LÉON TROUSSET: NINETEENTH-CENTURY FRENCH PAINTER

OF TEXAS AND NORTHERN MEXICO

By Frederick Kluck
Associate Professor Emeritus
The University of Texas, El Paso

This paper was presented at the French in Texas Seminar at UT Austin in 2001
and at the Texas State Historical Association Annual Meeting in Corpus Christi, Texas, March 7 - 9, 2002.
Note: Since Mr. Kluck delivered his paper, a number of new facts about Leon Trousset have been discovered.

Copyright 2002
by Frederick Kluck

Léon Trousset: Nineteenth-Century French Painter
Of Texas and Northen Mexico

Although we have a certain amount of factual information about Léon Trousset, thanks to the efforts of a number of scholars in Texas, California and New Mexico, there is still a great deal we do not know. For example, we do not have an exact birth date for him, although estimates put his date of birth at about 1845; nor do we know where in France he was born. We know that he married and that he adopted a son, Antonio, with whom he was living in Ciudad Juárez as late as 1912 (Familytreemaker 11/28/00), but no family records or death certificate have been found to date. His last known and dated work is a painting of the Juarez City Plaza of 1899 (T. Trousset 6/12/99). His name does not appear in the archives of the Académie Julian, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts or the archives of the Louvre or Musée d'Orsay (Chalmers 12/29/99 ). This could mean that he was self-taught. It could also mean that, until such time as it is possible to know where in France he was born, we will not be able to learn whether or not he was trained in some provincial school or with a regional artist. In addition, we do not yet know how he came to be working in the Southwest and California or what motivated him to leave France and come to the New World. Several hypotheses have been advanced. Tracy Trousset, the former wife of the grandson of the artist's adopted son, has speculated that he may have come directly to California by sailing around South America, as did many Europeans seeking their fortunes in California, even after the days of the Gold Rush (T.Trousset 6/12/99). I have investigated the possibility that he may have come from the small town of Barcelonnette in the Département des Alpes de Haute Provence (formerly the Département des Basses Alpes), as thousands of Barcelonnettes did do so, starting in 1821, the year of Mexican Independence. Their immigration to Mexico continued throughout the nineteenth century until the outbreak of World War I (Ebrard 76-86). I wondered if there might be a Barcelonnette connection because two of Trousset's California works are of the Aguilllon Winery in Sonoma, and we know that Aguillon was born in the Basses Alpes (Howell 169). However, I have not yet received any concrete evidence of that one way or the other from the historical society in Barcelonnette.

The most intriguing hypothesis, one which is shared by at least three Trousset scholars, Nikki Silva of the Museum of Art and History of Santa Cruz, Sam Moore of El Paso, and Robert White of Albuquerque, is that Trousset came to Mexico as part of the French Intervention. Although this possibility cannot yet be substantiated by documents in military archives in France, the dates of his earliest appearance in Texas support this probability. We do know that Trousset did live in the León, Guanajuato region at some point in his life (Alvarez 11/8/01). Further possible proof that Trousset was in Mexico at the time of the Intervention is the existence of two paintings belonging to the family of Susan Dowd of Minneapolis. The paintings have been in her family for more than thirty years (Dowd 8/17/01). Unfortunately, they are not dated or titled, so it has not yet been possible to identify the exact site depicted in them. The paintings are of the same location seen from opposite sides of a river, perhaps of a sugar-producing hacienda somewhere in central Mexico, perhaps in the state of Veracruz. There are low mountains, the river, a kind of flood plain, what appears to be a fortified hacienda (and many haciendas were walled) and some kind of tower. Also, there are two flags in the scenes. One is a Mexican banner and the other is a French one with the three colors of the French flag. However, in this case, they are horizontal, not vertical. As this banner is very similar to the one used by a général de division in Algeria in 1857 (Flags 2000), except for the fact that the 1857 flag is swallow-tailed, and since the regime in France was the same in both the 1850s and the 1860s (the Second Empire), I felt that it was possible the same flag might have been used in both cases for an officer of similar rank. According to M. Pierre Charrié of the Société française de vexillologie, whom I contacted and who has written a number of authoritative books on French flags, the banner is French and it must be Trousset's rendering of the flag/pennon of the général en chef that was ordered adopted by General Forey on January 1, 1863. The only error is that Trousset does not show it as being swallow-tailed.

However, according to Charrié, "even [Jacques-Louis] David made [such] errors in his paintings" [my translation] (10/31/01). Now, this does not definitely tell us that Trousset was in Mexico with the French army, or because of it, but it does give weight to that hypothesis. If that was the case, did he desert, as did many French soldiers, and escape to the United States? We do not know. And we do not know under what circumstances Trousset painted the two Dowd works. He could have produced them in situ; he could have done them from memory at some later date; or, he could have produced them from his own imagination. If it were possible to identify the subject of the two paintings, that would allow us to say definitely that Trousset had been in Mexico at a certain point in time. What we can say without hesitation is that he was in Texas in the 1860s, because of a series of four ink drawings by him which are now in the National Archives. The four scenes are of places in Texas on the old stage coach route from San Antonio to El Paso. These sketches are important because they are among the few which record views of the region done in the nineteenth century "by an artist of any talent or training " (Moore 3/31/01). They show Devils River, the Pecos River at Horseshoe Bend Crossing, Varela (Barilla) Springs, near Fort Davis, and Fort Davis itself. Although there is some question as to the accuracy of the first three of the sketches, there is no doubt as to the accuracy of the drawing of Fort Davis, which is dated October 1867. Although Fort Davis was established in 1854, it was abandoned by the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil war. During the War, it was occupied by the Confederate Army. By the end of the war, it was basically in ruins. In July, 1867, reconstruction of the fort at the mouth of Limpia Canyon instead of in the canyon itself was begun (Day 111-118). What we see in Trousset's drawing is the fort at the beginning of its reconstruction from the slope north of the post. We can see the ruins of the old fort, tents, and the foundations of the new officer's quarters, etc. (Williams 2/5/02). Although Fort Davis has been correctly depicted in the sketch, there is something of a mystery as to the date of the work. According to Mary Williams, a park ranger at the Fort Davis National Historic Site, while Trousset may have taken the stage from San Antonio, it may not have been until after 1867. This is because he sketched the Horseshoe Bend Crossing, which was not a stage stop until June of 1868, and because "very few stages came through in the Fall of 1867" (Williams 12/22/97). However, as we have no knowledge of how much English Trousset knew at the time he first came to Texas, it is perhaps possible that he simply confused the place-names "Horseshoe Bend" and "Horsehead," where there was a crossing at the time. There was a stage that left San Antonio on September 30, 1867, and perhaps it was the one Trousset took. (Jacobson 79).

We know that Trousset was in the El Paso/Las Cruces area in the late 1860's and the early 1870's because of a July 25, 1885 notice in a Las Cruces newspaper, the Rio Grande Republican: "Sixteen years ago, Leon Trousset, a French artist, who is also something of a Bohemian, stopped for a while in Las Cruces and painted a picture of the town, with the Organ mountains for a background. This summer his wandering footsteps brought him back again and for the second time he reproduced the beautiful view. Wednesday night this painting was raffled off at the Monarch saloon and Charles McCarty, of Socorro threw 46, the high dice that won it. The artist is now engaged on a general view of {this place} which will also be raffled." Clearly, Trousset painted scenes of the region then, but with the possible exception of his Old Mesilla Plaza, to which I will return, no one has been able to discover what they might be of or where they might be.

We can follow Trousset's travels west to California because of a poem, "Découragements," he wrote in three parts. The first part is dated Tucson, August, 1869; the second, Mazatlan, April 10, 1874; and the last, San Francisco, November 17, 1876 (L. Trousset np). The poem speaks of Trousset's sense of desperation, of hopelessness at being so far from his native land. Although one might see this as a kind of Romantic posing (and influenced by Trousset's knowledge of such French Romantic writers as Chateaubriand), I think it important to remember that this was not an uncommon feeling on the part of those Europeans who, like Trousset, had set out on a voyage of adventure, only to wonder at times why they had done so. Another example of this same sentiment, one among many, can be found in the Journal de Voyage of Albert Benard, who left Paris to search for gold in California in 1850 (197).

In addition to the date of the third section of Trousset's poem, we have other evidence that he was in the San Francisco area by the early 1870's. The February 4, 1877, San Francisco Sunday Chronicle informs its readers that "M. Dupont, Frank Renoult and Leon Trousset, three French artists, have just arrived in the city." (1.6) Trousset seems, however, not to have remained long in San Francisco; instead, he joined the little artists' colony in Monterey, where he was associated with a number of other artists, included the French painter and illustrator, Jules Tavernier. The artists often ate at the restaurant of Jules Simoneau, who took paintings in exchange for meals. This is how Trousset's painting of Monterey, dated 1875, came into his possession. (Fisher 84) The work is now in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. Documentation from the Amon Carter has this to say about the work: "With slightly skewered perspective and a naive handling of paint, artist Trousset conveys historically important details of Monterey, California. Many adobe buildings and the old San Carlos mission church appear in the distance, while closer to the viewer Trousset includes a wood-burning American-type 4-4-0 locomotive. A teamster drives a horse-drawn freight wagon along the beach, which is strewn with whale bones." (1/29/2001).

There are a number of other works, both landscapes and scenes from early California history, by Trousset which date from this period. There is, for example, a View of Oakland across Lake Merritt from 1875, which is in a private collection. And there is the view of Moss Landing in Castroville. Because this painting includes the property of the Vierra family, one of whose members was Carlos Vierra, an artist who worked in Santa Fe from about 1914, some California art historians have surmised that Trousset was related to the Vierra family. However, this is not the case, as I discovered in conversations with Mrs. Charles Vierra of Moss Landing (2/17/01). The Moss Landing painting is now the property of Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church in Castroville and presently part of an exhibit at the California Historical Society, organized around Claudine Chalmers' forthcoming book, Splendide Californie. Incidentally, the catalogue for this exhibit continues to put forth the hypothesis that Trousset and the Vierras may have been related (Catalogue 27).

Why did Trousset leave California and return to the Southwest? Again, we have no definite answer to that question. It could have been because he had maintained ties there and felt that his chances for success would be greater in a region in which there were fewer artists with whom he would have to compete. He was, remember, a kind of itinerant artist, who depended on sales and raffles to earn a living. In any event, Trousset was back in the Southwest by the late 1870's. And this was period of great activity for him. He appears to have had as his base the El Paso/ Juárez area, but traveled at least as far north up the Rio Grande Valley as Albuquerque and as far south as Chihuahua and Durango. There is a view of Durango dated 1879 (Sotheby no. 124), as well as a painting of Chihuahua City and its Baroque cathedral - the northernmost of the Baroque cathedrals in Mexico - which dates from the early 1880's (Alvarez 4/29/97).

It is also from this period that most experts have dated his Old Mesilla Plaza (it was not dated by Trousset), which is in the collection of the NMAA, and which is part of the Lure of the West exhibition now traveling to a number of museums in the United States. I mentioned earlier that at least one scholar, Dr. Robert White, thinks that the painting may date from Trousset's earlier stay in the El Paso area. He bases this, in part, on the mention of the Organ Mountains which are part of one of the paintings dating from before Trousset's California days. And, the presence of some kind of circus apparatus, which was part of a circus or carnival that came to Mesilla in the 1870's, might indicate that White is correct. Even if we accept the 1885 date, there are conflicting statements about this work in publications of the Smithsonian itself. The printed catalogue for the Lure of the West, written by Amy Pastan, indicates that the painting is an accurate view of the village, and that "[Trousset] may have been making sketches of the Western territories on commission by the U.S. government" (104). However, the curator of the NMAA has informed me that there is nothing in the museum's files to indicate that Trousset was in the pay of the government (Truettner 1/16/01). In addition, the commentary I found in the Lure of the West web site gives a quite different interpretation of this work, stating that in it, "Trousset imaginatively mixed and matched history" by including in his picture a reference to a circus that had come to town in the 1870's. The web site also insists that "by the mid-1880s, when Trousset painted this view, the adobe buildings had long been replaced with brick" (NMAA). But this is not necessarily the case. Even though there were some brick buildings in Mesilla by that time - the first dates from 1863 - they were of a type of brick which was not resistant to the weather, and therefore, even they were covered with plaster or adobe. I am also puzzled by the insistence in both the catalogue and the internet site on the importance of the stage coach in 1885. By that time, railroads had replaced the stage coach, and Mesilla had lost its importance as a center of transportation to Las Cruces. Also, by this time, east-west communication along the southern border of the United States had become much more lucrative than trade with Mexico. There is, in fact, doubt in the minds of some as to whether or not this really is Mesilla. Mary Taylor, who is a life-long resident of Mesilla, and who has spent many years researching the history of the town, does believe the painting to be of Mesilla; but she agrees with the internet site that Trousset took a great deal of artistic license in representing it. She reached this conclusion after comparing the painting with a stereoscopic view dating from 1881 (Taylor 1-5). However, everything in the picture - the buildings, the circus apparatus, the landscape - was all there in the 1870's as well. So, even accepting that this is a free interpretation of the little plaza, I believe the date it was painted remains open to question. The fact that the work is not nearly as accomplished as the California paintings would seem to indicate an earlier date. Or, it could simply be a matter of a work done in haste, either at Mesilla, or later, from memory. The painting's having been done from memory might explain the inaccuracies/artistic license of the work. Another possibility, one which has been suggested by Francine Carraro, Director of the National Museum of Wildlife Art, one of the venues of the Lure of the West exhibit, is that the painting is rather not really Mesilla, but rather a "generic" view of a typical Mexican village plaza that is based on Trousset's visits not just to Mesilla, but to other towns as well (Carraro 3/7/02).

There is, however, no controversy surrounding the date or the authenticity of two views of Albuquerque painted by Trousset in1885. One is of New Town
Albuquerque, the other of Old Town, Albuquerque, which clearly depicts the facade of the church of San Felipe de Neri. This is one of several paintings which we know Trousset sold, or attempted to raise money from, by organizing a raffle in a saloon. In this case Trousset had the winning ticket. Was this by chance, or had he fixed the raffle so that he could raise money while keeping the painting for himself? We don't know (Moore 12/12/97).

One of Trousset's paintings which dates from 1889, and which is in a private collection in Juárez, is of Old Juárez Plaza. The Mission of Nuestra Se ora de Guadalupe was the most important historical monument in the city, and was the subject of earlier works by artists traveling with boundary surveyors after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase. It is not surprising then that Trousset should have chosen it as a subject as well. In it we see, as in the view of Chihuahua, typical character types so common to "local color" paintings of the nineteenth century: the women in sarapes, the caballeros on horseback, etc. An earlier example of this is a painting by the French painter, Edouard Pingret.

Trousset was known principally as a painter of landscapes or urban scenes, and this is perhaps because they were subjects that attracted buyers. However, he did paint at least two portraits of an important figure in Mexican history, Miguel Hidalgo. One is in a private collection in Juárez, and the other in the Texas Tech University Museum. Obviously, Trousset must have been copying some earlier portrait of Hidalgo, as the Mexican hero had been executed in Chihuahua in 1811 . And we can see that the pose of the figure in both is almost exactly the same, calling to mind typical poses of leaders or rulers of the past, such as the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington now on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, or the official portrait of Louis XVI by Callet. The backgrounds of the two portraits of Hidalgo are, however, quite different. The Texas Tech work emphasizes Hidalgo's position as a sage, a legislator. We see in it a clock indicating the hour of the grito, and an image of the Nuestra Se ora de Guadalupe, the "patron saint" of the revolutionaries. The Juárez Hidalgo, with the landscape, the cannon, and the campesino in the background (whom some people think might be a self-portrait of Trousset) connects him directly with the Mexican struggle for independence. Neither of the paintings is dated. However, there are pages from old newspapers pasted on the back of the Texas Tech work. One is the Courier des Etats-Unis, published in San Francisco. It contains a number of articles, one of which is a description of the Exposition Universelle de 1889. The other is in Spanish, and must have been published either in El Paso or Juárez, as it contains an advertisement for P.E. Kern, an early El Paso pioneer. Of course, we cannot know for certain that the painting was from around 1889, but the newspapers seem to lend credence to that possibility. The Juárez Hidalgo has just recently been restored and is now in the Centro Municipal de las Artes (the former Presidencia Municipal) in Juárez (Diario 3/1/02).

I want to end my presentation with a discussion of Trousset's View of El Paso in 1885, which the El Paso Museum of Art acquired in 1997, thanks to the generosity of J. Sam Moore, Jr. and family. It was this painting which aroused my interest in Trousset and piqued my curiosity as to how and why the artist came to be in the El Paso area in the latter part of the nineteenth-century.

I had, in the past, and with a colleague at UTEP, Sandra Beyer, studied various récits de voyage written by French travelers to Mexico in the nineteenth century. We had also investigated the history of the Barcelonnettes in Mexico, and so I wondered if there might not be a connection somehow to other French travelers or immigrants we had come across in our research. As I said earlier, I do not yet have any proof one way or the other about a Barcelonnette connection. But that explains my initial interest in Trousset. Also, when I first looked at the painting, my immediate reaction was that Trousset was drawing upon the usual stereotypes of a dynamic America and a sleepy, picturesque Mexico, while at the same time presenting an accurate view of the geography of the Pass to the North. By that I mean that the Franklin Mountains are clearly recognizable, as is the mesa behind the city which is now an exclusive residential neighborhood. We also see certain structures that did exist at the time, such as the first First Baptist Church building and Fort Bliss (when it was located near the Rio Grande).

If we compare Trousset's painting to two other views of the city, we can see that Trousset was careful to paint the natural setting and the El Paso side of the river as accurately as possible. One is Koch's Bird's Eye View which has been dated at 1884, but which may be a little later, as we can see in it the courthouse, which had not been finished that year (Metz 125). The other is a watercolor, also in the El Paso Museum of Art, by the German artist Velton, which depicts the El Paso/Juárez valley in 1888 from the north. Since Trousset's View of El Paso is one of at least two paintings of the city he did - one was raffled off at the Acme saloon, and one was commissioned by an El Pasoan, a Mrs. McNeil - he was dealing with buyers who could point out any errors in his work, a fact which he needed to keep in mind (Matzer 2).

The painting is signed and dated 1885, but it may not have been completed by that year. I say this because in it, we also see the smelter - ASARCO - which dates from 1887 (Metz 221). So we have a prosperous, growing town north of the Rio Grande. At the same time, the Mexican side of the border, from which the view is painted, presents us with a man on horseback, a man chopping down a tree, a crude wooden bridge - in contrast to the modern railroad bridge spanning the river - some simple adobe structures, etc. The Mexican section of the painting put me in mind of earlier European artists who had worked in Mexico, such as Pingret and Egerton, who had concentrated on portraits of typical - stereotypical even - character types, and had painted scenec views of the Mexican countryside as well as the outskirts of Mexican cities. One example is Egerton's Guadalajara, dating from 1834. And I also remembered descriptions of Mexico and Mexicans by French travelers as Vigneaux, Ferry and Brissot, who present the country as a kind of New World version of the Orient, comparing its architecture and customs to those of North Africa and the Near East (Beyer/Kluck 21). And although I continue to think that Trousset may have seen Mexico that way as well, my re-reading of the history of the El Paso/Juárez region has caused me to modify my initial stance somewhat. Oscar Martínez's history of Juárez, Border Boom Town: Ciudad Juárez since 1848, reminded me that "Prior to 1880 Paso del Norte (Ciudad Juárez) dominated the local valley, for the community on the north bank of the river (El Paso) constituted no more than a collection of hamlets. Modern transportation would, however, transform El Paso into a prominent U.S. southwestern city, and the relationship between the twin cities of the Pass would never again be the same" (19). The transportation in question here is the railroad. In May, 1881, the Southern Pacific connected El Paso to the west. And by 1884, El Paso was a railroad hub, with the Santa Fe line going north, and the Texas Pacific and the Galveston-Harrisburg-San Antonio coming from the east. In addition, the Mexican Central Railroad Company, an American concern, built the rail system leading from Juárez to the south. The effect on El Paso was immediate. In 1880, the population of the city was only 782. By the time of the 1890 census, it was 10,338. But, during those same years, Juárez was reduced to the role of an auxiliary port for trade in route to or from El Paso (22). In addition, there was no free trade zone in northern Mexico until 1885, and prior to that, Juárez had, according to Martínez, "an unimpressive appearance. Its main avenue was crossed by nine smaller streets on which were located adobe homes, vineyards, orchards and empty lots" (23). It is not possible to know for a fact that Trousset was presenting a stereotypical vision of the two countries, with a modern train steaming toward a sleepy Mexico town, bringing with it the advantages of a superior and more advanced civilization, or if he was attempting to depict the reality of the relationship between the two sides of the border at the time. Or perhaps what we are seeing is a bit of both.

It is believed that Trousset ended his career as a simple sign painter in the border region. As I mentioned earlier, we do not know the date of Trousset's death or where in Juárez he is buried. Although Nikki Silva has managed to trace forty works signed by or attributed to the artist - and now two more have appeared - there still does not exist a complete accounting of all his output. Obviously there is a great deal more digging to be done if we are ever to have even a fairly complete record of Léon Trousset's life and works.
Given Trousset's long career as a recorder of scenes of Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico (in addition to his work in California) at an important period in the history of the Southwest, such continued efforts are more than justified and could prove to be most rewarding.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I would like to thank the following for their help and advice in the preparation of this paper. They are: Nikki Silva, of Santa Cruz, California; Robert White of Albuquerque; Susan Dowd of Minneapolis; Tracy Trousset of Carlsbad, California; and Mrs. Charles Vierra of Moss Landing, California. They all were most generous in sharing with me their knowledge of Trousset, and many of them shared with me their files on him. I would also like to thank the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, the Texas Tech University Museum, Lubbock, Texas, and the El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas, for the loan of a number of slides, without which this presentation would not have been possible. The museums also provided me with valuable documentation from their archives. I thank Susan Dowd also for providing me with photographs of the two paintings in her family's possession, as well as allowing me to make slides of them. Above all, my thanks go to J. Sam Moore, Jr. of El Paso. It was his and his family's gift of the View of El Paso in 1885 which caused me to begin wondering about Trousset's life and works. Sam shared with me all he knew and allowed me full access to his many documents concerning Trousset, as well as patiently answering my many questions about the artist.

WORKS CITED
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_________. E-mail to J. Sam Moore, Jr. 8 November 2001.

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