Ernest Narjot was born in France in 1826 and raised in a family where both parents were artists who taught their son to paint. He studied classical art in Paris before being lured to the California Gold Rush in 1849 at age 23. After an unsuccessful attempt to establish himself as a professional artist in San Francisco, he left for the gold fields. The Foreign Miners License Law of 1850, which charged foreigners $20 a month to operate a claim, made it difficult for Narjot to make a living ((TFAO). He painted portraits of miners and genre paintings of Gold Rush life to support himself while attempting unsuccessfully to mine in the Mother Lode area for three years. In 1852 he joined a group of Frenchmen bound for the mines in Sonora, Mexico.
He found some success in Sonora owning a silver mine and ranch, breeding horses and painting. In 1865 when the French were at war with Mexico, Emperor Maximilian was overthrown and all French property in Mexico was confiscated. Narjot lost his property and was forced to flee overland to California with his Mexican wife. He set up an art studio in San Francisco on Clay Street, joined the San Francisco Art Association and the Bohemian club and taught the male life study class at the California School of Design. He had three children, a daughter became a teacher in San Francis and a son became a machinist who developed a gas engine built by the E. Narjot Co.
For over 30 years Narjot had a successful career painting landscapes, portraits, genre scenes of miners and Indians, Christian subjects, murals, and illustrating newspapers and books on California life. He created twenty-four sketches for Col Albert Evan’s book A la California: Sketches of Life in the Golden State, published in San Francisco in 1873 (Chalmers, 2001). He was also known for his ethnic character sketches (Mills, 1956). He traveled widely painting throughout California.
At the height of his career, Narjot’s artistic life came to a tragic end while working on an important mural commission on the ceiling of Leland Stanford’s tomb on the grounds of Standford University. He was blinded when some of the paint or plaster dropped in his eyes. Some sources report that he was partially blinded in only one eye, other sources say he was totally blinded or that he became progressively blind. His health further deteriorated with some accounts reporting paralysis and a growing depression that lead to mental decline and delusions of grandeur (Collections Online). By 1894 he could barely walk and was unable to paint and support his family. In 1897 thirty well-known California artists, including William Keith, Thomas Hill Arthur Mathews, and his former student Amedee Joullin, held a benefit sale of their works to support his family. His wife, who spoke only a little English, supported the family by selling Narjot’s paintings for a discounted price. He died a year later in 1898 at age 72. Many of his murals and paintings were destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906 and his surviving works are rare. The Leland Stanford fresco that had cost Narjot his eyesight was also destroyed in 1906.
By the 1880’s Narjot was considered one of California’s most talented painters known for his meticulous detail in the traditional 19th Century French style. The Society of California Pioneers is fortunate to possess four of these rare works, two genre paintings, a landscape and a portrait. Our genre painting New Years Festival in Chinatown painted in 1888 is remarkable for its artistic excellence, it received a Gold Medal at the State Fair in a competition with all of California’s leading painters, and for its historic content. Narjot depicts a positive image of harmony and integration during a time when there was intense anti-Chinese feeling in San Francisco (Harrison, 1989). By the end of the 1880s the art world of San Francisco was experiencing a decline and realistic paintings in the style of Narjot’s were becoming outdated. California Tonalism was coming in vogue with a more subjective approach expressing the artist’s imagination.
AskArt – Art Appraisals, Art Value. Action Prices, Art Database. www.askart.com
Baird, Dr. Joseph A. 1964. Catalog: “From Frontier to fire: California Painting from 1816 to 1916.” Art Department, University of California at Davis.
Chalmers, Claudine. The Heart of Bohemia,French Artists in California. Antiques & Fine Art Magazine, September 2002
Collections Online (www.collectionsonline.lacma.org)
Driesbach, Janice T., Harvey L. Jones, and Katherine Church Holland. 1998. Art of the Gold Rush. University of California Press.
Hughes, Edan Milton. 2002. Artists in California 1786-1940. Third Edition. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum.
Traditional Fine Arts Organization (TFAO). Art History of Each State within the United States of America. Resource Library is an online publication of TFAO devoted to American representational art. California Art History at https://www.tfaoi.com/aa/8aa/8aa230.htm