3 Paintings in Collection
(1891-1985) United States
Works in Public Collections
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Monterey Museum of Art, CA; Honolulu Academy of Art, HI; Orange County Museum of Art, CA; Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, NC; The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, HI; Irvine Museum, CA; University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA; San Diego Museum of Art, CA; Laguna Art Museum, CA
The Pursuit of Abstraction, Wolfsonian Art Museum, Miami, FL, 2017
Dream of Youth and Silent Places
Mabel Alvarez: A Retrospective, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles and the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Greensborough, NC, 2005
Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA., 2000
Dream of Youth
Face to Face: The Paintings of Mabel Alvarez, Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA, 1998
Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California, Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA, 1999
Uncovered and Recovered: Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition, Sun Valley Museum of Art, Ketchum, ID, 1999
Independent Spirits, Women Painters of the West (1890-1945), California Heritage Gallery, San Francisco, CA. Traveled to Gilchrist Museum, Tulsa, OK; Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, Sante Fe; Museum of Art, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, 1996
Mabel Alvarez: A Retrospective by Will South, Laband Art Gallery, Orange County Museum of Art, CA, 1999
Reading California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000 by Stephanie Barron, Sheri Bernstein and Ilene Fort, University of California Press, 2000
Circles of Influence: Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California 1910-1930 by Sarah Vure and Kevin Starr, Orange County Museum of Art, CA, 2000
Encounters with Paradise: Views of Hawaii and its People 1778-1941 by David W. Forbes, Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1992
Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland by Ruth Westphal, Westphal Publishing, 1982
Art in America: Modern Times, Edited by Holger Cahill and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Reynal and Hitchcock, 1934
Dream of Youth appeared in the film “Harlem Nights” (1989) and in Warner Bros. film “Mame” (1974).
Born 1891 Oahu, HI
Died 1985 Los Angeles, CA
Mabel Alvarez was an accomplished American artist who played an important role in shaping California Modernism and Impressionism. Her figurative and still life paintings reflect the influence Symbolism and Impressionism had on American painting during the early part of the twentieth century. Alvarez’s colorful, atmospheric canvases also illustrate a curious and spiritual nature that was open to eastern as well as western philosophies.
Born on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, the youngest of 5 children, Mabel Alvarez arrived in California with her family in 1906. In 1909 they moved from Berkeley to Los Angeles where Alvarez’s artistic talents were recognized by her high school art teacher. Her early artistic career is best defined by those she sought out as mentors and teachers.
In the teens and twenties Alvarez became acquainted with early American modernists working in Los Angeles. Her first teacher, William Cahill, encouraged study through live models and introduced Alvarez to Impressionist styles which she adopted with great success. When Cahill moved away, Alvarez worked under Stanton MacDonald-Wright who shared what he had gleaned from European avantgarde movements. MacDonald-Wright’s teaching encouraged her to abandon Impressionistic colors for a stronger, more modern palette and to work not to perfect imitation but to locate symbolic meaning. During this time Alvarez befriended other artists who focused on figures and still lifes instead of the popular landscape. Among those she associated with was painter Henrietta Shore who is also represented in the Jeri L. Wolfson Collection.
Alvarez’s quest for a spiritual practice or philosophy was in part motivated by her hope that through her art she could manifest the beauty and dignity she found in the world. She understood that her art would benefit from a deeper understanding of the human condition, commenting that it was useless to paint when it does not come straight from the center. Better to say nothing at all.
In 1918 her work was included in the San Francisco Art Institute’s annual exhibition. In 1920 she joined painters Loren R. Barton and Paul Lauritz in a three person exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (today the L.A. County Museum of Art). In 1922 she joined the “Group of Eight,” painters who were frustrated with the conservative standards of the California Art Club and wanted to follow a more progressive path.
Alvarez’s openness allowed her to consider alternative concepts willingly. Around 1918 she was introduced to Eastern mysticism and began to meditate on a regular basis. While a student of Cahill’s, Alvarez discovered the writings of Will Levington Comfort whose ideas were rooted in Theosophy, a kind of eastern religious thought that explored distinctions between the world of form and the formless world, encouraging believers to make visible their inner sensations and feelings. Comfort believed that meditation was a path to inner harmony. In the 1920s Theosophy lectures and societies made their way to southern California and Alvarez’s interest in Eastern ideas led to travels where she absorbed Persian, Indian and Tibetan art.
Alvarez’s spiritual explorations led to a series of symbolic paintings done between 1925 and 1933 in which she begins to record her dreams. Unlike the surrealists whose dream canvases tell of spontaneous and random connections, Alvarez depicts an ideal world where forms float in colorful, fantasy landscapes. In the paintings Alvarez referred to as “Dreamscapes,” women in a meditative position are the central subjects. They are often attended by other women and unicorn or horse figures. In Silent Places a woman is situated in a brightly colored mountainscape. This mysterious wonderland seems to pulsate with energy, a stacked triangle pattern forming the basis for the fantasy landscape. The halo-like glow surrounding the woman is evident in a number of paintings from this time, many are dark haired and could be self-portraits, reflecting the artists’ desire to locate a spiritual home.
Dream of Youth done in 1925 is perhaps Alvarez’s most significant painting of this period in that it summarizes both Eastern and Western influences while illustrating her desire to experience life’s transitions and transformations. This painting can be read from a western as well as an eastern vantage point. The vignettes around the central figure can be seen as aspects of maturation or interpreted as various stages of enlightenment. Filled with symbolic objects, Christian doves and Buddhist lotus flowers hold equal weight in the picture. The central figure in Dream of Youth is the artist herself who serves as the trunk or support for the tree of life. The soft light and pastel palette of Dream of Youth is illustrative of Alvarez’s search for harmony and more than likely a response to her meditation practice that encourages light in. Alvarez would later shift to a bolder palette that was more in keeping with other American modernists.
This image of peace and stillness is in part made so by Alvarez’s choice of green as the main color, a color that would dominate many of her canvases. Alvarez’s diary indicates that she was captivated by the idea of color’s possibilities and sought to create harmonies that reinforced her ideas of a unified, poetic world. Like many artists of this time Alvarez was familiar with Wassily Kandinsky’s spiritual interest in color. Additionally in 1924 MacDonald-Wright published his own Treatise on Color. In it he linked color with emotions. Green was associated with calm and quiet. In color symbolism, green is the most restful color representing love, hope and youth. In Dream of Youth green becomes the color of spring, of awakening and growth. Alvarez biographer Dr. Will South, suggests Dream of Youth may be an expression of her own feeling of newness and growth. She may be the Madonna in the center of the canvas, ready to accept and to be a receptable for new life or perhaps a new way of living, as the Annunciation scene in the painting’s lower right suggests.
Unlike some of her mentors Alvarez did not embrace abstraction, making only a handful of wholly abstract paintings during her lifetime. Instead, she employed modernist theories to create symbolic content. In 1933 art critic Arthur Miller gave Alvarez what at the time constituted a sincere compliment when he stated in a Los Angeles Times article: She isn’t a woman painter, she’s an artist. In 1934 her recognition broadened and she was one of six artists from Los Angeles in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Painting and Sculpture from 16 American Cities and one of three mentioned in Holger Cahill and Alfred Barr’s book Art in America, In Modern Times. In 1941 she had a one-person exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now LACMA).
In addition to her symbolist work, Alvarez did portrait commissions for prominent Los Angelenos and occasional still lifes. Later in her life she spent time in the Caribbean and Mexico where she made pictures of markets and festivals. The c.1954 Untitled painting in the Wolfson Collection shows a further simplification of Alvarez’ modernist style. Faceless, non-individualized women frequently appear in symbolist paintings as representations of all humanity. Her love and understanding of color’s power is also clearly evident in this canvas. As Alvarez’ ages her palette became brighter with pastel colors applied with loose brushwork. Figures are less defined and merge into their landscape.
Mabel Alvarez continued to paint through her sixties and seventies and to exhibit regularly. During her lifetime Alvarez exhibited at many of the country’s most important museums and today she is included in numerous collections. In 2000 Dream of Youth was included in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000 exhibition.