Artful Players

by Birgitta Hjalmarson,
(1999, Balcony Press)

Jules Tavernier, hungry and in debt, accepts a stuffed peacock and two old dueling pistols in payment for a Yosemite landscape. Mark Twain poses as a reluctant art critic. California beauties match measurements with the real Venus de Milo, leading the judges to conclude that San Francisco women tend to grow larger heads.

      With a handful of wealthy Gold Rush barons as indulgent patrons, an active community of artists appeared almost overnight. “This is where I belong!” declared Oscar Wilde after outdrinking his hosts at the Bohemian Club. “This is my atmosphere! I didn’t know such a place existed in the whole United States.”

“At their best, they worked as if moved by an inner law, formulating answers that were most defiantly their own.”

Within little more than two decades San Francisco transformed itself into a sophisticated metropolis rivaling those of the East. Art exhibitions turned fashionable; on opening nights elegant carriages formed close lines along the curbs outside as the rooms filled with leading citizens in full evening dress. In high-ceilinged studios – amidst the smell of fixative and turpentine, with dirty brushes in the washstands, floors stacked with books – the artists posed the questions artists always ask. At their best, they worked as if moved by an inner law, formulating answers that were most defiantly their own. Many were names on the East Coast too. Artful Players brings them back to life, partly because their story is long overdue, partly because it’s such a rollicking good one.

Artful Players is at once inevitable and surprising. It was inevitable, perhaps, that someone should at long last write the history of art and artists in 19th century San Francisco. It is surprising, however, delightfully surprising, that such a history, now completed by Birgitta Hjalmarson, should be so thoroughly based in primary sources, so witty, so full of life and fun and telling detail, so reading like a novel.”

– Kevin Starr, California’s State Librarian,

Author of Americans and the California Dream

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Journal

by Birgitta Hjalmarson

Man, Woman, or Both?

This essay was first published by Women Writers, Women's Books in July 2019.  Garbo portrayed you in Queen Christina, beautiful, when you, in fact, were not. These days you’re celebrated as an early feminist, although you, of course, would have sneered. And to be...

Crayfish Rhapsody

When I was young, I went crayfishing with my father in Sweden. Although I can’t remember the exact year, it must have been on August 7, for that was the day the season began. My father and his brothers were fortunate enough to have their own fishing waters. They had...

Before Fylgia (6)

Before Fylgia, there was another story, told by the villagers themselves. Many of my readers have asked about it, and so I decided to post it here. This is the sixth installment. Not yet fiction, it occupies a realm of its own.      Carl Fredrik Lundgren was a man...