The Artist Clarence Mattei

By Hattie Beresford   |   January 10, 2023
An undated pencil study reveals a tired working man, perhaps a train conductor, taking a break (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

“Clarence Mattei painted a portrait of our nation from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Shoreline… His portraits formed an album of an era which was melding the personalities of the fearless, rugged stagecoach drivers of the Wild West to the quiet confidence and well-bred sophistication of East Coast Philanthropy,” Erin Graffy, local historian, wrote in a 2004 article.

An exhibition of this important artist’s work is currently on display at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. The portraits range from East Coast visitors, who came to call Santa Barbara home for at least part of the year, to ordinary working men and women from the days of his youth.

Born in 1883 to Felix and Lucy Mattei, Clarence grew up in Los Olivos where his father had the foresight to build a tavern and hotel at the terminus of the narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railway, which connected to San Luis Obispo and Point Harford. The hostelry’s warmth and hospitality drew visitors well into the 21st century. 

One of five brothers, Clarence’s artistic aptitude was evidenced early as he sketched the scenes of the world around him. As a child he taught himself to draw by copying famous paintings. When the New York heir to the Duryea Starch fortune, Harmanus Barkulo Duryea, Jr., brought his bride Ellen Winchester Weld to visit the tavern, Clarence’s life changed forever. Harmanus, who had been wintering in Santa Barbara with his widowed mother and brother since 1888, was an avid horseman and founder of the Arlington Jockey Club and member of the Santa Barbara Club. 

This gouache study of a distinguished, elderly black man with cane expresses the man’s age not only through hair color but also through the posture and position of the body. Gouache studies such as this were often used for book and magazine illustrations. (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

At the Mattei hotel in Los Olivos in 1899, Ellen was so impressed with Clarence’s drawings and sketches that the couple decided to place the country boy under their patronage and sent the 16-year-old Mattei to the Mark Hopkins Institute in San Francisco to begin his formal training. From there he would go to New York and become a member of the Art Students League and then to Europe to study and explore a variety of styles and genres at the Académie Julian and elsewhere. 

In 1908, Clarence returned to New York and set up a studio where he painted portraits of the elite of the Gilded Age. He also spent part of the year in Santa Barbara and became part of the developing artists’ colony of the 1910s and ‘20s. It seemed an ideal life.

By the early 1920s, however, Mattei had wearied of the more lucrative East Coast art business and told his Santa Barbara friends, “I would rather fish off the edge of the wharf here than paint the finest portrait in New York.” In 1923, he decided to move permanently to Santa Barbara.

Curated by museum staff in conjunction with Erin Graffy, the exhibit displays a range of Mattei’s subjects and media, as well as photographs of his family and life. In oil, charcoal, pencil, and gouache, his portraiture captures the personality and character of his subjects. While the oils and drawings of business and civic leaders as well as prominent Montecitans are formally poised, a more studious look reveals much about the deeper personages. The pencil sketches of familiar friends and ordinary people are brilliant in expressing through posture and facial expression much about each subject and the historic times in which they lived.

A visit to this lovely exhibition plus the continuing exhibition of the Mountain Drive Community and the permanent exhibit of Santa Barbara’s history is the perfect outing for a rainy afternoon (or a sunny one)! The Santa Barbara Historical Museum is located at 136 East De la Guerra Street and is open Wednesday, 12-5 pm; Thursday 12-7 pm; and Friday-Sunday, 12-5 pm. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. Contact (805) 966-1601 for more information.  

(Sources: Noticias, autumn 2004; “Portraits of a Community: The Art of Clarence Mattei” by Erin Graffy; Montecito Journal, “The Arlington Jockey Club” by Hattie Beresford; contemporary newspapers.)

Mrs. Oakleigh (Helen) Thorne and her husband were winter visitors from New York. She was an avid gardener and was determined to have a California garden. In 1917, they purchased a 19-acre estate called Las Tejas in Montecito, and she set to work designing and planting. The Thornes became part of the seasonal social fabric of Santa Barbara until concerns over an attack on Santa Barbara during WWII caused them to sell out. Mattei’s portrait captures her determined nature. (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)
New Yorker Charles Albert Storke was summoned west in 1872 to teach math and Latin at Santa Barbara College. A printer’s apprentice at age 14, then survivor of Civil War prison camps, he attended Cornell University and became a teacher. In Santa Barbara, he met and married a pupil of his, Martha More. He then moved to Los Angeles to found the Los Angeles Daily Herald. In this endeavor he was financed by his father-in-law, T. Wallace More, who had married the daughter of American ship’s mate Daniel Hill, who had married Rafaela Ortega. She was the daughter of the first commander of the Presidio and owner of the Spanish, then Mexican, land grant, Nuestra Senora de Refugio. Due to the panic of 1873, Storke sold the L.A. paper and returned to Santa Barbara where he became an attorney. He would help his son found the Santa Barbara Daily News and later the News-Press. Mattei captured the determined but somewhat suspicious expression of a man wearing the trappings of a well-to-do professional. (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)
Herminia Carmelita Claudina Dibblee Underhill personified the melding of the old and the new and the East and the West. Her mother Francisca was a member of the old Spanish De la Guerra family. Her father was New Yorker Thomas Bloodgood Dibblee, who, together with his brother Albert, partnered with William Welles Hollister to found one of the most successful sheep businesses in California. They were later owners of Rancho San Julian, and Thomas built a palatial mansion on the Mesa for his family. Returning from convent school in Paris in 1906, their 18-year-old daughter Carmelita met and married New Yorker Francis Townsend Underhill that same year. Underhill was the multi-talented scion of a wealthy and socially prominent family of Mayflower lineage. He was a true Renaissance man, who had first visited Santa Barbara in 1878 and eventually built lives in both the East and the West. He was a member of exclusive social clubs in New York and Santa Barbara, a rancher, avid horseman, landscape architect, expert whip, author, yachtsman, architect, and breeder of dahlias and hogs. In 1900, tiring of living a split life, he divorced his Eastern wife, donned an enormous signature sombrero, and moved to California permanently. Mattei’s portrait of Carmelita seems to reveal both her vulnerability and strength. (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

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