Orange County Museum of Art

Newport Beach, CA



Mabel Alvarez (1891-1985): Retrospective

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Mabel Alvarez (1891-1985) was a significant painter of beautiful, evocative portraits and introspective spiritual subjects. She was an important leader in the Los Angeles art scene in the 1920s and 30s. Her studies with major artists, including Modernists Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, fueled her lifelong fascination for new styles and diverse media. Her exceptional artistic skills were in the service of a restless intellect, tempered by both spirituality and practicality. As she moved from Impressionism to Modernism, from portraits to still lifes, from drawing to painting, sculpture, ceramics, and lithography, Mabel Alvarez created a body of work that was impressive to her fellow artists and the critics of her day. Thanks to recent scholarship and exhibitions such as this one, the first major retrospective of her work, a new generation will have the opportunity to encounter and appreciate this fascinating artist. The Mabel Alvarez retrospective opens on May 1 at the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) and will be on view until July 18, 1999.

She was born in 1891 on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, into a large, prominent family of physicians, scientists, and performing artists. Her father, of Spanish-Cuban descent, was a successful doctor and researcher. Her mother was from a Minnesota family that included a famous opera singer and concert pianist. One of her brothers was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field of medicine. Mabel was the youngest of five children.

In 1906 the family, already quite wealthy from shrewd investments in Hawaiian real estate, returned to the mainland, first to Berkeley, then settling permanently in Los Angeles in 1909. Alvarez's artistic talent was recognized immediately by her high school art teacher, Edwin McBurney, who placed her in advanced design and drawing classes. McBurney allowed her to assist him with his commission to create murals for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. Alvarez's watercolor sketches for this work show the influence of both Art Nouveau and Symbolism.

The Impressionist style was beginning to take root in California, owing in some measure to the arrival from Boston of William Vincent Cahill and the establishment of his School of Illustrating and Painting in 1914. Alvarez enrolled in his classes and he encouraged her to be more playful with her paint, to quit her job as a fashion illustrator, and to make portraits from live models. Her Portrait of Mrs. H. McGee Bernhart shows Cahill's influence and Alvarez's mastery of the delicate color and shimmering light effects of Impressionism.

When Cahill moved from Los Angeles to Laguna Beach, Alvarez sought and found a new mentor in the revolutionary Modernist Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Her studies with him through much of the decade of the 1920s produced strongly colored, solid works, such as her award-winning Self-Portrait. She also became a close friend of Morgan Russell, who, together with Macdonald-Wright, founded the Synchronism movement, one of the earliest attempts to create paintings of purely abstract shapes and colors.

Alvarez's insatiable curiosity and quest for self-improvement (both artistic and personal) drove her to explore metaphysical meditation techniques, to travel to Europe and the East Coast, and to study the arts of Asia. Her enigmatic painting Dream of Youth shows these influences. She pursued her diverse interests with energy and dedication, meticulously logging her experiences in diaries that she kept throughout her long life. Those records, now in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution, bespeak her deep involvement with other artists, artistic movements, and her own technical studies. Her local and national prominence is evidenced by the number of important exhibitions that featured her work: California Art Club shows, a three-person exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Art (later LACMA), and a nationwide selection of works by living artists at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, among many others.

In 1935 Alvarez began to study creative writing in order to capture her aging father's reminiscences of their time in Hawaii. Soon after his death in 1937, she made a year-long visit to the islands where she did still lifes and figures studies of the Hawaiian people. She returned to Los Angeles before the attack on Pearl Harbor and painting took a back seat to her war-time volunteer efforts. She taught art to help the rehabilitation of wounded veterans.

What painting she did accomplish during the 1940s shows her heightened concern with color harmony and simple, but poetic, subject matter. This fascination with color relationships remained the dominant theme of her work throughout the rest of her life. Paintings of her travels in Mexico and the Caribbean from the 1950s utilize bright, layered pastels and ethereal brushwork to create images of fruit markets, festivals, and churches. This new style excited her so much that she painted over earlier works using her new approach.

The passionate spirit of Mabel Alvarez departed this world on March 13, 1985, at the age of ninety-three, but her legacy of images-- universal archetypes exquisitely expressed in harmonious color- remains, and continue to inspire.

"Mabel Alvarez Retrospective 1891-1985" is organized by the Orange County Museum of Art and the Leband Art Gallery of Loyola Marymount University and will be shown at both institutions. The exhibition was curated by the distinguished art historian Will South, who authored the catalogue essay. The exhibition's appearance at OCMA is made possible by the generous support of Pam and Jim Muzzy, Bente and Gerald E. Buck, the Historical Collections Council, Ruth and Fred Westphal, Teri and John Kennady, and Bob and Nadine Hall.

Related Tuesday Talks at Noon:

From top to bottom (click on images to enlarge them): Self Portrait, 1923, oil on canvas, 23 3/8 x 19 1/2 inches, collection of Alvarez Family, Berkeley; The Artist in Her Studio, c. 1945, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches, Estate of Mabel Alvarez, courtesy of Glenn Bassett; Portrait of Mrs. H. McGee Bernhart , 1919, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches, collection of Joseph Moure; In the Garden, 1925, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches, collection of the Orange County Museum of Art, LAM/OCMA Art Collection Trust, promised gift of Nancy Dustin Wall Moure; Dream of Youth, 1925, oil on canvas, 58 x 50 1/4 inches, courtesy of Adamson-Duvannes Galleries, Los Angeles; Zinnias and Fruit with Madonna, 1928, oil on canvas, 30 x 35 inches, collection of Drs. Frank and Julia Tan

Editor's note: see the article Theosophy and Symbolist Art: The Point Loma Art School by Bruce Kamerling for an explanation of Theosophy.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Orange County Museum of Art in Resource Library.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 9/20/10

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

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