Every creative genre has its famous couples, from John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. In the California Impressionist world one well-known pairing is Elmer and Marion K. Wachtel. The Jonathan Club displays paintings by both of them, with Elmer’s oil Winter in Topanga and Marion’s watercolor April Morning, Santa Monica Canyon.
When Marion Kavanagh (1876-1954) moved to Northern California from Chicago in 1903 to study under painter William Keith, it was Keith who advised her to continue her tutelage with a painter in Los Angeles, Elmer Wachtel (1864-1929). She took him up on this suggestion, moved south, and a relationship quickly struck up between instructor and student, concluding with Kavanagh and Wachtel marrying in 1904.
The two frequently went on painting excursions together, rigging their buggy into a mobile art studio. They traveled extensively throughout Southern California and the southwest to capture dramatic scenes. While Elmer composed his landscapes in oil, it is said that Marion primarily painted in watercolor to keep her own work separate from her husband’s. Elmer was lost in a fatal accident in 1929 while on a sketching trip in Mexico, and the story goes that with this loss Marion was unable to paint for a period of a few years. In the 1930’s, when she began painting and exhibiting again, she had shifted to oil paint as her chosen medium.
When you gaze at their paintings, you can see how much each had influenced the other. I sense a strong camaraderie between them and imagine what discussions they must have had on their painting trips and in the studio. They share a similar color palette, and are both known for placing dramatic trees in the foreground with a meandering path that draws the viewer into the background.
When the Marion Wachtel watercolor came into our possession in 2016, it was agreed to display “her” in a darkened area. This spot was mainly selected to minimize UV exposure to this delicate watercolor, but the romantic in me is pleased that in this placement, everyday paintings by Elmer and Marion can gaze at each other from across the room.