top of page

1 Painting in Collection

Adele Watson


(1873 - 1947) United States

Works in Select Public Collections

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Orange County Museum of Art, Costa Mesa, CA

Selected Recent Exhibitions

At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, 2022

The Pursuit of Abstraction, The Wolfsonian-FIU, Miami Beach, FL, 2016. Traveled to The Baker Museum, Naples, FL, 2017

Protection Included

Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition, Boise Art Museum, ID, 2002

Protection Included

Uncovered and Recovered: Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition, Sun Valley Museum of Art, Ketchum, ID, 1999

Protection Included

Paintings and Drawings by Adele Watson, Pasadena Art Institute (today the Norton Simon Museum), 1953 


Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West 1890-1945 by Patricia Trenton and Virginia Scharff, Autry Museum of Western Heritage and University of California Press, 1995

Born 1873 Toledo, OH
Died 1947 Pasadena, CA

Adele Watson was born in Ohio. After her father’s death when she was seven, her family moved to Pasadena, California which would remain her home base throughout her life. Her interest in art took her to the ateliers of New York and Paris where she witnessed the evolution of early modernist ideas. She is recognized for her symbolist images where people and nature are intertwined.

In 1905 Watson enrolled at New York's Art Students League. After that introduction to painting, she traveled to Paris where she worked with Raphael Collin and befriended artist/poet Khalil Gibran. Collin, an allegorical academic painter whose work evolved as he saw the opportunities presented by the Impressionists, served as a bridge between a trained, academic approach and modernism’s endorsement of dramatic expression. During the 1910s Watson's work also reflected the influence of Arthur B. Davies whose tendency toward romantic lyricism found fertile ground in her painting and prints. Davies mystical paintings captured a kind of idyllic thinking that appealed to Watson.

As she matured Watson never abandoned the poetic, but the harmonies she sought to convey in her art became more compelling. Watson friendship with Kahlil Gibran, who wrote the poetic essays in The Prophet, nurtured her desire to link nature with the human spirit. With Gibran, Watson shared an appreciation for the beauty and power of the natural world, both locating a deep spiritual connection within natural systems. It is not surprising that Watson responded to the tenets of symbolism, which aspired to articulate a reality beyond the mundane, one which transcended physical existence. Watson's own examination of spirituality resulted in symbolist images where human kind and nature are one.

In Protection female figures are embraced by the mountains and the sky. In placing nude figures on the land, Watson explores humankind in its most natural state, emphasizing the relationship to and dependency on nature. In this painting the two women share the same facial features and body type. Do they symbolize archetypal humans or two sides of the same human spirit? The figure in front is clearly kneeling and grounded; the figure behind is ambiguous in its placement and finish. Is she emerging from the earth? Is this the embrace of the self?

Watson and other symbolists looked to nature for self-examination and enlightenment. In part their approach was a reaction against growing industrialization and a desire to move beyond the traditional strictures of organized religion. These artists were attempting to locate and make manifest some deeper meaning beyond the realistic rendering of a thing seen and it was in nature that they found inspiration. It is possible that Protection is about nature as creator/protector as well as an illustration of both the physical and spiritual side of humankind.

In 1930 Watson spent time in Zion National Park and was enchanted by Utah’s wonderous rock formations. After that trip that her paintings took on a more direct anthropomorphic posture. In the later paintings, man's relationship with nature becomes conflated as human figures emerge from rock formations and mountain forms acquire human faces. Wings take on a particular importance for Watson as they are symbols of life's internal force—they hold up the heart. In Protection wing forms are suggested by the cloud formations. In her later paintings these subtle suggestions take on a more obvious position. In 1933 Arthur Miller, reviewing an exhibition of Watson’s paintings for the Los Angeles Times, wrote "Miss Watson sees landscape in terms of the soul of man."

As was true for many symbolists, color was an important part of Watson's compositions. She commonly used blue, which was thought to represent hope, contemplation, fidelity, faith and eternity. In addition to painting, Watson did a number of lithographs and painted screens throughout her career.

Watson’s first solo exhibition was at Folsom Galleries in 1916 in New York. In 1917 she returned to Pasadena, exhibiting at the California Liberty Fair in 1918 and with the Painters and Sculptors of Los Angeles in 1925. There is no indication that Adele Watson was not able to support herself making art but there is little record of art sales or regular gallery affiliation. She never married and was cynical about the institution, stating to her sister: I guess the only happy people are the ones who have work to do and are quite finished with the opposite sex or care lightly. Clearly, her art was paramount in her life.

Watson belonged to a number of professional leagues including the American Artists Professional League, the Pen and Brush Club, and the Society of Independent Artists, with whom she presumably exhibited. Watson also participated in group exhibitions throughout the country including at the Toledo Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Art, National Academy of Design, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 1953 the Pasadena Art Institute posthumously mounted a retrospective of her work.

bottom of page