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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Carl Eytel

A Rio Grand Pueblo, 1918, Carl Eytel
There's an old saying having to do with success: "It's not what you know but who you know." Of course, there are some limitations to such a cynical viewpoint, but insofar as it goes, it also applies to artists. In the case of portrait artists, "It's not how you paint but who you paint." And, for the landscape artist, one might say, "It's now what you paint but where you paint." A couple days ago I wrote about an Australian artist named John Eyre, who became historically memorable not because he was such a great artist (he was mediocre, at best), but for the visual history of Sydney, Australia, which he almost inadvertently left behind.
Even in the Sonora desert, and long before Palm Springs became so "pricey," mediocre artists led a rather Spartan existence.
Very much cut from the same cloth was an American painter named Carl Eytel. He was born in 1862 near Stuttgard, Germany. His father was a Lutheran minister who died when Carl was just a child. With the death of his father, the young boy became a ward of his grandfather, who saw to it that he was well educated. At this point I usually mention that the child showed great promise at an early age in becoming an artist. Carl didn't. He wanted to be an American cowboy. That was, of course, taken as a rather silly ambition by everyone he knew, given the time and place. Instead, he studied forestry, which made more sense in that Germany had far more trees than it did cattle.
The Twelve Apostles, Carl Eytel.
After serving time in the Kaiser's army during WW I, Eytel set about to make his boyhood dreams come true. He emigrated to the United States and found work as a ranch hand in Kansas. Tiring, perhaps, of working with cantankerous live cattle, Eytel worked for some eighteen months in a slaughterhouse, "herding" far more docile to speak. However, that too no doubt grew tiresome after a while so when, the young man read an article in a San Francisco newspaper about the desert area of Palm Springs, California, he once more headed west.

Desert Scene, 1902, Carl Eytel
It was during this time that Eytel began to draw cattle rather than wrangle or slaughter them. The problem was that, as intimately familiar as he was with them, both alive and otherwise, dammit, he didn't know how to draw cattle. So, in 1897, by now probably more than a little homesick, Eytel returned to Germany to study up on the subject at the Royal Art School in Stuttgart. Inasmuch as that area of Germany is not particularly well-known for either palm trees or cattle, Eytel stayed for only eighteen months.

Untitled, 1910, Carl Eytel
Back in the United States, still deep-down wanting to be a cowboy, Eytel worked as a cowhand in the San Joaquin Valley for a time before eventually settling once more in Palm Springs around 1903. Living in a small cabin he built himself, the would-be cowboy artist spent the rest of his life in Palm Springs. Eytel often walked in his travels, sometimes covering as much as four-hundred miles in the Colorado desert on foot. His misadventures read like a western dime novel with which he was no doubt familiar. On one occasion he was nearly lynched as a horse thief while another time he was almost lynched again, this time suspected of being a German spy.

Coachella Valley, Carl Eytel
While living as something of a "desert rat" and starving artist, Eytel began to travel throughout the American desert Southwest accompan-ied by author, J. Smeaton Chase and painter, Jimmy Swinnerton. Later he served as a guide for the British photographer and journalist, George Wharton James to (I'm not making this up) "every obvious and obscure location of importance." Eytel then turned his art talent (such as it was) to illustrating James' two volume The Wonders of the Colorado Desert. The work was successful and received generally favorable reviews. The collaboration lasted for four years.

By burro or wagon, it sure beats walking.
The man in the back of the wagon is Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
During the latter years of his life, Eytel became a member of an evolving "brotherhood" of Palm Springs artists including the cartoonist and painter Swinnerton, author James, and photographers Fred Clatsworthy and Stephen H. Willard. The men lived near each other, traveled together throughout the Southwest, helped with each other's works, and exchanged drawings and photographs which appeared in their various books.

Palm Desert, Carl Eytel.
I see the desert, but where's the palms?
As an artist, Eytel was largely self-taught. Stylistically he might be considered an impressionist, though there's little evidence he either understood or utilized their color theories. He was not widely schooled, but he was widely read. Eytel possessed a knowledge not only of the Greek and Roman classics but of the best literature of England, America and his native Germany. More than a little eccentric, Eytel seldom slept indoors in order to inure himself to hardships in the belief it would toughen his constitution. Despite his concern as to his constitution, Eytel died in Palm Springs of tuberculosis in 1925 at the age of sixty-three.

Although, unlike John Eyre in drawing Sydney, Carl Eytel was not
"into" drawing urban landscapes (not that Palm Springs in his day
was what you'd call "urban." Yet his work, and that of his artist
friends, does provide a valuable starting point from which we can marvel at the incredible changes the 20th century brought to this desert oasis.
Eytel's most important art tool.


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