Agnes Pelton


Born in Stuttgart, Germany to American parents, William Halsey Pelton and Florence Pelton, Agnes Pelton was a pioneering American modernist* whose career had several phases that reflected her wide-ranging interests, extensive travels, and ability to grow and change.  From 1900 to 1914, she did “imaginative paintings” focused on her ‘inner self’; in 1919, a visit to the Southwest and exposure to Pueblo Indians initiated her portrait phase.

In 1923-1924 in Hawaii, she added floral and botanical subjects to her repertoire, and living in California beginning 1931, she focused on desert scenes with some of her paintings being abstract stylistically and others representational. Of her career at that point, American Art News, February 21, 1931, had this text: “In the trend away from materialism in general, and from liberalism in art in particular, Miss Pelton is a child of a new age. She is harbinger of the future for other painter poets.” (Zakian, Introduction)

Pelton spent her early childhood in Rotterdam, Holland, 1882-1884, and Basel, Switzerland, 1884-1888, and moved to America in 1888 because of the poor health of Agnes. They lived with Agnes’ maternal grandmother at 1403 Pacific Street, and the father died of a morphine overdose in 1891.

Pelton was tutored at home and had sophisticated piano training from Arthur Whiting as well as her mother who, in 1888, established the Pelton School of Music in the home.  Adding art classes to her studies, Agnes Pelton enrolled at age 14 in the general art course at the Pratt Institute* in Brooklyn.  She graduated five years later, in 1900, when she was age 19.

The summer after graduation, she studied privately with Arthur Dow and served as his summer art school assistant in Ipswich, Massachusetts.  Of the influence of Dow on Pelton, it was written that it was “critical to Pelton’s development of abstractions based on interior, spiritual values.  . . .Dow emphasized structure, spirit, imagination, creation and the non-naturalistic use of color, a technique he taught using Japanese prints to demonstrate space relations and the appropriate use of light and dark masses.” (21)

In 1907, she took summer classes from William Lathrop in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and she “painted outdoor genre scenes inspired by the art of Arthur B. Davies.” (Zakian, 119).  From 1910 to 1911, she was in Italy and spent time with Hamilton Field with whom she studied Italian language and who critiqued her ‘Imaginative paintings, which expressed moods inspired by nature and dichotomies she felt between contemplation and animal impulse.

Field, a proponent of modernist art, founder of the liberal Salons of America, and enthusiast of Oriental art, was very much a part of Pelton’s ‘march toward’ abstraction. In Italy, Pelton also took daily life drawing at the British Academy in Rome, and during this period she began a journal, whose entries continued for the next 50 years and that included sketches and personal thoughts.

The friendship with Hamilton Field also ‘opened doors’ for her art career.  He had a studio in Ogunquit, Maine, where Pelton studied with him at his Summer School of Graphic Arts.  Giving her career a major boost, in 1912, he held an exhibition in his studio of Pelton’s “Imaginative Paintings”, which caught the attention of Walt Kuhn, who was organizing the 1913 Armory Show* in New York.  He invited Pelton to participate, which meant her work was part of the landmark exhibition that permanently changed American art.

Another positive lift for building her artistic reputation was the patronage and hosting of regular exhibitions for Pelton by Mrs. Alice Brisbane Thursby, sister of Arthur Brisbane, who was editor of the New York Evening Journal.  In 1917, Pelton painted a mural for the mantel of Brisbane’s Washington DC apartment.

During these years, Pelton devoted her winters to teaching music at her mother’s school in Brooklyn, and established her own studio in Manhattan. She spent her summers at Wild Farm near Madison, Connecticut. She kept her primary residence as New York City until 1921, when her desire for quiet and privacy sent her to Water Mill, Long Island, where she moved to property called the Hayground windmill. Five years later, from that place she began to focus on abstract painting, much of it derived from the journals she was keeping of her innermost thoughts and emotions. She also traveled extensively, which was reflected in her painting subjects.

She began visiting the Southwest in the winter of 1919 as a guest of Mabel Dodge in Taos, and this trip provided incentive to begin painting again, something Pelton had not done for two years.  Her explanation for this hiatus was that she was gardening at a family farm in Connecticut for the war effort and was musing on the wonders of nature—that the “real experience of the spirit was embodied more fully in the farmhouse and in the New England landscape than in her own art.” (Zakian, 36)

She had first met Dodge in New York City in 1913 at the home of Alice Thursby, who then traveled with Pelton to Taos. Through Thursby, Dodge and Pelton had become close friends, and Pelton and Thursby had served as witnesses in 1917 when Dodge married Maurice Sterne at Dodge’s country estate in upstate New York.

Apparently the New Mexico landscape and the Pueblo Indians, whom she regarded as perfect models because of their lack of self consciousness, stimulated her desire to pick up her brushes.  Finding a natural response to these subjects, she ceased doing “Imaginative” paintings “to focus on the natural beauty and dignity inherent in real human beings.” (Zakian 37)  From this time, portraiture was a major part of her career, as was being ‘herself’ and being natural.

Apparently it was this change of direction that two years later led her away from New York City to the more rural environment of Long Island.  An exhibition of her New Mexico work was held in October, 1919, at the School of American Research in Santa Fe.

For historians reviewing Pelton’s career, this period of her life seems a bit schizophrenic as she was talking abstract painting, but most of her work was much more conservative. In 1926, she did her first original abstractions, and her notebook entries became increasingly focused on spiritual issues.  However, she never completely shook off her representational depictions of the southwest landscape, especially the blooming desert she experienced in New Mexico, eastern California, where she painted in Yosemite, and Arizona, where in 1929, she painted at the Grand Canyon.

In addition Pelton visited New Hampshire, Georgia, Lebanon, Syria and Hawaii.  In 1923 and 1923, she was a visitor to Honolulu, where she visited her cousins, Theodore and Mary Atherton Richards and painted portraits, still life, and Hawaiian landscapes including “ohia” that are common trees, especially around Kilauea Volcano.

In November, 1929, the first one-person exhibition of her abstractions was held in New York City at Montross Gallery, and in 1931, the Argent Galleries in New York hosted a solo exhibition of 21 abstract paintings by Pelton. The event reflected her newly formed close friendship with Dane Rudyhar, which lasted into the 1950s.  He, a writer and ‘sometime’ painter, wrote the catalogue introduction and played the piano at the opening reception.

In 1933, she exhibited paintings in Santa Fe at the Museum of New Mexico with Raymond Jonson and Cady Wells, and Rudhyar provided the catalogue descriptions of each artist as well as positive reviews for the media.

Pelton was not at the exhibition, but through Rudhyar, she had begun correspondance with Raymond Jonson that lasted many years. They first met in person in December 1935, when Jonson and his wife stopped to visit Pelton, who was living in Cathedral City, California, where she had settled in 1932, and remained until her death in 1961.

In April, 1932, Delphic Studios in New York held an exhibition of twelve abstractions, and shortly after she affirmed her commitment to abstraction by adopting “a personal symbol consiting of a green flame over a white triangle above darkness.” (Zakian, 121)  Pelton’s artwork increasingly reflected her new and intense interest in Agni Yoga, related to Theosophy, a philosophy embracing aspects of all major religions espoused by Helena Blavatsky.

By this time, she was “a mature, professional artist who had won for herself a special status in the field of abstraction and who had added further stature to the group.” (23) However, she was involved at a distance as she did not return to New Mexico after 1919.

It was not until 30 plus years after her death that Pelton achieved national recognition for her painting. A 1995-1996 touring retrospective exhibition, “Agnes Pelton, Poet of Nature,” made wide audiences aware of her skills and historical importance. Not only was she a groundbreaking woman in an era when men dominated the profession of fine art painting, she had painted interactively utilizing a range of realistic and abstract styles. Unlike many of her peers, she never totally abandoned her classical training but allowed “each of her skills to blossom side by side.” (23)

In 1995, the Palm Springs Desert Museum held a major retrospective of her painting. Exhibition venues for Pelton during her lifetime included the Brooklyn Museum, Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, Laguna Beach Art Association, Salons of America, Museum of New Mexico, California-Pacific Exposition at San Diego and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.



Michael Zakian, Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature

Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West

Tiska Blankenship, Vision and Spirit: The Transcendental Painting Group, Jonson Gallery, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Exhibition catalogue, May 27-August 15, 1997.  (Quotations are from this source)

David W. Forbes, Encounters With Paradise

““The aim of these paintings over many years has been to give life and vitality to the visual images that have appeared to me from time to time in receptive moments--as symbols of fleeting but beautiful experiences.””
~Agnes Pelton
Flowering by Agnes Pelton | John Moran Auctioneers

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August 13, 2024—11am PDT

Agnes Pelton (1881-1961)
Flowering, 1929
Oil on canvas, 24 x 19 inches

Past Lots

Agnes Pelton (1881-1961 New York, NY)

Sold: $5,400

Agnes Pelton (1881-1961 Cathedral City, CA)

Sold: $3,981

Agnes Pelton, (1881-1961, American), "Santa Rosa," 1932, Pastel on paper, Sight: 9.5" H x 13.5" W

Sold: $3,900

Agnes Pelton (1881-1961 Cathedral City, CA)

Sold: $3,000