top of page

3 Paintings in Collection

Agnes Pelton


(1881 - 1961) Germany / United States

Works in Public Collections

Orange County Museum of Art, Costa Mesa, CA; Oakland Museum, CA; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA; University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque, NM; Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami, FL; Palm Springs Art Museum, CA; Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Logan, UT; Phoenix Art Museum, AZ; Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; LA County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Boston Museum of Fine Art, MA; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR.

Selected Exhibitions

Hidden Gems, Sun Valley Museum of Art, Ketchum, ID, 2023

Idyll Included

Western Eyes: 20th Century Art Here and Now, New Mexico Museum of Art, Sante  Fe, NM, 2022/2023

Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, curated by Michael Duncan, Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA, 2021. Traveled to Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, OK, 2021-2022; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA, 2022-2023

Radiance and Voyaging included

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, curated by Gilbert Vicario, Phoenix Art Museum, 2019. Traveled to Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, 2020 and Palm Springs Art Museum, 2021

Idyll included

Unsettled, Nevada Museum of Art, NV, 2018-2018. Traveled to Anchorage Museum of Art, 2018; Palm Springs Art Museum, 2018-2019

Idyll included

Pursuit of Abstraction, Wolfsonian-FIU Museum, Miami Beach, FL, 2017. Traveled to  Artis-Naples, The Baker Museum, Naples, FL, 2017

Voyaging and Radiance included

Western Light, Ecstatic Landscapes, Sun Valley Center for the Arts, Ketchum, ID, 2014

Voyaging, Idyll and Radiance included

Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition: The Jeri L. Waxenberg Collection, Boise Art  Museum, Idaho, 2002

Idyll included

Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature, curated by Michael Zakian, Palm Springs Desert  Museum, CA, 1995. Traveled to Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ, 1995; The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY, 1995-1996; Nora Eccles Harrison Musuem  of Art, Logan, UT, 1996; Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Malibu, CA, 1996;  The Oakland Museum, CA, 1996


Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, Michael Duncan (Editor),

Crocker Art Museum and DelMonico Books, 2021

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist by Gilbert Vicario, Phoenix Art Museum,  2019

Enchanted Modernites: Theosophy, the Arts and the American West by Sarah  Victoria Turner, Fulgur Press, 2019

Illumination: The Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin and Florence Pierce by Timothy Robert Rodgers and Sharyn Udall, Merrell Publications, 2009

Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition: The Jeri L. Waxenberg Collection, by Kristin  Poole, JLW Collection, 2002

Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature by Michael Zakian, Palm Springs Desert Museum,


Other Resources

Spiritual Searching in Modern Times: Agnes Pelton’s Desert Transcendentalism, Lecture by Erika Doss, American Studies Prof at Univ. of Notre Dame at Phoenix Art Museum, 2019:

Channeled Visions: Women, Esotericism and Modern Art, Lecture by Susan L. Aberth, Associate Professor Art History, Bard College at Phoenix Art Museum, 2019

Born 1881 Stuttgart, Germany
Died 1961 Cathedral City, CA

Agnes Pelton created mystical abstract paintings that were rooted in the desert landscape of the American west as well as her own meditative visions. Using bold colors and biomorphic forms she created a singular style of atmospheric abstractions that portray a world outside of our physical reality. Not widely recognized during her lifetime, Pelton has recently been celebrated as one of America’s most important abstractionists.

Agnes Pelton was born in Germany to American parents. As a child she traveled with her mother through Europe and the United States.  The family lived for a while in Switzerland but Pelton suffered from bronchitis and doctors suggested that she move to a milder climate. In 1888 the family left Europe and moved to Brooklyn, New York. Unfortunately, Pelton’s father had developed an addition to morphine and he died of an overdose in 1891 when Pelton was only nine. Pelton was raised by her mother who opened a music school to support the family. 

In 1895 the young artist enrolled at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute where she studied with Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow was a revolutionary teacher who discouraged drawing to imitate reality and instead required his students to do creative exercises that emphasized a dynamic arrangement of black and white masses. Dow advocated abstract relationships and the push and pull of opposites. This early teaching that encouraged experimentation and thinking in less specific concrete terms was to influence Pelton for the rest of her life. 

Pelton served as Dow’s assistant at his summer school in Ipswich, Massachusetts but in the fall of 1900 became ill and did not paint for a number of years. She began again in 1907 working in an art colony in Connecticut where she made studies of the effects of light. Her paintings then were of figures outside, bathed in beautiful atmospheric light.

In 1910 Pelton’s interests took her to Italy where she studied at the British Academy of Arts in Rome. There she became familiar with Walter Pater’s book on the Renaissance that emphasized the importance of tuning into energy and natural phenomena. This symbolist approach validated Pelton’s desire to respond to the subtleties of atmosphere and gave her permission to tap into her natural introspective state. When she returned to New York the paintings she had been doing evolved into what she called Imaginative paintings—images of solitary, meditative figures, usually women, in pastoral landscapes. Pelton described these works as moods of nature and took for their inspiration the poetic symbolist paintings of Arthur B. Davies. Two of these Imaginative paintings were included in the groundbreaking Armory Show in New York in 1913, presented in a gallery alongside fellow American painters Marsden Hartley and Charles Sheeler.

In 1914 Pelton was invited to join the National Assoc. of Women Painters and Sculptors, exhibiting on and off with the group for next 25 years. Her artwork attracted the attention of prominent New Yorker Alice Brisbane Thursby. Knowing Pelton’s interest in Theosophy and meditation were in alignment with the interests of modernist art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, Thursby introduced the two and Dodge purchased one of Pelton’s Imaginative paintings and invited Pelton to visit her at her home in Taos. A visit in 1919 was Pelton’s initial encounter with the light and energy of the American southwest.

In 1921 after Pelton’s mother died she left New York City and took up residence in a windmill on Long Island. She stayed there for ten years and made a living painting portraits and doing the occasional still life. During this period Pelton traveled to Greece, the Middle East and Hawaii while continuing to explore ideas about a higher consciousness. She was familiar with the teachings of Nicolas Roerich, a painter and explorer who splintered off from Theosophy, developing a philosophy called Agni Yoga that was based on the idea of fire as a life force. Simultaneously Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art essay (1911) had been translated into English and artists throughout the country were taking inspiration from his commitment to non-objective art that evoked emotions using form and color. All of these inspirations were melded into Pelton’s spiritual quest which was ongoing and as central to her identity as it was to her approach to modernism.

In 1926 Pelton executed her first abstractions based on the movements of air and water, and the light emanating from the stars.  As we can see in Radiance Pelton uses a tool box of vibrant color, biomorphic forms and delicate scrims of light to articulate universal energy.

Unlike many other artists who were experimenting with abstraction as an alternative to traditional representational painting, Pelton did not feel the need to make an art historical or political statement with her work. For Pelton the abstract work developed as a part of her evolution as a human being. Her desire to make visible the positive force she felt was present in the universe was part and parcel of her painting as well as her personality. Like artist and mystic Hilma af Klint, Pelton’s abstractions were born from a compelling personal spiritual perspective and her paintings emerged from visions and notes she kept in voluminous journals that are just now being explored by scholars.

In 1931 the windmill was sold and Pelton moved to the California desert. Her biographer, Michael Zakian, observes that “the paradoxes and dualities (Pelton) explored in her abstractions—contrasts between air and matter, wet and dry, hot and cold—appeared regularly in the desert.”  The transformation the desert went through every spring as harsh plants burst into flower enchanted this artist who was attracted to nature’s opposites.

Simultaneous with her move to California, Pelton became further engaged with Eastern Philosophies. They appealed to her interest in natural phenomena as well as to her gentle spirit which embraced nature’s divinity. Through her colorful canvases filled with rays, circles, stars, flowers and undulating forms, Pelton explores the forces that make up existence—air, fire, water and light. Her approach is in keeping with symbolist thought which encouraged artists to make visible the power and spirit of nature. Pelton said that these images came to her while she was in a meditative state and recognized that they were difficult for others to comprehend. Often she wrote poems to accompany the paintings, hoping that they would help explain her approach.

Voyaging (1931) in the Wolfson Collection is paired with a poem that speaks to the colors of the sea and sky, and light and sound as sources of eternity and transformation. In the painting that presents as an almost surrealist landscape, the stylized water and the melon shaped boat are surrounded by a field of luminous blue. The bell and dancing ropes suggest an open ended, even playful narrative. Pelton’s ability to control and gradate color is in evidence here and in Idyll (1952), also in the Wolfson Collection.

During this time Pelton painted both realistic desert landscapes as well the transcendental abstractions. She struggled to reconcile the two styles but ultimately concluded that to do them both was necessary. She understood that the abstract paintings were personal and more essential for her spirit, but the landscape works allowed her to celebrate the desert and, more importantly, generate a much needed income.

In 1938 Raymond Jonson founded the Transcendental Painting Group in New Mexico and asked Agnes Pelton to serve as the group’s honorary president. The group looked to Pelton as a mentor because they embraced her pursuit of spiritual abstraction. They sought to make paintings that were purely creative, where lines and forms took shape from the imagination not from objective reality. They believed that Pelton’s abstractions that radiated light and energy made tangible a spiritual presence.

Despite the fact that Pelton was widely recognized by other artists, she was not as broadly celebrated in her lifetime as she is today. In the 1930’s and 1940’s Pelton had a number of one person exhibitions including at the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, the Laguna Beach Art Association, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. She also participated in a number of group shows including the 1940 Guggenheim exhibition of the Transcendental Painting Group. Quiet and gentle, Pelton did not promote herself. She had no steady advocate and as a result finances were always a concern. 

After a rather long period that had been dedicated solely to landscapes, Pelton began a new series of abstractions in 1950 realizing that “Abstractions are my work. This house is their home.” The painting Idyll in the Wolfson Collection is a compelling hybrid of both stylistic approaches she was using at the time. With mountains on the horizon and the desert floor making up the middle ground, a landscape sets the stage for two arching halos of light that arise from an illuminated pool with colorful morning glories spinning in the foreground. Pelton treats the flowers with minimal detail only suggesting their form, a practice she started in earlier Imaginative paintings. Idyll speaks to the light and energy that so many artists discovered in the desert southwest but also suggests a force of joy present that is uncontainable and animated. For Pelton her abstract work was a way to lightness; she stated a longing for “the intervals of timeless work with weightless substances or forms, [and] pure immaterial color.”

Today Agnes Pelton’s life and work has become the subject of a number of important exhibitions and publications. Marginalized for much of the 20th century, she is emerging today as one of America’s most important abstractionists. As more and more institutions turn their attention to overlooked women artists, Agnes Pelton’s paintings, particularly the non-objective works, are sought after and can be found in the collections of museums throughout the United States. Today’s 21st century audience who have a growing interest in non-denominational spiritual beliefs are connecting with this amazing artist who was not afraid to express a new way of seeing and interpreting the world.

bottom of page