La Cronica de Nuevo Mexico, León Trousset: An Itinerant in New Mexico

By R.B. Brown

Article in Word doc format

This article has been reprinted with permission from: La Cronica de Nuevo Mexico, the official publication of the Historical Society of New Mexico, April 2006, No. 67.

Buried inside the Las Cruces Rio Grande Republican of Saturday, July 25, 1885 was the following article: no headline, no by - line, just the article:
"Sixteen years ago León Trousset, a French artist, who is also some thing 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."

This brief note gives us a laconic introduction to León Trousset. It establishes him as a Frenchman and identifies his profession: an artist. It then describes him as eccentric and peripatetic. It also lets us know that Trousset visited and painted a view of Las Cruces in 1869, a view that included the Organ Mountains, which evidently Trousset repeated in 1885. It also identifies the third painting as "a general view of this place." As if to confirm his unconventional nature, it goes on to tells us how he sold his paintings and helps establish their initial value.
According to information gleaned from the different newspapers published in Las Cruces in 1881 (Beckett 2003), the Monarch saloon and billiard room was a relatively up-market or expensive establishment that sold drinks for 25 cents in order to have "a nice quiet resort of gentlemen." (Newman's Thirty Four [2/2/1881, p. 3]). Since bars, saloons and cantinas have always been popular places for people to congregate and dispose of their excess cash, it is not surprising that León Trousset saw them as fitting venues to sell his paintings.
Six months earlier, on Friday 23rd. of January, 1885, a shorter article in a similar vein had been published inside the El Paso Daily Times under the headline of "A Fine Oil Painting of El Paso:
The work of León Frousset (sic), will be raffled at the Acme saloon; 60 chances, one dollar each. Let everybody see it."
At first glance, this article reveals even less about Trousset, other than his presence in El Paso and the fact that people often misspelled his name, but it does confirm that he sought popular watering holes to sell his paintings and suggests that he was not concerned for their reputation. But we are seeing the beginning of a pattern.
According to the Albuquerque Weekly Journal and The Evening Democrat, Trousset exhibited two oil paintings - "Albuquerque, 1885" and "Albuquerque, New Town" - at the 5th. Annual Territorial Fair which ran from the 4th. to the 9th. of October, 1885. That Sunday found Trousset, along with the other exhibitors such as Ben Wittick, setting up their wares. Throughout the week, both newspapers repeatedly referred to the upcoming raffles that were to be held on Friday (9/Oct/1885). "Albuquerque, 1885" was raffled at the Fountain Head. Trousset sold 49 of the sixty tickets and won it back with number 48! Second place went to a Dr. Haslea with number 43. "Albuquerque, New Town" was raffled at John Buckley´s place and was won by a J. B. Bushnell with a throw of 42.

Trousset certainly was a lucky man able to earn between $40 and $50 a painting - a little less than a policeman's monthly salary in the newly formed Las Cruces police force (Becket 2003) - and able to justify his time spent "at the office"!
How did Trousset get to New Mexico? After two years of focused research, León Trousset remains a mystery. He first appears at Fort Inge, near San Antonio, Texas on 22 of September of 1867 and dies on 30 of December, 1917 in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. Such basic questions as: When and where was he born? Where did he grow up? What was his education? How did he spend his early years? and How did he get to San Antonio? all remain unanswered. What we do know has been learned from studying his painting and poems. The paintings are many and the poems are few.

León Trousset's obra can be conveniently divided into three periods that generally correspond to the time he spent traveling across Texas (Fall 1867), up and down California (1874 - 1876) and along the Camino Real (1882 - 1886 or 1887). Clearly there is a slight overlap as he had to cross the Camino Real to travel from Texas to California, but more importantly, there are many years about which we know virtually nothing.
The first period dates to the fall of 1867 and includes five pen and ink drawings of his journey across Texas. Much of the research covering this period has been done by Frederick Kluck (2002).
The second period dates to the mid - 1870s and includes the widest range of subjects: religious themes painted for the Los Angeles Cathedral; a historical scene seemingly painted as training exercise, as well as numerous landscapes that were to become his signature pieces. His techniques include oil, watercolor and gouache. During this period he was based in the Monterey Peninsula and traveled extensively from Los Angles in the south to Santa Rosa in the north. Much of the research covering this period has been done by Edna Kimbro and Nikki Silva (personal communication) (Chalmers 2001)

León Trousset's third period dates to the mid 1880s and includes urban landscapes from as far south as Léon, Guanajuato and as far north as Albuquerque, New Mexico. These works include urban landscapes of León, Guanajuato; Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco; Encarnación de Diaz, Jalisco; Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes; Durango, Durango; Chihuahua, Chihuahua; Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; El Paso, Texas, and at least nine more in New Mexico. It is those nine New Mexican paintings that concern us today.
Of these nine paintings, five have been clearly identified: one is in Washington, one is in Socorro, two are in Albuquerque, and two are in Santa Fe. "Old Mesilla" is to be found in the Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; "Park City and Billings Smelter" is in Socorro; "Socorro County Courthouse" is in the New Mexico Museum of Fine Art; "San Miguel Church and Convent" is to be found at the Zaplin-Lampert Gallery in Santa Fe and "Albuquerque, New Town" and "Albuquerque 1885" are to be found in the Albuquerque Museum.
The missing four paintings are views of Las Cruces that may be as early as 1867 and as late as 1887.
Most of the paintings can be attributed to Trousset on the basis of his signature in black or white in the bottom right hand corner. The signature generally includes the title. "Park City and Billings Smelter" has the title, signature and date in black on the bottom left hand corner. The date - 1885 - seems to have been added by a different hand in the case of "San Miguel Church and Convent."
It is often thought that as an artist develops, his technical abilities should increase correspondingly. However, there is no clear progression in Trousset's work: his quality seems to improve for a while when he is in California and associated with artists such as Jules Tavernier and Paul Frenzeny who established a salon in Monterey, California. (Chalmers 2002) Some of his later works are just as naive as his earlier works.

Trousset's style is his personal mixture of naive and romantic that suggests limited technical training in composition and perspective, which may have been derived from the basic skills learned as a draughtsman, and a desire to produce figurative or photographic - like representations. His treatment of clouds and people are quite personal, and his inclusion of certain elements is quite repetitive.

The composition of the landscapes that dominate his New Mexican obra tends to be very horizontal. They are clearly divided into thirds or quarters. The foreground is generally dominated by cardboard people, although occasionally the addition of a dark foreground seems to be an attempt to enhance the sense of depth that Trousset, or his customer, may have considered lacking. This variant is illustrated by "Albuquerque, New Town." The middle field is dominated by the major theme, albeit the colonial plaza of Albuquerque, or the county court house at Socorro, or the different buildings that make up "Park City and Billings Smelter." The upper field, albeit the upper third or the upper half tends to be either a light blue sky dominated by woolly clouds or pastel shades of pink, gold and blue common to romantic portraits of scenes depicted at sunset.
Although the figures in the foreground are depicted in great detail, they do not convey the sense of volume that is necessary for them to appear life - like. This is clearly demonstrated by the children and lady depicted in "Church of San Miguel, Socorro, New Mexico" or the figures jauntily spread around the Socorro County Court House. The figures depicted in "Albuquerque, 1885" are more varied, and include a cross - section of the physical types to be found in the local population: blonds, Mestizos, Indians and Chinese, they still seem more like caricatures rather than portraits of real or imagined people.

"Park City and Billings Smelter" is one of his more sophisticated works. While he does not surrender his sense of horizontality, the composition is not so flat and includes a more varied sense of presence than usual. This contrasts sharply with "Old Mesilla," which although it has one strong, vanishing point, is quite flat.
As can be seen in "Albuquerque, 1885" and "Church of San Miguel, Socorro, New Mexico," Trousset depicts clouds in a quite singular manner: woolly clouds in a blue sky. In the case of "Albuquerque, New Town" the colors of the sky and the woolly clouds are more varied ranging from blue and white to pink and gold, colors often used to romanticize western sunsets.
Although the major elements of Trousset's New Mexico paintings are static architectural features and buildings such as the County Courthouse in Socorro, and the church and plaza in "Albuquerque, 1885," the repeated inclusion of horses, mules, donkeys and dogs, generally in poses suggestive of motion, seems to be a clichéd attempt to achieve a sense of movement and depict drama or the hustle and bustle of urban life. Their absence from "Church of San Miguel, Socorro, New Mexico" and "Old Mesilla" heightens their sense of tranquility.

Detail of "Albuquerque 1885" by León Trousset (Dust jacket from "Albuquerque: A Narrative History" by Marc Simmons). Notice San Felipe de Neri church and flag pole in Old Town Plaza.

Socorro County Courthouse painting by León Trousset (1885)
Photograph from poster "New Mexico in the Guilded Age 1880-1990" an exhibit at the Palace of the Governor, 1980.

The same dog that can be seen in "Albuquerque, New Town" seems to have pranced across the "Plaza de San Marcos, Aguascalientes" some ten years earlier.
Wherever legitimately possible, Trousset included national flags. In his 1899 painting of Juárez, we can see the Mexican flag flying over the post office. In two views of a Mexican textile factory owned by Mexicans and Germans, Trousset displays both the Mexican and the German flags. And so, it is not surprising that we see the Stars and Stripes hanging from the flag pole in Albuquerque.

In 1908, some nine years after his last known work, The Río Grande Republican carried the following article:
"Painting of Las Cruces in the Early Days
Las Cruces, N.M., June 6 - Hanging on the north wall of the Palmilla club on Main Street, is an oil painting of old Las Cruces in the days of the cattle wars and gun men. It was painted by T. L. Troussett (sic), the old artist whose has painted a number of scenes in and around El Paso and Juarez, including the full length picture of hidalgo, the Mexican liberator, that hangs in the Juarez city hall. The painting of Las Cruces is about 3½ by 5 feet and was painted in 1887. It is done in colors and is as bright and fresh today as the day it was painted. The foreground of the historic old picture shows the Santa Fe depot, the same old one that is still doing service, with an A. T. & S. F. freight car being unloaded into a mountain wagon. A wagonette is just going away from the station with a load of passengers. The new court house is surrounded by a waste tract of land, the only building near it is the old jail on the rear of the court house lot.
On the square where the W. I. A. Park is now located, a cow puncher sits on his horse watching a handful of long horn cattle grazing nearby. A small clump of adobe houses mark where Las Cruces avenue first got its start, and over the roofs of these can be seen the towers of San Genevieve church with its twin crosses shining in the sun. Further down Main Street the building now occupied by the Las Cruces Realty company can be seen, the remainder of the street being adobe buildings."

Chalmers, Claudine (2001), Splendide Californie: French Artists' Impressions of the Golden State, 1786 - 1900, California Historical Society, San Francisco, CA
Beckett, Pat H. (2003) Las Cruces, New Mexico 1881: As Seen by her Newspapers, Coas Publishing and Research Co., Las Cruces, NM
Kiser, Bill: New Mexico Trade Tokens Las Cruces NM: Kiser (2004)
Kluck, Frederick, (2002) "Leon Trousset: Nineteenth Century French Painter of Texas and Northern Mexico," paper presented to the Texas State Historical Association Annual Meeting, 7- 9 March, 2002, El Paso, TX

The author would like to thank Jorge Alvarez Compeán, Robin Arney, Claudine Chalmers, Pat Beckett, Dennis Daily, Rick Hendricks, Nicolas Houser, Billy Kiser, Frederick Kluck, J. Sam Moore and Nikki Silva for sharing their knowledge and their continued support.
A version of this article presented at the 2006 Historical Society Annual Conference. RBB

Roy B. Brown studied archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona and has worked largely in northern Mexico. The need to find illustrations for archaeological reports planted the seed that has led him to study nineteenth century travelers, artists and photographers such as Adolph Wislizenus, Thomas Moran, Ben Wittick, Philipp Rondé and León Trousset. He has published numerous articles, chapters and books, both in English and Spanish, covering different aspects of archaeology, history, paleontology and anthropology. He is a member of a number of local, national and international professional organizations. He is Head of the Anthropology Section of the Texas Academy of Science and International Liaison Officer of CARTA: The Camino Real Trail Association.