This Day in Jewish History

1869: An Artist Who Documented the Slur 'Spic' Is Born

Still, Ernest Peixotto is best remembered for his illustrated articles for Scribner’s Magazine and for his murals.

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October 15, 1869, is the birthdate of Ernest Peixotto, an artist, illustrator, writer and educator. Although much of his work, both written and graphic, portrayed his travels in the American Southwest, he, like many other American artists of his era, lived much of his life in France.

He is probably best remembered for his illustrated articles for Scribner’s Magazine and for his murals, which appeared in both public and private venues.

Ernest Clifford Peixotto was the fourth of the five children of Raphael Levy Maduro Peixotto and the former Myrtilla Davis. The Peixottos are one of the oldest Sephardi families in the United States, and can trace their heritage back to the Maduro clan of pre-Inquisition Iberia.

After several generations in Curacao, to which they came from the Netherlands, the Peixottos had made their first appearance in the U.S. in 1807. That was when Moses Levy Maduro Peixotto arrived in New York. His son Daniel, a prominent physician in that city, and his wife, Rachel Seixas (hers was also an early and distinguished Sephardi family in New York) were the parents of Raphael.

Raphael was a merchant who, after suffering significant losses in his dry-goods business following the Civil War, moved his family to San Francisco in 1869. That’s where Ernest Clifford Peixotto was born a short time later, when the family was still living in the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Raphael had a number of successful department stores in San Francisco (he also worked for a while with Levi Strauss in his emporium), and also was the president of Reform Temple Emanu-El.

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Ernest Peixotto studied at the San Francisco School of Design, where one of his teachers encouraged him to pursue his art education in Paris. In a self-published biography of Peixotto written by his nephew Ernest D. Peixotto, his 1888 journey from San Francisco to France, which began with a train ride across the North American continent, is described by long quotations from his travel diary.

In New York, where he took in “the palaces of the Vanderbilts, Stewarts and Tiffanys and the great Catholic Cathedral,” he also visited with a number of his cousins, whom he found to be “as nice as could be… anxious to make me at home.” They included George Levy Maduro Peixotto, who was already an accomplished portrait painter. George’s subjects included President William McKinley and the British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore.

In Paris, Peixotto enrolled at the well-regarded Academie Julian. The year after his arrival, the Paris Exposition opened, which marked the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower. The Exposition also offered, as he wrote in his diary, “the greatest exhibition of modern art ever held, with almost four thousand canvasses.” Although Peixotto’s work would later be shown at Paris Salons, at the time, he much preferred the Exposition to the art he saw at the Paris Salon of 1889, which he thought had “too much trash.”

The artist gets an unexpected commission

Peixotto returned to San Francisco after six years in France. In 1897, he married Mary Glascock Hutchinson, of New Orleans, also a painter, who, like him, had studied at the California School of Design. They moved to New York, where Peixotto joined the staff of Scribner’s Magazine as an illustrator.

In time, he also began writing travel pieces for the journal. In a 1907 review of one of his illustrated articles in the magazine, The New York Times noted that he had illustrated pieces by Theodore Roosevelt and by Henry Cabot Lodge, and that “his knack of description with the pen is happily supported by his dexterity with the pencil.”

The Times also noted that Peixotto’s 1906 book, “By Italian Seine,” had been “one of the most eagerly sought books of the holiday season.”

By then, Ernest and Mary were living in France, where he had gone on an assignment for Scribner’s. They spent the remainder of their lives alternating between a summer villa in Fontainebleau, near Paris, and New York. He continued working for Scribner’s, contributing illustrated pieces about his travels in Mexico, Peru, the Southwest United States and Portugal, among other places.

Etymologists credit Peixotto for providing, in his 1916 book “Our Hispanic Southwest,” one of the first recorded uses of the racial slur “spick” (as he spelled it), which he had encountered in his travels as a derisive term used to refer to Mexicans.

When the U.S. entered World War I, in 1918, Peixotto received a commission as captain with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He was one of eight official artists who had the responsibility of recording a visual record of the war.

Following the war, Peixotto remained in France, where he briefly headed the American Expeditionary Force Art Training Center, in Bellevue. The center lasted only several months, but it was soon merged with the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and moved to Fontainebleau. Peixotto remained involved with the school, as head of its American Committee.

In New York, he served as a consultant to the city’s art commission, helping to advance the cause of mural-painting. He commented at one point that murals had the ability to stir “the feelings of a mass of Americans who have never been stirred artistically before.” During the Depression, Peixotto was involved in choosing artists to participate in the public art projects of the WPA in New York.

Toward the end of his life, he headed the National Society of Mural Painters, was president of the School Art League, in New York, which provided awards and assistance to young artists, and in 1939, was a consultant on murals to the New York World’s Fair.

Ernest Peixotto died unexpectedly on December 6, 1940, at his New York home. He was 71.

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