Vine Wood
by Agnes Pelton
34.12-Pelton_VineWood-Esker
Agnes Pelton (American, 1881–1961), Vine Wood, ca. 1910. Oil on canvas, 18 × 14 in. (45.7 × 35.6 cm). Collection of Alec H. Esker, Yuma, Arizona

Nature symbolically expressed
In 1910-1911 Pelton began work on what she called her Imaginative paintings, symbolist figure compositions in pastoral settings that she described as “interpretations of moods of nature symbolically expressed.” 1 These were clearly inspired by the American painter Arthur B. Davies, who created pastoral fantasies of people in harmony with nature. Period photographs of Pelton show her dressed as a figure from an Arcadian world, wearing classical togas and flowing gowns with flowers in her hair. 2

To the Armory Show
In the summer of 1912 Walt Kuhn saw an exhibition of Pelton’s work at the artist Hamilton Easter Field’s studio at the art colony in Ogunquit, Maine. 3 Impressed, Kuhn invited Pelton to participate in the upcoming Armory Show, where she exhibited two of her Imaginative paintings, Vine Wood and Stone Age (c. 1912, location unknown), which depicts a group of figures lounging along a rocky seashore that recalls the landscape of Ogunquit.

The response
Pelton listed Vine Wood and Stone Age for sale at the Armory Show for $100, but neither was sold. Nor did her work catch the attention of the critics, who apparently did not mention her in any of the reviews. However, a review of an exhibition of Pelton’s paintings held immediately after the Armory Show at Hamilton Easter Field’s Ardsley House in Brooklyn in March 1913 suggests some level of critical interest in her work: “Miss Pelton has her own idealistic vision which, though feebly supported by technical resource is expressed with genuine naïveté. No doubt certain forms of symbolic significance would not have been used in her work if she had never seen the paintings of Mr. Davies, but her personal gift dominates the tendency to follow in the footsteps of others.” 4

After the Armory
Pelton made multiple visits to the exhibition and was interested in modern painting—she purchased a postcard of one of Henri Matisse’s works—but did not incorporate any aspects of the avant-garde into her own work. 5 Instead she continued to create romantic, imaginative paintings in the symbolist mode, which she exhibited in group shows in New York. In 1938 she helped found the Transcendental Painting Group, which was committed to spiritual abstraction.

[1] Quoted ibid.

[2] See photograph in Michael Zakian, Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature (Palm Springs, California: Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1995), 19. Zakian’s book is based primarily on source material located in the Agnes Pelton Papers, Archives of American Art. See also Margaret Stainer, Agnes Pelton (Freemont, California: Ohlone College Art Gallery, 1989).

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] “News and Notes of the Art World. Ideals and Visions,” New York Times, March 30, 1913, SM15. Ardsley House, which housed the Ardsley School of Modern Art and Studio as well as an art gallery that featured changing exhibitions during the winter months, had been founded by Pelton’s friend Hamilton Easter Field at 104 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights in 1912. See Wendy Jeffers, “Hamilton Easter Field: The Benefactor from Brooklyn,” Archives of American Art Journal 50: 1–2 (Spring 2011), p. 33.

[5] Zakian, 26-27.

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