More than a passing reference to the 1922 discovery of King Tut's tomb was bandied about during an historic gathering of wide-eyed witnesses to a recent art history landmark moment in Petaluma.
I was honored to attend the first unveiling in approximately 70 years of an astonishingly well preserved twelve by eight foot oil painting on canvas, a patriotic (mild) nude scene, titled California Yesterday and Today and created in Petaluma's City Hall in 1915 by bohemian artist and resident at the time, Belgium-born Professor Eugene Joseph Ferdinand Urbain.
A small, lively gathering of art and area historians, a restoration expert, the artist's grandson, Gene Urbain, directors and representatives from the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum (to which the painting was bequeathed by the artist's late son, Eugene Angelo Urbain, back in 1990) formed an expedition party of its own into the unlit, tomb-like interior of a public storage unit, from which this priceless piece of Petaluma history, rolled up and stored for nearly a century was about to be officially excavated.
Members of the modern-day expedition into the museum's unassuming, east-side storage space shared some good humored bantering amongst the seriousness and cultural significance of the morning, sharing a sense of the palpable excitement and awe Howard Carter and George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon undoubtedly felt at first glimpse of their 18th dynasty Egyptian pharoah's legendary treasure trove. Urbain's imposing, 400-pound, big, black, hand-hewed redwood coffin-like box had sat in splendid isolation from public view, after hiding in plain site for years of earlier repose behind the vintage fire truck, on the museum's ground floor.
Reasoning behind the keeping of this classic example of iconic symbolism under wraps for so very long has been largely cost related. Experts have long-since anticipated considerable expense in restoring such a large-scale canvas that would, over the (seven) decades, most certainly have suffered some degree of mildewed haze damage.
The painting was originally intended for the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Urbain, a musician as well as a painter, missed the deadline by two weeks. Later, he embarked upon an extended tour of small towns in Europe, displaying his masterpiece for paid viewing, through 1927. Old newspaper in the box indicated his travels culminated in the UK. "The box sat in his son, my father's garage, first in San Francisco, later in the East Bay, covered in tools, for close to five decades," said the artist's grandson.
Art historian Paula Freund, a volunteer and former board member at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum, has had her keenly trained eye on the contents of the long, black box for quite a while. Freund is the brainchild and steering life force behind the museum's upcoming exhibit, “Petaluma Viticulture History & Heritage: A Celebration of Wine and Community” (Sept. 21 to Dec 29, 2014). Photographic documentation of Urbain's Petaluma painting clearly depicted grapevines, hops, a cornucopia set before a background of fields and Sonoma Mountain beyond. She hopes the painting will have had sufficient time to rest, be stretched and varnished to be included as a focal artifact in the upcoming exhibit (for viewing at a special black tie Petaluma Winegrowers Gala fundraising event for the museum, taking place at Keller Estate Winery on September 20th, 2014.)
"With the 100th anniversary of the Pan Pacific International Exposition in 2015, I am in talks with the various Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, including the De Young, with a goal to have the Exposition's centenary celebration assist with restoration and framing costs of this important painting," said Freund. If successful, Urbain's colorful California Then and Now will finally make its appearance as originally intended, in San Francisco, before coming back to Petaluma for permanent display in the museum.
Art conservator and restorer, Dennis Calabi gently unrolled the painting in a second, private location, across town. The rapt group held its collective breath, looked on and listened as he described its condition as: "Blanched from humidity. The artist did exactly the wrong thing in rolling it. " The good news, however, was: "It was thinly enough painted so as not to cause any major problems. The canvas is nice and strong."
To an untrained eye, once the zombie dust had shaken, this bucolic scene of Sonoma County that Eugene Urbain had traveled so extensively with, appeared to be in vivid and robust shape. An iconographer's fantasy, Urbain also featured in the scene an American flag, Indians and a biplane as well as a derigible.
"Not much was written about Urbain, which is surprising because he really was a very competent painter," said Freund, though she pointed out that he is mentioned in the definitive catalog Artists in California, 1786-1940, by Edan Milton Hughes. "This is a blessing for Petaluma (the wine industry) and for the museum," she said.
Eugene Urbain trained as an artist in his native Belgium, first settling in the United States, in Philadelphia, in his mid twenties. The trombone-playing artist traveled to Petaluma with a horse and wagon in the early 1900s, taking residency with families en-route to paint their portraits. "He was a young man who fell in love with the American West. He was a considerable character," said his grandson.
Historians believe at least three of the children who modeled for the painting were of the Pedroni family, whose long time Delicatessen in Petaluma brought Bay Area fame for borthers, Al and John's popular potato salad (of which the recipe is still used today in the Petaluma Market and Lomardi's Barbecue). I did a bit of sleuthing of my own after hearing this and taking the year of the painting into consideration with the birth dates of the (Swiss American) Pedroni siblings, the likliest candidates for posing for the professor were seven-year-old Florence, five-year-old Olga and four-year-old Alfred. I hope this is able to be confirmed. It would be good to know who the other three in the main group in the painting were, too.
For more details on the museum's upcoming viticulture exhibit and special events, including the Petaluma Winegrowers Gala at Keller Estates and a Community Crush Celebration at the Museum on September 27th, see petalumamuseum.com or call (707) 778-4398.
Gene Urbain, the artist's grandson, played a trubute folk tune on his pipe in honor of the occasion.
Clearly prolific in his art, the professor's name was printed incorrectly on the flyer pictured below, but it does give a good idea of how active he was. His grandson said that access to photographic portraiture had gradually put the professor out of that particular line of business. His extra large 'masterpiece' painting provided him the perfect material to travel Europe and make some money along the way.