Portrait Gallery: Antonio Orfila, María Antonia Dominguez de Orfila and Jose Clemente Orfila, November 1900

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It is not all that common to find photographs of Latinos in greater Los Angeles in the days when images were taken almost exclusively by professionals.  Much of this, undoubtedly, was due to the expense of getting portraits done, so, when images of Spanish-speaking residents of our region are located, they tend to be of those from the upper classes of society, relatively few in number as these tended to be.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a cabinet card photograph, taken by John J. Cook of San Pedro, of Antonio Orfila, his wife María Antonia Dominguez, and their son José Clemente Orfila.  The photograph has a connection to the Temple family, as will be explained, but also is notable as a visual documentation of Californios with a long history in our area.

Orfila Dominguez marriage Sta Barbara 28Feb58
The marriage record of Antonio Orfila and María Antonia Dominguez at Santa Barbara in 1858.

María Antonia Dominguez was born in 1822 in Santa Barbara in one of the most prominent families in Alta California in its Spanish and Mexican eras.  When she was 23 years old, she and Francisco de la Guerra, whose family was dominant in Santa Barbara politics and society for many years, had a daughter, also named María Antonia, who was a hija natural, meaning born out of wedlock, and the child kept her mother’s surname.  There were two other daughters she had who also carried the Dominguez surname, including Manuela and Concepción.

In early 1854, the elder María Antonia Dominguez married Antonio Orfila who was about a decade her junior.  A cigar maker in Santa Barbara, Orfila was a native of Spain, with one source saying he was born on the island of Menorca of the eastern coast of the nation, while a census listing showed him as born on the island of Gibraltar.  A 1921 biographical sketch stated that Orfila’s father was a well-known scholar on medical law and a president of the University of Paris and that the family’s homestead was adjacent to that of the family of Junípero Serra, founder of many of California’s missions.

Orfila 1860 census Sta Barbara
The 1860 federal census listing at Santa Barbara for the Orfilas, including her three daughters from prior relationships and their son Jose Clemente.  Two years later, the family relocated to Los Angeles

Antonio Orfila came to California in the early 1850s, for reasons unstated in that sketch, settling first in San Francisco and then moving south to Santa Barbara.  In 1862, the family relocated to Los Angeles and Antonio was a merchant and, later, served as the local United States consul to Spain, he having become a naturalized American citizen in 1879.  In addition to the Dominguez girls, he and María Antonia had two sons, Jose Clemente, born in 1858, and Antonio, Jr., born in 1865.

Antonio Orfila, Jr. went to public school in Los Angeles and then to St. Vincent’s College, the forerunner to today’s Loyola Marymount University.  After finishing his studies there in 1884, probably equivalent to high school, and receiving a gold medal and finishing at the top of his class, he read law with some firms in the city and was admitted to the bar at just 21 years of age in 1886.  After practicing for about ten years in Los Angeles, he spent another decade as a lawyer in Tucson, Arizona, and then returned to this area in 1907.  His wife Eliza’s grandfather was José María Flores, who defended Mexican California against the American invasion during the Mexican American War.

Antonio Orfila 1875 LA Directory
Antonio Orfila listed as among the grocers of the city in the 1875 Los Angeles Directory.

Jose Clemente Orfila spent most of his life as a printer, including for the French newspaper L’Union Nouvelle, though for a brief time in the early 1890s he was a farmer in the town of Puente.  This may have been because of his niece, the daughter of his step-sister, the younger María Antonia Dominguez (1846-1916.)  She married, in September 1865, Adrian Davoust (1823-1892), a native of Bonneval, France, southwest of Paris and who claimed kinship, which is unproven, to Louis-Nicolas Davoust (Davout), Marshal of the Empire under Napoleon.

Davoust came to Los Angeles in the 1850s and worked as a master carpenter, rooming with Henri Penelon, a well-known painter and photographer in the city during that era.  The Davousts had one son and seven daughters, the eldest of which was Anita Isabel Ester, born in June 1866.

Jose C Orfila 1892 voter reg Puente farmer
José Clemente Orfila, though a printer for many years, did live briefly in the Puente area, perhaps at the Homestead with his niece Anita Davoust Temple and her husband, John, and was listed as a farmer.  Shortly afterward, though, he was back in Los Angeles and working in printing with the French newspaper L’Union Nouvelle.

Anita, in September 1886, married John Harrison Temple, the fifth of eight surviving children of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple.  At the time, he was living on a 130-acre property on the Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo where today’s Whittier Narrows Nature Center is situated.

After a couple of years, Anita, John and their two young boys moved to the Workman Homestead, shortly after John’s brother, Francis, died, and they remained there for just over a decade, including the few years when Anita’s uncle, Jose Clemente, farmed, perhaps at the Homestead.

This cabinet card portrait from the museum’s holdings and taken by “J. Cook” of San Pedro shows Antonio, María Antonia and José Clemente Orfila.  

When this photo was taken, Anita and John were living in Los Angeles, having lost the Homestead to foreclosure on a loan taken some years prior.  The 1890s were challenging ones, with a national depression breaking out in 1893 and several years of drought locally causing problems for ranchers and farmers like John H. Temple.

This image shows María Antonia Dominguez de Orfila at age 78, wearing a black dress and headpiece and veil, with her arms folded, a somewhat unusual position for portraits.  Her husband, who was in his late sixties, has a more open appearance with his hands resting on his legs and, at least to this viewer, a softer expression with almost a slight smile on his lips.  Behind them stands their son, who never married and lived with his parents, with a hand resting on each chair on which they are seated.

The detailed ink inscription on the reverse—too many photos lack this important information.

An ink inscription on the reverse was to Delia Davoust de Hutchinson, a granddaughter of Señora Orfila and daughter of María Antonia Dominguez de Davoust and sister of Anita Davoust Temple.  It was added that the photo was a presentation “with compliments” of her grandparents and uncle.  The location is written as San Pedro, where the Orfilas were living, and the date of 23 November is included, with the image probably taken not long before.  The photographer is printed on the matte as “J. Cook San Pedro” and is probably John J. Cook, who, in the 1900 federal census, was living on Catalina Island, where he likely made his living taking photos for the tourist trade.

Just a little more than two months after this photograph was taken, in February 1901, Señora Orfila died at the family’s downtown Los Angeles residence.  Three years after that, Antonio Orfila died at the family’s Boyle Heights home (they lived where Roosevelt High School was built in the early 1920s).  He suffered a severe concussion of the brain, though why was not known, that led to his death in early June 1904.  A dozen years later, Jose Clemente died of cancer at age 58.

Orfila 1900 census Wilmington
The 1900 federal census listing for the Orfilas at San Pedro, enumerated several months before the photo was taken.  Antonio was listed as a “fish peddler” and José, shown as Joseph, as a “typesetter.”

Despite some missing pieces of the corners and rubbing to the edges of the matte, the photograph was well developed and is quite clear with almost no fading or marring whatsoever.  It is a handsome image of a family with long roots in California and a relatively rare professional portrait of Spanish-speaking residents of the Los Angeles area.

3 thoughts

  1. The majority of Henri Penelon’s surviving paintings, photos, and cartes de visite are in the collection of the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum. The “Becoming Los Angeles” exhibit usually displays four of his paintings (which were mostly of wealthy Californios).

  2. “It was said that he was hit by a vehicle after darting out into a street and suffered a severe concussion of the brain that led to his death in early June 1904”

    You used the word vehicle, did your original source use the word ‘car’? The cars (automobiles) of 1904 were rather primitive and slow and didnt always cause serious injuries.
    My research related to accidents and injuries from this era have shown that the word car back then typically referred to STREET CAR. A much heavier, faster vehicle that would consistently cause major injuries.

    The deaths and serious injuries that the street car behemoths would cause has been forgotten but will likely return as the 21st century society struggles to replace automobiles with street car type transportation.

  3. Hi Jim, thanks for the comment and question. I went back to check on that and found that a source from Find-a-Grave posted an article about the incident, but it was for Antonio Orfila, Jr., who was hit by a milk truck and bus in 1930. The elder Orfila died in 1904 from a brain concussion, which sounds like it could’ve happened by an incident like that (or, perhaps, a fall). I’ve changed the post to say that it is not known what caused the brain injury from which Antonio, Sr. died. Good thing you asked the question!

Leave a Reply