online book
Xavier Timoteo Martinez
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



Mexican War
World War II
Chicano Movement

Historic Sites
Selected References


A History of Mexican Americans in California:

Martinez House
Oakland, Alameda County

The Martinez House in the City of Oakland is a two-story structure, built almost entirely of redwood in the Craftsman architectural style. Major alterations completed in 1951 included remodeling the upstairs by converting the sleeping porch into a small kitchen, and adding a half-bath and an alcove for dining. A larger window replaced the small window on the western side of the original studio area. Downstairs, the old kitchen was eliminated, a larger bedroom was constructed, and a carport was added.

Xavier Timoteo Martinez, Mexican-born painter, poet, philosopher, and art instructor at the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland from 1908 to 1942, was a pivotal member of California's art community from the last decade of the nineteenth century until his death in 1943 at the age of 71. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1869, of mestizo origins and a middle-class social background, Martinez counted among his teachers, colleagues, and intimate friends some of the most influential contemporary artists, literary figures, and social critics of the United States, Mexico, and Europe. His studio and home in the Oakland hills, replete with momentos and personal tributes, reveals his relationship with Cezanne, Whistler, George Sterling, Herman Whittaker, Maynard Dixon, Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Jack London, among others.

Built on a lot given to him in exchange for a painting, his studio and home was designed by Frederick Meyer, founder of the California College of Arts and Crafts. It was built by Henry C. (Booster) Smith, with the help of Jack London, Henry Whittaker, Martinez himself, and others — while all imbibed great quantities of red wine. To Martinez's "open house," held every Sunday, came many of the artistic and literary greats of the early twentieth century, along with students and other friends, to eat, drink, and discuss current trends in art, literature, and politics. Martinez's centrality in the San Francisco Bay Area's early twentieth-century "Bohemian scene" is well documented. His centrality to development of art in twentieth-century California was officially recognized at the time of his death in 1943, when in respect for his achievements, the 55th California State Legislature then in session called an adjournment. Martinez is the only painter to whom the legislature has accorded this tribute.

Though basically European in artistic training and ideology, Martinez was one of the very few artists and intellectuals of his generation and circle in California who were neither Anglo North American nor European by birth or cultural heritage. While his work reveals full acceptance of European artistic traditions, his post-1913 paintings, as well as his personal life, reflect a tension and conflict between his non-Anglo, non-European mestizo Mexican origins and the Anglo-European life he lived in Europe and California.

This conflict appears to have originated when he arrived in San Francisco to study art at the California School of Design. Martinez's talent and his aesthetic sensibilities appear to have been dismissed by his instructors, particularly Arnold Mathews, the school's director, who was convinced that he was totally untalented. Mathews counseled Mrs. de Coney, wife of the Mexican Consul and Martinez's foster mother, as well as his sponsor at the School of Design, to send him elsewhere, where he ". . . might learn to be fit to paint carriages." That Martinez spoke Spanish and French, but no English, and that he and the instructors could not communicate verbally, was the basis for Mathews' conviction that Martinez was untalented. After his first year at the School of Design, Mathews advised Martinez to drop out of the school. Mrs. de Coney, however, insisted that he be given another year of instruction.

The impact on Martinez of this rejection of his language and his aesthetic sensibilities is difficult to assess. According to his daughter, Micaela Martinez Ducasse, Martinez never spoke Spanish at home and did not teach her Spanish. He was, however, fiercely proud of his Mexican heritage. Micaela Ducasse recalled her mother saying that "Marty," as he was called, seemed to keep his language and heritage to himself. It was a part of himself he did not share with anyone, including his Canadian-born, American-raised English wife, Elsie.

Martinez's experiences in Paris and in Europe also seem to have been a source of conflict. There, though he was not rejected, he was apparently considered exotic and romantic because of his background. He was called "the Duke," and was seen as a Mexican hidalgo. Historically, Mexican hidalgismo is associated with Spain and Europe, not with Mexico's Indian or mestizo socio-cultural values. Thus, while his Mexican heritage was ostensibly more accepted in Europe than in the United States, it was the European side of his Mexican heritage that found acceptance. His mestizo-Indian heritage was ignored or rejected. Yet it was precisely that mestizo-Indian heritage with which he increasingly identified after 1913.

In 1913, Martinez spent the summer in Arizona, mainly on the Hopi Reservation, painting and sketching the region and its people. He developed close friendships with the Hopi, particularly with Henry Shulpa, who shared with him the religious rites of the Hopi Snake Dance. The summer on the Hopi Reservation had a tremendous impact on Martinez, most visibly in his work. According to George Neubert, "His paintings from this period are a departure in style, coloration, and attitude. His palette brightened radically, reflecting the intense colors and changing moods of the desert at different times of the day."

The two months on the reservation appear to have been a turning point in Martinez's life — the beginning, perhaps, of reconciling his personal conflicts and tensions. This time seems also to have been the beginning of a life of reflection, increasing solitude, and a turning inward. In 1923, Elsie and Xavier Martinez separated, but he continued the Sunday "open house" with her help. Martinez, however, significantly decreased his involvement in other social activities, spending most of the time alone when he was not teaching. Martinez devoted the last 20 years of his life to teaching and writing poetry and philosophic commentaries. His literary work was published under a column entitled "Notas de un Chichimeca," in the Hispano-Americano, San Francisco's Spanish-language newspaper. Martinez died at Carmel, California, January 13, 1943.

Martinez's historical and artistic significance to the Latino community is obvious, though he is not well known within that community. Much less obvious, but no less significant than his artistic importance, are the socio-cultural conflicts he experienced.

Those dilemmas were rooted in being Mexican in a community where Mexican-ness was either rejected or exoticized, but accepted in neither case. The focus on this aspect of Martinez's life and work is not intended to present a psychological profile of this artist, but to acknowledge the existence of these conflicts and to argue that they affected his life and work. It is a dimension that is notably absent from most descriptions of this influential artist. Yet they were part of the human subsoil from which he painted and related to others and to himself.

His early years in San Francisco and in Europe were to some extent a denial of his Mexican self. This was a period in which he developed a painting style in the European tradition and shared that tradition and a Bohemian life with European and North American artists to the exclusion of Mexican aesthetic and cultural traditions and sensibilities: His later years of reflection, solitude, and writing were shared with San Francisco's Spanish-speaking community through poetry and other writings published in the Hispano-Americano.

That community, however, did not know his work in the visual arts. Until very recently, Chicanos and Latinos had neither input nor access into California's elite art community, nor the economic means to attend exhibits or buy paintings. Corollary to this, of course, is the fact that with the exception of Martinez and a few others, the Chicano/Latino community saw little reflection of themselves, their experience, or their aesthetic sensibilities in the state's artistic and cultural domain.

Xavier Martinez/Martinez House
Xavier Timoteo Martinez [circa 1920] (left), Martinez House in Oakland [circa 1914] (right), Alameda County

NEXT> Pilarcitos Cemetery

online book Top

Last Modified: Wed, Nov 17 2004 10:00:00 pm PDT

ParkNet Home