included a little mishap that Chalmers will remember throughout her years.
“Utah tarred me,” she said with a laugh. “There was a machine that was tarring the road, and my car got tarred on one side. Thankfully there were no feathers.”
When: 5-6 p.m. on Thursday, March 25
Cost: Free, but registration is required
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