Agnes Pelton and Theosophy

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Agnes Lawrence Pelton

Agnes Pelton
Agnes Pelton in the studio, estimate 1910s.jpg

Agnes Pelton in the studio, estimate 1910s
Born August 22, 1881

Died March 13, 1961 (aged 79)

Resting place San Jacinto Mountains
Nationality American
Education Arthur Wesley Dow
Alma mater Pratt Institute
Known for Painting
Style Abstract
Movement Transcendental Painting Group

Agnes Lawrence Pelton (1881–1961) was a modernist painter who was born in Germany and moved to the United States as a child. She studied art in the United States and Europe. She made portraits of Pueblo Native Americans, desert landscapes and still lifes. Pelton’s work evolved through at least three distinct themes: her early “Imaginative Paintings,” art of the American Southwest people and landscape, and abstract art that reflected her spiritual beliefs.

Agnes Lawrence Pelton was born in Stuttgart, Germany to American parents, William and Florence Pelton.[1] She lived in Rotterdam, the Netherlands from 1882 to 1884 and in Basel, Switzerland from 1884 to 1888.[1] In 1888, Agnes and her mother moved to Elizabeth Tilton‘s home in Brooklyn, New York, located at 1403 Pacific Street. Agnes’ father tragically died of a morphine overdose May 23, 1891, at his brother’s home in Louisiana.[2][3] Florence Pelton studied music at the Stuttgart Conservatory of Music and operated the Pelton School of Music, from the family home, in Brooklyn for 30 years.[2] She also gave lessons in French and German.[3][4]Due to her poor health, Agnes was educated at home and her mother and Arthur Whiting taught her piano.[4]

Pelton studied at the Pratt Institute from 1895 to 1900,[1] graduating with fellow Modernist artist Max Weber.[3] She continued her studies with one of her instructors, Arthur Wesley Dow, in Ipswich, Massachusetts. She studied landscape and was Dow’s assistant at his summer school, where he taught Modernism, inspired by Chinese and Japanese art. Biographer Tiska Blankenship said that “Dow emphasized structure, spirit, imagination, creation, and the nonnaturalistic use of color, a technique he taught using Japanese prints to demonstrate space relations and the appropriate use of light and dark masses… Dow’s influence was critical to Pelton’s development of abstractions based on interior, spiritual values.”[4] Dow also taught Georgia O’Keeffe.[3] Pelton took summer classes from William Langson Lathrop in 1907. 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 Hamilton Easter Field,[1][4] who was another of her Pratt instructors.[4]

Room Decoration in Purple and Gray, 1917

Her work was exhibited in Ogunquit, Maine at Field’s studio in 1912. Based upon her work at that show, Walt Kuhn invited her to participate in the 1913 Armory Show, where two of her paintings, Stone Age and Vine Wood were exhibited.[1][4] What Pelton called “Imaginative Paintings” were influenced by the work of Arthur B. Davies and depicted the effect of natural light. She made these paintings from 1911 to 1917.[3][4]

Candido, Taos, 1919

Pelton’s work changed significantly following a visit to Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, New Mexico in 1919. She painted in oil and used pastels to create realistic portraits and desert landscapes and her works were exhibited in Santa Fe at the School of American Research.[4] Pelton visited Pueblo Native Americans in the American southwest.[5]

Pelton had her studios in Greenwich Village[3] in New York City until 1921 when her mother died. She moved to Long Island and lived in a Hayground windmill that had been converted to a house. She also traveled to Hawaii, Beirut, Syria, Georgia and California.[4]

She painted portraits and still lifes in Hawaii in 1923 and 1924.[citation needed] She created abstract works of art beginning 1926, which were exhibited in New York at the Argent Galleries and the Museum of New Mexico. By 1926, she had exhibited in 20 group exhibitions and 14 solo exhibitions.[4]

She settled in Cathedral City, California in 1932.[4] Pelton originally intended to just visit the area, but lived there for nearly 30 years. She wrote:

Pelton recorded her spiritual and philosophical thoughts, had an “intense interest” in Agni Yoga, which influenced her work. Seven of her paintings, like Fires of Springand White Fire, represented the fire symbol of Agni Yoga. She had a close friendship with modern transpersonal astrology pioneer Dane Rudhyar and Modernist Southwest painter Raymond Jonson.[4] In 1938, she was a co-founder, first president, and the oldest member of the Transcendental Painting Group.[3] Pelton died in Cathedral City in 1961 and was cremated.[4] Her ashes were buried in the San Jacinto Mountains.[6]

“Agnes Pelton, Poet of Nature”, a 1995-1996 retrospective exhibition of her work, brought national attention to her work.[4] Curator Michael Zakian wrote:

In 2009, her work was exhibited with three other Modernist artists: Georgia O’Keeffe, Florence Miller Pierce, and Agnes Martin. A 192-page catalog accompanied the exhibition.[7] From March to September 2019, the Phoenix Art Museum held an exhibition featuring over 40 of Pelton’s works.[8] From March 13 to June 28 2020, Whitney Museum of American Art held an exhibit organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, “Agnes Pelton: The Desert Transcendentalist”.[9]

The Agnes Pelton Society was founded in 2013 to promote Pelton’s life and legacy.[10]

  1. ^ Jump up to: abcde Severson, 2002.
  2. ^ Jump up to: ab Zakian, Michael (1995). Agnes Pelton Poet of Nature. California State University, Sacramento Library: Palm Springs Desert Museum. p. 17. ISBN0-295-97450-8.
  3. ^ Jump up to: abcdefghi Michael Zakian. “Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature”. Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
  4. ^ Jump up to: abcdefghijklmn Blankenship, Women Artists of the American West.
  5. ^ Zakian, Mchael (1995). Agnes Pelton : Poet of Nature. Palm Springs, California: Palm Springs Desert Museum. pp. 36–37. ISBN0295974516.
  6. ^ Leigh Eric Schmidt; Sally M. Promey (2012). American Religious Liberalism. Indiana University Press. p. 137. ISBN0-253-00216-8.
  7. ^ “Illumination: The Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin, and Florence Miller Pierce”. Whitney Museum of American Art. Archived from the original on December 20, 2014. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
  8. ^ “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist”. Phoenix Art Museum. Retrieved December 6, 2018.
  9. ^ “Agnes Pelton”. Whitney Museum of American Art. Retrieved March 25, 2020.
  10. ^ “Mission statement”. Agnes Pelton Society. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
  11. ^ “Messengers”. Phoenix Art Museum. Retrieved March 1, 2018.
  12. ^ “Day”. Phoenix Art Museum. Retrieved March 1, 2018.
  13. ^ “The Primal Wing”. The San Diego Museum of Art. Archived from the original on December 13, 2014. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
  14. ^ “Awakening”. New Mexico Museum of Art. Archived from the original on October 6, 2014. Retrieved July 10, 2013.
  15. ^ “Agnes Pelton”. Whitney Museum of American Art. Archived from the original on December 20, 2014. Retrieved December 13, 2014.

  • Gale, Zona, When I was a Little Girl, with illustrations by Agnes Pelton, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1913.
  • Moss, Karen, Illumination, the Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin and Florence Miller Pierce, Newport Beach, Calif., Orange County Museum of Art, 2009.
  • Papanikolas, Theresa and DeSoto Brown, Art Deco Hawai’i, Honolulu, Honolulu Museum of Art, 2014, ISBN 978-0-937426-89-0, p. 97
  • Zakian, Michael, Agnes Pelton, Poet of Nature, (Palm Springs, Calif., Palm Springs Desert Museum). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. 1995. ISBN 978-0295974514. OCLC 645728571

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist
Mar 13–Nov 1, 2020

Agnes Pelton (1881–1961) was a visionary symbolist who depicted the spiritual reality she experienced in moments of meditative stillness. Art for her was a discipline through which she gave form to her vision of a higher consciousness within the universe. Using an abstract vocabulary of curvilinear, biomorphic forms and delicate, shimmering veils of light, she portrayed her awareness of a world that lay behind physical appearances—a world of benevolent, disembodied energies animating and protecting life.  For most of her career, Pelton chose to live away from the distractions of a major art center, first in Water Mill, Long Island, from 1921 to 1932, and subsequently in Cathedral City, a small community near Palm Springs, California. Her isolation from the mainstream art world meant that her paintings were relatively unknown during her lifetime and in the decades thereafter. This exhibition of approximately forty-five works introduces to the public a little-known artist whose luminous, abstract images of transcendence are only now being fully recognized.

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist is organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, and curated by Gilbert Vicario, The Selig Family Chief Curator. The installation at the Whitney Museum is overseen by Barbara Haskell, curator, with Sarah Humphreville, senior curatorial assistant.

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist is organized by Phoenix Art Museum.

In New York, major support is provided by Judy Hart Angelo and the Barbara Haskell American Fellows Legacy Fund.

Generous support is provided by Lynda and Stewart Resnick.

Significant support is provided by the Opatrny Family Foundation.

Additional support is provided by Georgia and Michael de Havenon and Sarah Pearsall and Michael Lippert.


  • Seeing Agnes Pelton

    Desert Rose: Agnes Pelton at the Whitney

    Editor’s note: Due to the danger of coronavirus, the Whitney, like many institutions and galleries, is currently closed, with the disposition of this and other shows currently unknown. Please note that the excellent exhibition catalogue is currently available for sale. Listed below are the current official dates for the show, according to the museum’s website.

    Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist at the Whitney Museum of American Art

    March 13 – June 28, 2020
    99 Gansevoort Street, between Washington St. and 10th Ave
    New York City,

    The exhibition of Agnes Pelton’s inwardly inspired paintings at the Whitney, “Desert Transcendentalist,” will inevitably be compared to the Guggenheim’s record-breaking Hilma af Klint show of last year. Both feminist pioneers were trained landscapists whose calling was mystical abstraction; both were neglected until Maurice Tuchman’s legendary 1986 exhibition “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – although the show included only one Pelton, and the fuse of her fame has been, like her paintings, a very slow burn. If you take af Klint at her word, she is simply the medium of the works she is celebrated for, a conundrum of authorship which only adds to her contemporaneity, her moment. Pelton is another matter. Her symbolic abstractions are hard-won and timeless, as impeccably composed and crafted as Renaissance nativities. Georgia O’Keeffe’s equally impeccable paintings have been the usual comparison – to the point of being an eclipsing doppelgänger. Indeed, O’Keeffe trained, a quarter century after Pelton, with the same modestly enlightened American landscapist, Arthur Wesley Dow; both were introduced to the Southwest by Mabel Dodge Luhan and her fabulous entourage, and both thereafter spent their lives painting in the desert – the one to immense popular and critical acclaim, the other in near anonymity.

    Agnes Pelton, Alchemy, 1937-39. Oil on canvas, 36.25 x 26 inches. The Buck Collection at the UCI Institute and Museum for California Art

    Agnes Pelton, Alchemy, 1937-39. Oil on canvas, 36.25 x 26 inches. The Buck Collection at the UCI Institute and Museum for California Art

    After seeing the LACMA exhibition, I’d been intrigued by the occasional Pelton sighting in regional museums in the West, often in connection with the Transcendental Painting Group, founded in New Mexico in 1938 (Pelton was by then living in remote Cathedral City, CA, east of Palm Springs). She has been virtually unknown in New York, where she grew up and studied, and where she exhibited in the watershed 1913 Armory Show. The current show and its beautifully designed catalogue originated at the Phoenix Art Museum, where I happened to see it in 2019, increasing my knowledge of Pelton’s corpus by dozens of astonishing works, not a few of them rescued from thrift shops and garages.

    Pelton, like many artists of her time (as the LACMA show reminded us), explored every alternative belief system that came her way, chief among them Theosophy, a kind of gateway drug to eastern mysticism and western hermeticism. She copied passages from esoteric texts into her journals and set up a proper meditation room in her studio, in which she seems to have contemplated her own paintings while summoning new visions. Perhaps some of these visions bog down in diagrammatic information, taking occult symbolism almost too literally. The urn which runneth over of Even Song (1934), for example, strikes me as received wisdom rather than firsthand insight, although the ethereal Deco calm of the overflow is transfixing. Memory (1937) has an even more complex schema to work through, albeit a more cryptic one; moreover, as with a number of Pelton’s works, it is almost too skillfully sweet, even cute. With its soft theatrical lighting and choreographic charm, the painting approximates a Disney storyboard. Of course, these qualms are, all the same, full-fledged fascinations.

    Agnes Pelton, Room Decoration in Purple and Gray, 1917 Oil on canvas, 65.5 x 53.38 inches. The Wolfsonian-FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection:

    Agnes Pelton, Room Decoration in Purple and Gray, 1917
    Oil on canvas, 65.5 x 53.38 inches. The Wolfsonian-FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection:

    The earliest and most sugary painting in the exhibition, Room Decoration in Purple and Gray (1917), is the epitome of a transitional work. For a decade, Pelton had been making what she called “imaginative paintings,” inspired by the enervated fin-de-siècle symbolism of Arthur B. Davies and others, in which mysterious, virginal waifs commune with nature. An earlier and murkier such painting, Vine Wood(1913), is reproduced in the catalogue; it was one of her Armory Show works, and the impact of Cubism and Orphism, first seen there by most Americans, is clearly manifest a few years later in the translucent chromatic planes and splintering plant forms of Room Decoration.

    In 1921, after her mother’s death, Pelton retreated to a lonely Long Island windmill and painted her first abstractions, dispensing with the waifs while digging deeper into curving, overlapping constructions. With Radiance in 1929 Pelton perfected a fluid, biomorphic shell game in which light and space change places as you look. But with Star Gazer and Divinity Lotus, painted that same year, Pelton found her true voice: serene, tuned in, and heraldic.

    The artist was exhibiting in New York and elsewhere when, in 1931, she chose to move permanently to a village in the California desert, in near isolation from the art world, although closer to West Coast centers of eclecticism like Pasadena and Ojai. Her life among the locals in Cathedral City seems to have been about as passably sociable as O’Keeffe’s in Abiquiu, NM, although in more scorched and humble surroundings. As the last of her family money dried up, she sold landscapes and portraits to support herself (mostly uninspired, even dull, it must be said), while continuing to work on her soaring inward visions.

    Agnes Pelton, The Voice, 1930. Oil on canvas, 26 x 21 inches. Raymond Jonson Collection, University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque

    Agnes Pelton, The Voice, 1930. Oil on canvas, 26 x 21 inches. Raymond Jonson Collection, University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque

    As for that family money, it leads us to events before Pelton’s birth – a sensational prologue that might have been scripted by Orson Welles or Paul Thomas Anderson. In prosperous, 1855 Brooklyn Heights, Agnes’s grandparents, the Tiltons, were joined in wedlock by the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. Theodore Tilton was an editor and worked closely with Beecher, a spellbinding orator of national prominence, in the abolitionist cause, and after the Civil War in support of women’s suffrage. In 1870, Elizabeth Tilton confirmed to her spouse that she had been having an affair with the charismatic Beecher. Theodore reported the confession to the “free love” Presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull, with whom he had been having his own affair, and she publicized the behavior to call attention to Beecher’s hypocritical support of traditional marriage, with its legal and financial bondage of women. The scandal detonated in the burgeoning national press and burned continuously for years with endless claims and counterclaims.

    Pelton’s grandparents got much the worst of it. Theodore lost a suit of adultery and exiled himself to Paris (eventually, he was buried next to the painter Jean-François Millet), while Elizabeth, shunned by society, raised their daughter, Florence, in genteel poverty. Florence, who had betrayed her mother’s affair to her father, was later sent to Germany to study music, where she married Mr. William Pelton. After moving around the continent for some years, the couple split, Florence rejoining her mother in Brooklyn with young Agnes in order to support the family by opening a music school. Mr. Pelton remained behind and died of a morphine overdose. Agnes was then nine.

    At age 14, Agnes, always described as quiet, enrolled in the study of art at Pratt Institute. The silent, solitary vocation she fixed upon and followed thereafter was a refuge from the whirlpool of politics, religion, and sex that had swallowed up her ancestors –– among whom we should reckon Beecher and Woodhull. His was an ecstatic, Transcendentalist version of Christianity; she was a practicing clairvoyant who summoned the dead. Thus, spirituality and spiritualism, forces writ large in the era, were particularly mingled in Pelton’s cultural DNA (and perhaps not just cultural, considering that Beecher was rumored to have fathered more than one of his congregants’ children). One last vignette from this prologue: in 1875, the same year as the adultery trial, Madame Helena Blavatsky founded, in New York, a mystical, post-Christian sect she called Theosophy, or divine knowledge. It was a syncretic, inward road map past the gross matter of the here and now, beyond mental shackles like Heaven and Hell, and it was destined to preside at the birth of modernist abstraction.

    Agnes Pelton, Lost Music ll, 1950. Oil on canvas, 22 x 24 inches. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

    Agnes Pelton, Lost Music ll, 1950. Oil on canvas, 22 x 24 inches. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

    Pelton’s deeply moving 1933 painting The Primal Wing seems intended to answer the call of one indispensable Theosophist text, Thought-Forms. An illustrated tract by Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater first published in 1901, the book asserts that thoughts can be seen by trained clairvoyants. Despite some silly and prudish moments, Thought-Forms opens the door for synesthetic speculations – especially with an epilogue of clouds visualizing the music of Richard Wagner and Felix Mendelssohn. (Pelton’s 1950 premonition of a Lisa Yuskavage painting, Lost Music II, not on view but reproduced in the catalogue, is surely up this alley.) The pamphlet includes a color chart of auras, as well as illustrations of particular thought vibrations. Greed for drink is a grasping brown blob with cartoonish claws wrapping around an absent bottle – and fledgling Theosophists are warned to imagine how lustfulthoughts would appear to advanced lodge members.

    With perhaps equal credulity, peace and protection appears as a pair of rose-colored wings, and Pelton’s The Primal Wing must have been suggested by this image – keeping in mind that the authors of Thought-Forms openly invited artistic license by acknowledging their illustrations’ limits. In Pelton’s unforgettable interpretation, peace and protection is a single incandescent rosy wing hovering over a slumbering gray landscape with the tragic grace of a Fra Angelico angel at a Crucifixion.

    Agnes Pelton, Orbits, 1934. Oil on canvas, 36.25 x 30 inches. Oakland Museum of California

    Agnes Pelton, Orbits, 1934. Oil on canvas, 36.25 x 30 inches. Oakland Museum of California

    Pelton consulted many doctrines, from the Agni Yoga promoted by Nicholas Roerich (whose phantasmal Tibetan landscapes seem to have influenced her dawn-and-dusk palette), to the aphorisms of Carl Jung (who might have noticed Pelton’s early paintings when he attended the Armory Show). Most of Pelton’s symbolism was so fundamental as to be beyond dogma; of stars, vessels, luminous orbs, and fire she was a seer on her own terms. Messengers (1932), with its buoyant, precision-tooled mystery can contend with any O’Keeffe steer skull or af Klint temple painting, any Kazimir Malevich or Piet Mondrian, any Arthur Dove or Charles Burchfield or Marsden Hartley, or indeed any other spiritualist Twentieth Century work of art. I can say the same for Orbits (1934), Alchemy (1937-1939) and The Blest (1941) – as well as The Voice (1930) and White Fire (1930), two incredible paintings that are sorely missed in the exhibition (again, consult the catalogue). In each of these centered, delicately refined compositions Pelton presents us with something very like an icon for a new religion.

    This religion has a distinctly feminist lineage – mysticism in the West being re-introduced by lionhearts like Woodhull, Madame Blavatsky and Besant, and patronized by trend-setters like Luhan. The feminine principle, as a Theosophist might say, had long been suppressed but was now re-emerging, and Pelton, for one, perfectly captures and distills it in works of devotion such as Messengers and Orbits. What makes these softly radiant visions unique is that they are actually chipped from diamond-hard philosopher’s stone. Her painterly sleight-of-hand transforms colored earth into sheer light and space. A gossamer 1931 work, Translation, is in every way the antipode of Jess’s alchemical Translations of the 1960s – those impossibly thick, yet precise paintings that seem imprinted by occult, perhaps demonic dimensions. But if Pelton’s beatific vision is not as literally thick as Jess’s, it is, in all its passionate naiveté, equally potent. The two artists might be halves of a whole, yin and yang, the good cop/bad cop of American visionaries.

    Agnes Pelton, Messengers, 1932. Oil on canvas, 28 x 20 inches. Collection Phoenix Art Museum; Gift of the Melody S. Robidoux Foundation

    Agnes Pelton, Messengers, 1932. Oil on canvas, 28 x 20 inches. Collection Phoenix Art Museum; Gift of the Melody S. Robidoux Foundation

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