Portrait of Clarence Mattei
Clarence Mattei

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.

The display 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.

Portrait of Gertrude Chase by Clarence Mattei. Chase has wavy brown hair, a blue dress bodice, and moss green shawl over her shoulder.
Portrait of Gertrude Chase. Credit: Clarence Mattei

“We’re especially gratified to present the early drawings, which were recently gifted to us and have not been exhibited before,” Harwood said.

At the height of his career, Mattei was among the most sought-after portraitists in the country, and created images of influential people, including a president, and 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. Mattei’s Tavern became a popular hotel and watering hole, a reputation that continues to this day.

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 Clarence 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 1900-02, which ultimately launched his career.

Later (1907-10), he 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 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. The drawings are on view for the first time.

Noted American portraitist John Singer Sargent met Mattei in London in 1905 and became a friend, teacher, and mentor to the young artist. He encouraged Mattei to pursue his charcoal portraits, which the artist did beginning in 1914.

Mattei 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; Henry S. Pritchett, astronomer and president of MIT; many inscribed with dedications from the artist.

Local civic leaders also commissioned portraits from philanthropist and industrial heiress Amy DuPont; Peggy Stow, daughter of Sherman and Ida Hollister Stow, who built Stow House; and Thomas M. Storke, publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

The exhibit also features several unnamed individuals, whom the public is invited to help identify.

What is believed to be among Mattei’s last works is also on view. The 1944 charcoal portrait inscribed “To Suzanne from Uncle Clarence” is of his niece Suzanne Mattei.

Clarence 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 as part of development of a new 67-room resort named The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern,” slated to open in February.

The Santa Barbara Historical Museum is at 136 E. De la Guerra St. Admission is free. Hours are noon-5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and noon-7 p.m. Sundays, and Thursdays. Visit www.sbhistorical.org.