Painting on the rocky coastline at Lands End, San Francisco, 1915.

The Legacy Project

Tilden Daken’s Granddaughter is Preserving His Legacy

A famous painter in his day, his art is revered by thousands of collectors, yet most know little about his past. He was an enigma even to his family until Bonnie Portnoy, the granddaughter he never knew, began to unravel his mysteries. He has been gone for more than seven decades and now his amazing stories are being brought to the forefront. The passionate artist often trekked into the wilderness on extended painting expeditions, leaving his wife and two young daughters to fend for themselves (Bonnie’s grandmother, mother, and aunt). While her mother was still living, Bonnie embarked on a decade-long journey to find her grandfather’s paintings and explore his past. Having unearthed a treasure trove of material, she is writing a book (as yet unpublished).

A Book is in the Works

Tilden Daken: Beneath the Paint is a richly illustrated historical non-fiction art book, the biography of Tilden Daken (1876–1935), noted early California artist and adventurer. Set in the cultural and historical context of his time–California at the turn of the 20th century–the book dramatizes the many intriguing, little-known sides of the artist: his experience in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, his friendship with Jack London, his adventures while painting beneath the sea in a custom-built diving bell, the renegade who stands with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, the lover of vaudeville star Sophie Tucker, and more.  Art historian Edan Hughes says Daken’s story is “long overdue.” And Beneath the Paint editor Elissa Rabellino wrote: “This all couldn’t possibly have happened to one person! It’s just fascinating.”

Based on unique and true experiences the likes of which no other painter of his day achieved, his story is an accurate portrayal of events as chronicled in hundreds of newspaper articles from 1898 to 1935. It characterizes the artist’s personal struggles as revealed in letters he wrote to public figures, and is an interesting and historical perspective on the many noted individuals who were friends of Tilden Daken’s—politicians, activists, Hollywood celebrities, naturalists, writers, journalists, and other  California artists.  His two known autobiographical short stories are part of his legend: “Experiences in the Rugged West” and “In the Grip of an Octopus.” The yet unpublished accounts of the artist’s life are enriched by recollections from his daughter and juxtaposed with stories of his granddaughter’s quest to delve into his past.

About Bonnie Portnoy

A native Californian born in Marin County, Bonnie held senior management positions in merchandising, marketing, and operations for four respected San Francisco Bay Area-based specialty retail companies, and traveled extensively in Europe, Asia, and India. As art historian for her grandfather, she has established the Tilden Daken Legacy Project, leading her to historians, authors, curators, galleries, and passionate collectors who have enthusiastically joined in her mission to secure his place in history.


Bonnie would like to hear from you!

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February 2013:

"Safe Haven for Painter Daken"   Article in Sonoma County Historical Society's Sonoma Historian: Tilden Daken and his wife move to Glen Ellen after losing their home and the artist's studio in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and firestorm.

December 2012: 

"How Author London, Artist Daken Met"  Article in  Sonoma County Historical Society's Sonoma Historian: Tilden Daken and Jack London meet atop a haystack in the Reno rail yard in 1901. Together they ride a freight train over Donner Summit to Oakland, clinging to the brake-beam.

July 2012:

Save the Redwoods League displays Tilden Daken's "Stroll Through the Redwoods" as their Facebook cover photo. reporter Sylvia Crawford reports on Glen Ellen Historical Society meeting and slide show of Tilden Daken paintings.

April 2012:

Welcome to the new site, honoring the man, his spirit of adventure, and his art.
One century ago, Tilden Daken returns to San Francisco after living in Sonoma County for five years following the 1906 earthquake. Construction is underway for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and hundreds of international artists, including Tilden Daken, will soon be exhibiting at the Palace of Fine Arts.