cabot yerxa

An American in Paris

Almost a century ago, Desert Hot Springs pioneer Cabot Yerxa studied art in France and documented the time in his journal.

Janice Kleinschmidt Current PSL, History

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A 1957 photo of Cabot Yerxa shows him holding a canteen reading “Walk 14 miles for water 1913.”

“Cabot Yerxa, who is as sinewy and seared by the desert sun at 73 as a dried manzanita limb, has always looked upon himself as an artist,” wrote Harry Lawton in a 1956 Desert Sentinel newspaper article. Lawton quoted the homesteading pioneer of Desert Hot Springs as stating that he intended to paint a member of North America’s “300 major tribes,” an endeavor he estimated would take him to the age of 120.

“I do other things to eat, but art is my main interest,” Yerxa told Lawton. “There’s an aching trace of disappointment in Yerxa’s soft-spoken voice when he speaks of art,” Lawton concluded. “His paintings have brought him little fame or even monetary remuneration.”

Yerxa died of a heart attack nine years later, long before his 120-year goal. His lengthy obituary lauds his widespread entrepreneurial adventures and building by his own hand what is now Cabot’s Pueblo Museum. Alas, the tribute only mentions in four words — “studying art in Paris” — his previously stated “main interest.”

Fortunately, the astute, witty, and charismatic artist/entrepreneur wrote prolifically about his life. And when he crossed the ocean to study art in Paris for four months, entering Académie Julian two days after his arrival, he recorded his observations and thoughts in a journal that includes impromptu sketches and colorful anecdotes that paint a picture we can appreciate close to a century later.

On the following pages are chronological journal excerpts primarily related to his studio time.

DesertHotSprings

MONDAY [July 27] started to art school. Mostly French students, one American from Buffalo, three from South America, one German, one English, two women, one from French possessions — about 25 altogether. Each new student has to treat the whole bunch to chocolate and rolls in a queer little shop in Rue du Dragon. Today it was on a Spaniard, and tomorrow I pay. They are young and old, and some young men with big bunches of whiskers. Another one has never had a haircut, the way he looks. But they seem happy and everyone speaks French, so I’ll learn too.

YOU LEAVE Rue du Dragon through an arched alley into a cobblestone court, then enter school from that into kind of a small office, then through that into very large room. Drawing class in middle. Sculptors on the left and architects on the right. This is summertime and only about 25 working altogether. Season starts in October. The room is very high ceiling. On the left are hundreds of statues — heads, hands, etc. — of clay or cement done by students or as examples. All ’round rest of the room are hundreds of drawings and paintings in all sorts of styles done by pupils or, having taken prizes somewhere, are returned to the school to encourage students. In one corner is a collection of decorations for buildings, in another a large box of model clay, in another two or three chairs. Three stoves are in the room, with stovepipe going to the nearest chimney. All ’round the walls — from floor to 5 feet high, also posts — students have put the paint from palette until it is 1 inch thick for hundreds of square feet.

This paint must have taken a very long time to accumulate, perhaps a hundred years on a guess. Anyway the place is very old. Scattered all about the floor are stools, easels, model stands, partly done clay statues, or paintings or drawings, etc. The students are mostly French and are noisy; they sing, whistle, shout, throw clay, dance, smoke, and otherwise act perfectly at home. … Wednesday they take a hat collection for the model, Saturday another for the teacher to criticize the drawings. No teacher in the class during week; everyone does as he pleases in every way.

People keep drifting in and out of the room all day, jabber some French, wave their hands or canes and go again, mostly students of some kind in to see someone or ask questions, etc. From the court a door enters the back of a small art store where paper, paint, brushes and all other things are kept for sale at reasonable prices to art workers. The Turk (a very small fellow with bright eyes and white teeth) is the best painter. He has been working 10 years and does very good work. Rest of the class is mixed, from beginners to quite good.

SUNDAY [AUG. 2]. Musée du Luxembourg — very fine statuary and paintings, then walked to Louvre, which is a vast place with many art treasures. … Place packed with thousands of people. One fat, shapeless woman was finding fault with shape of Venus de Milo.

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Cabot’s Pueblo Museum

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A portrait of a model Cabot Yerxa painted at Académie Julian in Paris.

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Cabot Yerxa sketches

AUG. 10, 1925. Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Went out here for first time 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. First pose one hour, two of 1/2 hour, and then five minutes each. About 60 working here, men and women, mixed class. Sit in four half-circles ’round model stand.

Sunday went to the Salon, which is exhibition of pictures by living artists. Thirty-five rooms full of pictures, about 1,200. Some fine pictures, of course, but a lot of this ultra-modern stuff you would not carry home.

At Julian’s this morning the Spanish boy from Colombia, South America, came in with a very light-colored suit on. Next to him works a careless Spaniard of some kind, painting. Well, the Colombia boy got up to look at the model, and the Spaniard laid down his palette on the stool. So Colombia sat down in 1/2 minute, square onto all those colors — red, green, yellow, blue, purple, etc. The Spaniard was so excited he just danced ’round. Colombia commenced to understand what had happened to his new pants, and the crowd yelled in glee. So he got up and sat down on another stool to decide what to do next. They put him over a barrel and worked with turpentine, water, and soap rags until the worst was off; and he went back to his drawing again. But no one had cleaned the stool, so down he sat in all the paint a second time.

ON THE WALL is a painting of a man, vigorous and strong, posed as a dweller of Palestine. It bears a date of 1895. On the model stand today is a bent old man. His brownish body shows the shrunkenness of age about the chest and stomach, even in the poor light of a rainy day through a dull skylight. Patiently between poses, the old man puts on glasses and endeavors with clumsy fingers to put still another patch atop the old ones to make his clothes more serviceable for coming winter weather. There is a certain resemblance between the picture on the wall and the model.
So I question him. Yes, he and the man on the wall are the same. For 30 years, he has posed in Paris studios and obtained his wine and bread and cheese in honest ways. But times are not what they used to be, and artists seem always to want young models. And he is not young. 30 years makes such a change in a man’s body. Rain beats down on the dull skylight. The old man runs brown fingers through his white beard and settles into the pose.

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The artist’s tools on display in his namesake museum.

The old man leans against the doorframe. Would we like him to play? Yes? All right, he will, and from a worn case he takes out a violin, and tenderly wiping the dust from it, he adjusts it to his chin and plays many old pieces of France. He does not pause, but plays from one thing to another as though he were glad to play and thus to forget.

I WALKED into studio late this afternoon and have learned never to be surprised at what I see. A man rushes ’round the studio with only a small Roman shirt on. Bare legs and arms and feet. He carries a sword and on his head is a paper crown. He declaims in French and strikes tragic poses. He tosses the crown aside. He grabs up a large cloth. He is Nero. He is Julius Caesar, or he is Pontius Pilate. He is Christ with the cross. He takes off his only garment, the shirt, and jumps on the model stand. He is a slave. He screams lines from French drama. He flies into a rage. He pleads for his life. For over half-hour he goes through his lines and classic poses. What is he? He is an actor who lost his place on the stage through drink, and now he is a professional art model and tells with pride the characters he can assume and for what artists and studios he has posed.

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The journal kept by Cabot Yerxa of his 1925 visit to Europe is included in Cabot Yerxa Adventurer: Memories of an Essential American Life. That book and others covering the pioneer’s life are available at Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. cabotsmuseum.org

HUNDREDS OF PAINTINGS done by former students adorn the walls. Some dated 60 years ago. The room is very large with much sky light. It is littered all about with the various paraphernalia found in studios: statues, casts, model stands, stools, easels, bits of costumes, cartoons, clay models of statues, drawing boards, paintings, drawings, canvas, and partly completed works of sculptors. On the floor are torn drawings, bits of charcoal, splashes of paint, cigarette stubs, pieces of letters with foreign stamps, drying lumps of clay, white scraps of plaster of Paris, but no money.

THE INSTRUCTOR has a running vein of humor. “That is a nice little crooked line and it would do for a river on a map, but on the human figure there is no such line at all.” … To composition of Apollo driving morning chariot: “Make those horses of more importance. Make them the life and fire of the picture. You have painted here a pair of four-cent donkeys.”

THE MODEL this week is a Spaniard who in his younger days was a bullfighter in the rings of Spain. He has several scars received in the bullring. He poses and plays guitar for a living in Paris now. …

Mateo brings his guitar along and between poses he plays Spanish pieces and sings. He is an old man, but under the stimulus of the music and songs, he gets excited and stamps the floor, and his eyes burn that smoldering fire of Spanish blood. You never see other nationalities have it, and you never see a real Spanish person without it.

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Cabot Yerxa’s painting of the Seven Palms, then one of Desert Hot Springs’ main water sources.

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A Yerxa sketch and his painting of Mateo, a Spanish bullfighter in his younger days who then modeled in painting studios and played guitar in Paris.

OCT. 15, 1925. Julian’s was a picture this p.m. The Russian soldier posed for sculptors, the Greek for a statue, the bullfighter Mateo for the painters, and the architects at work in their corner. [Two students] were playing the guitar. Cigarette smoke thick all over. The men all cheerful, singing or whistling, some working, some loafing. Hundreds of pictures hung up ’round the walls, the place littered with all the things we use in one grand, hopeless confusion and disorder. No one in his place that did not belong there, except one or two girl models not working; and they do belong to the atmosphere more than anyone. They talk to those they know, speak words of interest or praise, put an arm ’round the shoulder of a favorite perhaps, return jests, and polite to everyone. Julian’s was a picture; I will long remember this day.

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Cabot’s Pueblo Museum today.

Old man on stand has been model 30 years. Frenchman at his left has a head that goes straight up from collar and slants in from eyes. Looks as though someone hit him on back of head between the ears with a shovel, then slammed him one on the forehead. Man with a hat breaks into French songs at any time at all. Charles is the black man from Haiti French islands. Next man is a Belgian with a scholarship to pay his way. Curled hair and glasses is a loco French type always giving advice unasked.

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Students at Académie Julian, accompanied by descriptions of them from Cabot Yerxa’s journal.

Old man, white chin whisker and mustache, is the best artist in the bunch, been at the game all his life. Tall, curly head, an Austrian, looks and acts like a spear carrier out of some opera; has no fingers on his right hand but draws well. Short fellow is a Russian, sober and steady worker. End man with glasses, American, very mild. Girl is extra model full of ginger. Man with beard a Jew 18 years in school of art; draws well and leaves all followers behind in eating sweet rolls. Girl’s hand rests on the Swede whose derby hat got clay. Curly hair, dark skin is Maareek, Algerian from Tunis. Next is Spanish from Colombia; next Spanish from Peru; and down in front is the studio cut-up, a French boy, very bright and full of fun. There is endless conversation or horseplay going on all day long in all languages.

Expo Critique

Paris hosted the sixth-month International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries in 1925. Cabot Yerxa recorded his reactions, excerpted below.

THE DESIRE and the intent of the exposition is to urge progress and change in designs for clothes, furniture, houses, and so on through the list of modern needs. And within the exposition are presented the very latest and most original ideas covering everything from new designs in aeroplanes to changes making even gravestones look cheerful. So from building to building you go and see what the world has to offer in new lines and colors for homely things of everyday life as well as paintings and sculpture.
For instance, they have taken that old familiar black kitchen stove and turned out a new pattern all decorated up with fireproof glazed tile in colors and bronze work until it looks better than any piano you ever saw.

OF THE BUILDINGS, that of Denmark is a crude mass of brick without art interest and its interior lacks purpose. …

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Cabot Yerxa in Paris in 1925.

Soviet Russia built a crude nightmare design of a building in futurist use of cubes and triangles applied to architecture. This fantastic thing is painted a very distressing shade of red. Diagonally across the building goes a flight of steps, up one side and down the other. I asked many people the idea of the steps and other queer things about the building. But no one knew and I doubt if the Bolshevists have a clear idea themselves.
Italy presents a beautiful building and a few high-class works of art and painting. …

Among other buildings deserving of special mention are those of Great Britain, Belgium, Austria, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Poland, Sweden, Brazil, Greece, Switzerland, Jugoslavija, and Turkey. It is to be regretted that the United States is the only country of any importance not represented.

NEAR THIS ROOM [one filled with wax figures] was the most amazingly extravagant collection of women’s clothes, hats, shoes, jewelry, and furs that the world has ever gathered together. All new designs and new colors. Even the models used for displaying the gowns were of new design made for the exposition. Women went through these rooms gasping, chattering, and sighing. Some I know were sobbing and with tears because they could not have the beautiful things they saw.