New exhibit has acclaimed artist’s early works on view for first time at Historical Museum
Portraitist Clarence Mattei (1883-1945) captured images of notable figures on the local, national and international stages of his time.
But his roots are deep in Santa Barbara County as the son of the founder of famed Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos.
A new exhibit at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, “Clarence
Mattei: Portrait of a Community,” on view now through May, showcases
the artist’s work in oil, pen, pencil and charcoal from 1898 to 1945. It includes drawings made in Los Olivos from the artist’s teenage years, which are on view for the first time.
“This is an incredible look at one of our most well-known residents and a
celebration of a career that spanned more than 40 years,” said Dacia Harwood, museum director. “We’re especially gratified to present the early drawings, which were recently gifted to us and have not been exhibited before.”
At the height of his career, Mr. Mattei was among the most sought-after portraitists in the country, creating images of influential people, including a president, as well as prominent local residents and tourists visiting his El Paseo studio.
But his beginnings were in Los Olivos, where his father, Swiss-Italian immigrant Felix, founded the stagecoach stop Mattei’s Tavern in 1886. It became a popular hotel and watering hole, a reputation that continues to this day.
Mr. Mattei was 15 when he made a pen-and-ink rendition of Emmanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” which is included in the exhibit.
While staying at Mattei’s Tavern, philanthropists Herman and Ellen Duryea saw Mr. Mattei’s work and became his patrons. They paid for his professional training and for him to attend the prestigious Mark Hopkins Art Institute in San Francisco from 1900 to 1902, which ultimately launched his career.
He later studied in Paris at Académie Julian under Jean Paul Laurens and opened a studio in New York City.
Early works in the exhibition include oil portraits of Mr. Mattei’s family and tavern regulars, along with early renderings of the locals who worked and hung around the tavern, from cowboys to cooks to quirky characters. These drawings are on view for the first time.
Noted American portraitist John Singer Sargent met Mr. Mattei in London in 1905 and became a good friend, teacher and mentor to the young artist. He encouraged Mr. Mattei to pursue his charcoal portraits, which the artist did beginning in 1914.
He became a sought-after artist for portraits, and the new exhibition showcases how he captured luminaries of the era, such as President Herbert Hoover; artist John Singer Sargent; and Henry S. Pritchett, astronomer and president of MIT. Many are inscribed with dedications
from the artist.
Local civic leaders also commissioned portraits including philanthropist Amy DuPont, industrial heiress; Peggy Stow, daughter of Sherman and Ida Hollister Stow, who built Stow House in Goleta; Thomas More Storke, publisher of the News-Press; and others.
The exhibit also features several unnamed individuals, who the public is invited to help identify.
What is believed to be among Mr. Mattei’s last works is also on view. The 1944 charcoal portrait inscribed “To Suzanne from Uncle Clarence” is of his niece Suzanne Mattei.
Mr. Mattei died in Santa Barbara on April 2, 1945.
Mattei’s Tavern, a Santa Barbara County historic landmark, recently reopened as the restaurant and bar in a new 67-room luxury resort named “The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern,” which is slated to open this month.