Agnes Pelton: A Visionary Symbolist
Agnes Lawrence Pelton (1881–1961) was an artist in the Modernism style who painted luminous oil paintings of beautiful images inspired by her spiritual practices. She was interested in Agni Yoga and astrology, as well as Christian themes and theosophy. She moved from the New York City area to Cathedral City, California in her early fifties, where she was energized by the sunlit air and stillness of the desert. She lived and painted there for thirty years until her death. Like her better known contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pelton loved the American Southwest and painted abstract art that shows the orange hills and big skies of the area.
Her Star Gazer painting uses a star as a guide and depicts a vessel that appears ready to receive heavenly inspiration. The lotus flower in front of the urn looks like it is ready to blossom upon receiving divine enlightenment.
Agnes Pelton Biography
Pelton was born in Germany to American parents and moved to the United States as a child. Her childhood was marred by twin calamities. Her father died of a morphine overdose when she was only nine years old. Her grandmother, the suffragist Elizabeth Tilton, was involved in a highly-publicized sex scandal that involved her husband, abolitionist Theodore Tilton, the preacher Henry Ward Beecher, and Elizabeth herself. The family was excommunicated from their church and Theodore moved to Paris. Agnes Pelton and her mother Florence lived with the grandmother, Elizabeth, for many years after the scandal started to die down. Florence Pelton, who had studied music at the Stuttgart Conservatory of Music, operated the Pelton School of Music from the family home.
Agnes Pelton was frail as a child and was educated at home to protect her health. She learned to play the piano from her mother and from the well-known teacher and composer Arthur Batelle Whiting. At age fourteen, she added art classes to her curriculum at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and received her Certificate of Completion from Pratt in 1900 when she was nineteen.
Pelton continued her studies with one of her Pratt instructors, Arthur Wesley Dow, in Ipswich, Massachusetts. She studied landscape painting and was Dow’s assistant at his summer school where he taught Modernism, inspired by Chinese and Japanese art. Dow also taught Georgia O’Keeffe and other abstract artists. In 1907 Pelton took summer classes from the American Impressionist landscape painter William Langson Lathrop. Pelton studied in Italy in 1910 and 1911, taking life drawing lessons and studying Italian painters at the British Academy in Rome, and also studied with American artist Hamilton Easter Field, who was another of her Pratt instructors.
In 1913, Pelton exhibited at the Armory Show, also known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art, a show organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. It was the first large exhibition of modern art in America and is most famous for exhibiting Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, a painting that shocked the American audience at the time but has become a Modernist icon.
Pelton moved to Long Island in 1921 when her mother died and lived in an abandoned windmill. She was cut off from the outside art world but still managed to exhibit her work. By 1926, she had exhibited in twenty group exhibitions and fourteen solo exhibitions. She also traveled to Hawaii, Beirut, Syria, Georgia, and California. She settled in Cathedral City, California in 1932. Shortly thereafter, she painted one of her most famous paintings, The Primal Wing. A wing could symbolize a Christian angel or simply the ability to fly away from the material world to a mystical universe that lies above physical manifestations of life.
Pelton originally intended to just visit the Cathedral City area, but she ended up living there for nearly 30 years until she passed away in 1961 at age 79. She never married and didn’t have any children. Her life in California was largely uneventful. She rarely left the desert. Though a group of young Modernists worked in Los Angeles during the 1930s, she did not associate with them. In 1938 she helped found the Transcendental Painting Group, an association of New Mexico artists committed to spiritual abstraction. She was the first president of the group even though she never met them and corresponded with them only via letters.
The Agnes Pelton Society, a non-profit organization established in 2013 to promote the life, art, and legacy of Agnes Pelton, has some photos of the cottage where she lived in Cathedral City, as well as other photos of Pelton.
Agnes Pelton’s Artistic Style
Pelton celebrated nature in her work, often showing mountains, clouds, water, and stars. The naturalist elements of her 1923 Messengers are a good example of the common stylistic choices of Pelton’s work. The influence of the American Southwest landscape can be seen in the dramatic hills at the bottom of the painting.
Pelton expressed her personal spiritual growth in her art. Her difficult childhood, marred by the tragic death of her father and the scandal involving her grandmother, caused Pelton to seek an introspective approach to spirituality which she translated to her paintings. She studied theosophy, astrology, and Eastern religions, and embraced mysticism in her work. Wassily Kandinsky’s 1911 groundbreaking book Concerning the Spiritual in Art inspired her and she adhered to his idea that artists should present spiritual ideas with form and color.
Pelton said that images came to her in dreams and meditations. Her Orbits painting has the feel of a dream, with its jeweled stars against the night sky. The burnt orange color near the bottom might symbolize fire and be associated with Pelton’s interest in Agni Yoga. Agni is a Sanskrit word meaning fire and connotes the Vedic fire god of Hinduism. The followers of Agni Yoga practice a spiritual path that leads to a merging with divine fire.
The glow and luminosity that you can see in Pelton’s paintings was intentional. She used a painstaking technique of glazing where oil paint is applied in thin layers. With glazing, the artist waits for one layer to dry before adding another layer. The paint is thinned with linseed oil or other oils and applied in both transparent and opaque layers. Renaissance artists, such as Jan van Eyck, also used the technique, as did later Dutch painters such as Johannes Vermeer. Once the layers dry, the optics change and light refracts off the layers in different ways. The result is the airy, magical effects that you see in Pelton’s work.
In her journal, Pelton wrote that she wanted to experience the world in union with the divine and “beyond the oppression of materialism.” Although she made a living painting portraits in New York and then later desert landscapes in Cathedral City, she painted her divine paintings for herself. Pelton explored otherworldly themes to express the inner peace that she experienced in her personal spiritual practices.
If you’re feeling a need for more inner peace in your life right now, we highly recommend this beautiful, soothing guided sound meditation from the Whitney Museum of Modern Art that matches music to Pelton’s work. Look at Pelton’s art while emerging yourself in a sound bath performance by musician and sound healer Lavender Suarez.
Agnes Pelton Exhibitions
In 1986, Pelton’s art was included in the landmark show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, which also showed the works of another 1000Museums Year of the Woman artist, Hilma af Klint.
In 1995 and 1996, Agnes Pelton, Poet of Nature, a retrospective exhibition, curated by Michael Zakian, brought national attention to her work. In 2009, the Orange County Museum of Art exhibited her work with three other Modernist artists: Georgia O’Keeffe, Florence Miller Pierce, and Agnes Martin. A 192-page catalog accompanied the exhibition.
In 2019 and 2020 the first survey of Pelton’s work since these exhibitions started traveling around the U.S. Organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist includes more than 40 works from various private and museum collections. It showed in Phoenix and at the New Mexico Museum of Art in 2019, and then moved to the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York in March 2020. Desert Transcendentalist represents a fascinating reexamination of an overlooked female artist and her rightful place within the canon of modern and contemporary art history.