Elmer Wachtel was born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 21, 1864. At age 18 he moved to San Gabriel, California where his older brother, John, was foreman of a 2,000-acre ranch and winery owned by Leonard John “L.J.” Rose known as “Sunny Slope” (now the City of Rosemead). L.J. Rose served one term as California state senator (1887) and was the father of 10 children, including internationally renowned artist Guy Rose. Elmer’s brother married Nina Rose, Guy Rose’s sister.
Elmer Wachtel had taught himself to play the violin and was so accomplished that in 1888 he became the first violinist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. During his time in Los Angeles Wachtel began an interest in painting. In 1895 he enrolled for a brief time (two weeks) in the New York’s Art Students League, however, he remained in New York and studied under William Merritt Chase. In 1900 he left for London to study at Lambeth Art School and painted with his friend from Los Angeles Gutzon Borglum (sculptor of Mt. Rushmore).
Upon returning to Los Angeles, Elmer Wachtel quickly developed a reputation as a fine landscape artist. In 1903 the California Barbizon master William Keith from San Francisco referred one of his young students, Marion Kavanagh, to study with Wachtel – and the following year they were married in Chicago. The Wachetels built their home in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco (Linda Vista area). Elmer and Marion spent the next 25 years traveling and painting together. In order not to compete with each other Marion worked in watercolor while Elmer worked in oil.
In 1906 a Los Angeles Times critic noted, "Elmer [Wachtel] knows Southern California perhaps more intimately than any other artist. He paints her directly, simply, truthfully, and yet never with topographic hardness and realism...”