MetCollects—Episode 7 / 2016: Jules Tavernier's Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse

"Does hindsight intensify meaning?" Elizabeth Kornhauser on Jules Tavernier's Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse

Jules Tavernier (American, born France, 1844–1889). Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California, 1878. Made in San Francisco, California, United States. Oil on canvas; 48 x 72 1/4 in. (121.9 x 183.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, 2016 (2016.135)

MetCollects introduces highlights of works of art recently acquired by the Met through gifts and purchases. Discover a new work each month.

Elizabeth Kornhauser: In this gallery we highlight some of the most iconic landscapes of the American West, and they tell a particular story of the settlement of the land in the 19th century, but they do leave certain stories out in their depiction of pure wilderness landscape.

We're so thrilled to add a painting to the gallery that tells a very different story. The Parisian-born artist Jules Tavernier completed this painting in 1878, early enough in the history of the American West to show the Pomo people on the land that they had resided on for centuries around Clear Lake, California, just north of San Francisco. He was fascinated by the architecture of the underground roundhouse that they had built.

What at first seems like this very dark and mysterious scene, within just a few minutes, reveals all of this detail to you.

To the left you see the sacred mountain, Mount Konocti, which the Pomo Indians revered. The fire below illuminates some of the elders who are dressed in elaborate costume and are dancing around a painted pole. In the center of the roundhouse ceiling is an opening which allows the smoke from the fire below to exit, but it also allows a spotlight to descend on the central scene. You can see two young men dancing and blowing bird whistles in a rarely seen coming-of-age ceremony.

And then he fills the area with approximately 100 figures. You see women lined up in long, decorative dresses and very elaborate headdresses made of flicker feathers and shell work. Tavernier paints thickly applied flashes of color to illuminate the shells and beads. You feel like you're part of this sacred ceremony yourself.

And finally, one of the greatest surprises of this composition is that as you look across the faces of the Pomo Indian tribe's people, you see buried amongst them several white faces. You begin to realize that they represent the white visitors, the San Francisco banker Tiburcio Parrott, who has commissioned this work, standing next to his new friend and emerging business partner, Edmund de Rothschild, as well as other members of their entourage. There they are, in the midst of this sacred rarely seen ceremony, paying witness to it.

In hindsight, the great irony of this composition is that here we have the two white men who would acquire these lands, buying the mineral rights to the lands, and eventually moving the Pomo Indians off the lands that they had inhabited for centuries. So it is really symbolic of the story of the 19th century, which is rarely portrayed in any landscape painted by a major artist, but here we have it in this remarkable work by Jules Tavernier.

Director: Christopher Noey
Producer and Editor: Sarah Cowan
Camera: Sarah Cowan, Dia Felix
Production Coordinator: Lisa Rifkind
Production Assistant: Stephanie Wuertz
Music: Austin Fisher

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