In 1882 Elmer Wachtel came to Southern California to live with his older brother John, who was married to the sister of painter Guy Rose and managing the Rose family ranch, Sunny Slope. An aspiring violinist, Wachtel became first violin of the Philharmonic Orchestra in Los Angeles in 1888. He also held the same position from 1893 to 1894 with A.J. Stamm’s Philharmonic Orchestra.
During this time he also pursued an interest in drawing and painting, and became active in local art circles. With several other artists, he founded the Los Angeles Art Association in the late 1880s.
In 1895 Wachtel went to New York and enrolled in the Art Students League, but unhappy with the teaching methods, left after only two weeks. He remained in New York and received criticism from William Merritt Chase (1849 – 1916). Working in watercolor, he exhibited with the New York Water Color Society. After returning to California in 1896, he spent a brief period in San Francisco where he exhibited with the An Francisco Art Association. He then returned permanently to Los Angeles.
Wachtel worked as a pen-and-ink illustrator for Land of Sunshine and Californian magazines. Around 1900 he went to England and Europe, studying at the Lambeth Art School in London. He returned to Los Angeles and within a few years and established a reputation as an accomplished landscape artist. William Keith sent the young artist Marion Kavanaugh to see him in 1903, and they were married in Chicago the following year.
Somewhat of an artistic maverick, Elmer Wachtel was at first a Tonalist, showing moody and poetic landscapes in dark tones. As he progressed he accepted some of the Impressionist aesthetic and brightened his palette. Many of his mature works show a more decorative and lyrical style.
Elmer Wachtel and marion Kavanagh Wachtel (she began to omit the “u” from her maiden name) spent the next twenty-five years as inseparable painting companions, he working in oils and she in watercolor. They traveled throughout California, the deserts of Arizona and new Mexico, and in Mexico. It was during a painting trip to Guadalajara in 1929 that Elmer Wachtel died.
Wachtel was an individualist who shunned the many arts organizations that developed in the early 1900s. He refused to join the California Art Club at its founding in 1909, but this in no way affected the esteem in which he was held by his fellow artists. One-man exhibitions were held for him at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art in 1915 and 1918. A memorial exhibition was held at Kanst Art Gallery in 1930. He received two awards from the San Francisco Art Association: for watercolor in 1902 and for oils in 1906.