Time-Traveling With One of the Earliest Comic Illustrations of Emperor Norton
The launch of The Emperor's Bridge Campaign — the period from September 2013 until the end of 2014 — was marked by a "discovery phase" in which I and a few others were intensely scouring the Internet to find every online documentation of Emperor Norton that we could. Primary and secondary sources. Artworks. We wanted all the low-hanging digital fruit we could get our hands on, even if the fruit ultimately might — and often did — turn out to be "rotten."
One of the first illustrations of Emperor Norton I stumbled across — and an illustration that looked as though it might have been done during the Emperor's lifetime — was on the Web site SFgenealogy.
Specifically, the illustration (right) was on an SFgenealogy page that featured the text of a biographical article on the Emperor that appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper on 20 December 1913. I guessed that the illustration appeared with the original article. But, as there was no separate credit for the image, I couldn't be sure if the illustration was created for the article or if it was done earlier.
A quick Google Images search suggested that the small 200x325 copy of this illustration at SFgenealogy was the only readily available example online. Was there anything a little deeper down? A search of the standard online databases for California historical images — the Online Archive of California; Calisphere — came up empty, too.
I made a mental note to follow up on this — which, in practice, meant that the question of the origin of this illustration was added to the ever-replenishing mound of Norton research curiosities that seem never to be cleared from my plate! (Whack-a-Mole!)
In August 2015, I paid a visit to the library of the California Historical Society, where I reviewed all the photographs and other images of Emperor Norton that are in the Society's collection. While making my way through this material, I saw something that looked very familiar...
The CHS item itself is a photographic print. The reverse side of the print includes none of the kind of source or provenance information that often is pencilled on to such pieces, if this information is available — only the archival markings that the Society uses internally to keep track of items in its collection.
Clearly, though, the illustration of Emperor Norton that appeared in the Bulletin in 1913 was lifted from this triptych, "The Three Prominent Men of San Francisco Cal." Our further research indicates that the triptych was created some 40 years earlier — which gives it the distinction of having been produced during the Emperor's lifetime.
The tripytch was drawn by George Frederick Keller (1846–1927), just before he came to prominence as the chief artist of the San Francisco Illustrated Wasp. The other two "members" of the triptych are Joseph Alemany (1814–1888), the first Archbishop of San Francisco (1853–1884), and Michael Reese (1817–1878), a major patron of the University of California.
Keller gives each member of the triptych a coat of arms. Emperor Norton's is a symbol of the free lunch.
Keller had gotten his start in San Francisco as a cigar-box illustrator and lithographer for Francis Korbel — yes, that Korbel — a Bohemian (Czechoslovakian) emigré who started his U.S. career as a cigar maker and later, with his two brothers, founded the famous Champagne cellars.
In between these two ventures, Korbel launched the Wasp in August 1876, tapping Keller as his lead artist. From his platform at the virulently anti-Chinese Wasp, Keller would achieve both fame and notoriety as one of the leading political cartoonists of his day, before failing health forced him to leave the Wasp in June 1883. Keller left San Francisco and disappeared into obscurity.
Keller's first professional foray into the topical — i.e., social, political — cartooning that made both him and the Wasp famous may have been for (George) Thistleton's Illustrated Jolly Giant, a magazine that ran from 1873 until 1880. A 1992 law review article (Jennifer L. Hochschild, "The Word American Ends in 'Can': The Ambiguous Promise of the American Dream," William and Mary Law Review, volume 34, issue 1, p, 165, footnote 107, here) references a cover that Keller drew for the Jolly Giant in February 1874 — so, he started working for the magazine no later than that. In his book The San Francisco Wasp: An Illustrated History (2004), Richard Samuel West notes that Keller served as the cartoonist for the Jolly Giant through mid 1875.
It appears that it was for the Jolly Giant that Keller drew his Norton/Alemany/Reese triptych. In October 1904, the California Review — the monthly journal of the Native Sons and Native Daughters of the Golden West — published a Norton detail from Keller's "Prominent Men" triptych that was very similar to the detail published nine years later by the San Francisco Bulletin.
The California Review's caption for the Norton detail read, in part: "After a drawing by Keller. Reproduced from 'Thistleton's Jolly Giant."
The Jolly Giant launched in February 1873 as Thistleton's Jolly Giant — but, the title was modified to Thistleton's Illustrated Jolly Giant in May 1874. If the California Review was being precise in its sourcing of the illustration detail to Thistleton's Jolly Giant, this would tell us that Keller drew his triptych for the Jolly Giant early in his tenure at the magazine — possibly in early 1874.
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Fast forward to 1913. Careful observers will have noticed a couple of differences between the version of the Norton detail of Keller's 1874–75 triptych published that year by the San Francisco Bulletin and the version published in 1904 by the California Review.
The Bulletin cropped out Keller's signature that appeared at the bottom of the Norton "window" in the original triptych. And the paper added a beatific halo — which seems appropriate.
Here's the modified Norton illustration and title, as the Bulletin published it in 1913. This was used an an illustration for a biographical article, "Norton I, Emperor of California," by James H. Wilkins, the paper's editor. (For a PDF of the full page of the paper, including the article and the illustration, click here.)
Like the California Review in 1904, the Bulletin in 1913 left out the arched-vine framing; the "free lunch" coat of arms; and, indeed, the bishop and the businessman that flanked the Emperor in George F. Keller's original.
But, perhaps, in placing Emperor Norton at the center of his triptych, even Keller knew that some "Prominent Men" are more prominent than others.
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George Keller's c.1874 triptych, "The Three Prominent Men of San Francisco, Cal.", has been added to ARENA, our digital ARchive of Emperor Norton in Art, Music & Film, and can be viewed in the Paintings, Drawings, Engravings & Illustrations gallery here.
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