Toby Rosenthal was born in West Prussia in 1848 and moved with his family to San Francisco in 1858. He began drawing at the age of five, often on the margins of books and on the walls. At this young age he announced to his father they he wanted to be a painter of pictures when he grew up (Internet Archive). His parents did not have a lot of money but they devoted the family resources to furthering his art studies. They took great pride in his accomplishments and Toby in turn rewarded their support by his unwavering dedication to his art. Although they could not afford lessons with artist Thomas Hill, Toby’s parents sent him to drawing lessons at age ten. His talent quickly drew the notice of Mexican portrait and landscape painter Fortunato Arriola who was so impressed that he offered Toby lessons for free. Rosenthal copied portraits from daguerreotypes at Arriola’s studio, a setting that was often a chaotic gathering place for Mexican exiles. In 1865 at the urging of Arriola, Toby’s parents scraped together the funds to send him alone at age 16 to Munich where he became one of the first Americans to study art at the Royal Academy.
While in the midst of emerging new European art movements, Rosenthal oeuvre remained traditional subjects in the realistic style of the 19th Century. His paintings often told stories fraught with romance, danger, and death and elicited strong emotional responses from viewers. His parents supported his art career working in their tailor shop in San Francisco while Toby’s letters home were published in San Francisco newspapers to a public eager to hear about the local boy who was becoming a world famous artist. His paintings sent from Europe were exhibited regularly at the Mechanic’s Art Fairs in San Francisco.
Rosenthal returned to San Francisco in 1871 to considerable public acclaim, but soon returned to Munich where the San Francisco expatriate had a successful international career painting grand narrative pictures in the Munich School’s realistic style with historical, mythological, and romantic themes. His dramatic, emotional paintings often depicted stories of romance, danger, abandonment, and death that had great mass appeal. He remained the rest of his life in Germany where he married a local banker’s daughter and had a happy family life. Rosenthal was known for his unrelenting focus on his work which led to bouts of ill health; at one point his doctor insisted he take a break and rest for six months.
One of Rosenthal’s commissions caused an intercontinental controversy. He was commissioned by a wealthy San Francisco banker, Mr. Parrott, to paint a picture based on Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, an epic poem about Elaine who died from the unrequited love of Sir Lancelot of the Knights of the Round Table. As the painting grew in difficulty, Rosenthal asked for more money but was refused. Rosenthal eventually sold the painting to another San Franciscan, Mrs. Johnson, for several times the original commission. The breach of contract was much debated in the news of the day and Mr. Parrott eventually commissioned San Francisco artist Dominico Tojettl to paint another picture with the same theme. Crown Prince Frederick William tried to buy the Rosenthal painting from the new owner but to no avail. The painting was eventually displayed in San Francisco in 1875 to large crowds of more than a thousand people lined up daily for 12 days to pay a 25-cent admission to see the dramatic painting of the dead maiden who died from a broken heart, clutching a love letter to her breast and ferried by a grim boatman to Camelot. Toby Rosenthal’s parents, Jacob and Esther Rosenthal, proudly attended the viewings, standing at the front of the visiting throngs. During the height of the public frenzy, the painting was stolen and then retrieved. News surrounding the painting captured the headlines of local papers for days on end. Elaine clubs sprang up where and a new Elaine waltz was danced. Rosenthal’s “Elaine” was sent to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 where it took the gold medal. It was later sold by Mrs. Johnson and eventually became the property of the Chicago Art Institute.
The Society of California Pioneers has two Rosenthal portraits in our collection.
AskArt – Art Database. www.askart.com
Hughes, Edan Milton. 2002. Artists in California 1786-1940. Third Edition. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum.
Internet Archive, 2010 funded by San Francisco Public Library