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Border painter's life a mystery

Louie Gilot
El Paso Times
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A visitor from California came to see one of the most popular paintings at the El Paso Museum of Art on Tuesday and to ponder the mysteries surrounding its creator.

The painting is "View of El Paso, Texas, 1885," by Leon Trousset, a Frenchman, a prolific painter and an avid traveler who left a trail of oil paintings and sketches of early border life throughout the Southwest and northern Mexico.

The visitor was Tracy Trousset, who married Trousset's great-grandson and became fascinated with the Trousset -- pronounced "troo-say" -- history, or lack of it.

The painting shows a view of El Paso from what is now Downtown Juárez and what was then an idyllic rural setting traveled by a wandering donkey. On the other side of the river, El Paso was a growing urban sprawl sliced through by a brand-new locomotive -- the railroad arrived in El Paso in 1881.

Tracy Trousset, who commissioned a reproduction of the painting for her Hemet, Calif., home years ago, set eyes on the original for the first time Tuesday.

"This is my favorite. The beauty and the details," she said.

For El Paso, the oeuvre is a historical document.

It sheds light on the crucial period when El Paso transformed from a sleepy town to one connected by rail to the national economy.

"It's one of three paintings of El Paso in the 19th century at the museum. We use it a lot on school tours to talk about how the city has developed," said Ben Fyffe, the interim head of education at the museum.

The painting was on the cover of the 2001 Southwestern Bell El Paso telephone directory. Other Trousset works adorn the jacket covers of historical books, and one scene, a view of old Mesilla, is in the Smithsonian collection in Washington, D.C.

"View of El Paso" is a gift to the museum from retired El Paso lawyer J. Sam Moore Jr. who bought it at auction from Sotheby's in 1997, narrowly winning the bid over an Austin collector.

For the past eight or nine years, Moore, Tracy Trousset and others have been corresponding and discussing the life of a man who left no journal, just three cryptic poems.

When and where was he born? How did he get to the United States? What motivated him to paint the unglamorous border?

"We'd love to know," said R.B. Brown, an adjunct professor of anthropology at UTEP.

Just as Trousset paintings keep popping up -- Brown found one in Mazatlan during his Christmas vacations there -- Brown believes new information will surface.

The first trace of Trousset was a sketch of Fort Inge, Texas, in 1867. And the last was his death certificate that Brown found in Juárez a few months ago. It was dated 1917. He was in his 30s when he painted "View of El Paso."

Tracy Trousset has scrutinized the Trousset paintings and poems for clues.

"He was a very religious man. Almost every painting has a mission on it. He also did some work commissioned by churches in California. The poems seem very religious as well," she said.

The poems also show a longing for his native land, including this line, "alone, lost without a homeland." Such lines make Tracy Trousset suspect that her family's ancestor had been somehow forced into exile.

Officials at the El Paso Museum of Art pointed out that the strong composition in "View of El Paso" hints at some formal artistic training in France.

Brown said Trousset used to raffle off his paintings in saloons, such as the Acme Saloon in El Paso, selling $1 tickets, then often buying the paintings back from the winner, to sell them again later. They would fetch $40 to $60 at a time, Brown said. "View of El Paso" was valued at $34,500 when it was sold eight years ago.

After the El Paso viewing, Tracy Trousset, Moore and Brown headed to the Centro Municipal de Artes in Juárez to see a portrait of Padre Hidalgo by Trousset, to the museum of the Ex-Aduana for an exhibit of Trousset works, and to meet with Jorge Alvarez, the Juárez city manager and a Trousset collector.

Louie Gilot may be reached at; 546-6131.

Victor Calzada / El Paso Times
El Paso Museum of Art interim head of education Ben Fyffe and Tracy Trousset talked Tuesday about the painting by 19th-century artist Leon Trousset.


  • 1867: Leon Trousset draws a sketch of Fort Inge, Texas.
  • 1880s: Trousset spends some time in California with artists known as the French Bohemians.
  • 1885: Trousset paints "View of El Paso." A notice in the El Paso Daily Times, Jan. 23, 1885, may refer to the painting. It read, "A fine oil painting of El Paso, the work of Leon Frousset (sic), will be raffled at the Acme Saloon: 60 chances, one dollar each. Let everybody see it."
  • 1917: Trousset dies in Juárez.
  • 1997: Retired El Paso lawyer J. Sam Moore Jr. buys "View of El Paso" at Sotheby's and donates it to the El Paso Museum of Art.

    Tips on Trousset

  • Do you have historical information on French painter Leon Trousset? Please call J. Sam Moore Jr. at 546-8229.

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