Birthday Observances: Agnes Pelton
August 22, 2022
“Discovering” an accomplished artist who marches to a beat so outside the acceptable songs of his or her time can be refreshing. In retrospect, when civilization has caught up, the artist often seems to have been prophetic. The Age of Aquarius has familiarized us with altered consciousness and Agnes Lawrence Pelton’s work does not seem strange or different to us. But that was not the case during her lifetime.
Born August 22, 1881, in Stuttgart, Germany, Agnes Lawrence Pelton, spent a life time exploring and expressing her mystical beliefs through her paintings. She struggled professionally and, to make ends meet, was often forced to sell traditional desert landscapes to tourists. By her death in 1961 Pelton had fallen largely into obscurity.
Then, in 2020, through the Whitney’s solo retrospective, the world “discovered” her work.
Pelton’s early family life was frought with drama; possibly this influenced her to turn inward for creative inspiration. Her grandmother had a very public affair with moralist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, which left her grandfather humiliated. (Not long after he died penniless in Paris.) As a young woman, Pelton’s mother had been packed off to Europe, where she met Pelton’s father. Not long after the family decamped to Brooklyn, but her parents soon became estranged and she rarely saw her father. Her father died of a morphine overdose when she was 10.
Due to ill health Pelton was educated at home until she started at Pratt Institute in 1895. There she studied under Arthur Wesley Dow, who believed fervently that art was a living force for all in everyday life, not a traditional ornament for the few. Dow also later taught (not surprisingly) Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as Max Weber (who was in Pelton’s graduating class), Charles Burchfield, and Charles Sheeler. Surely it was under Dow’s influence that Pelton began to see her internal world as a source of painting inspiration.
After studying in Rome, Pelton settled on Long Island. In 1932 a visit to the desert super charged her creative life— “The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.”
Settling in the Palm Springs area, Pelton dove deep into Agni Yoga (Mergence with Divine Fire) principles, introduced to the Western world by Nicholas and Helena Roerich. Nicholas was a an enthusiastic traveler and painter; Helena a diviner and mystic. The tenets of Agni Yoga were closely connected with Theosophy, the late 19th century movement founded by Helena Blavatsky, based on esoteric and mystical ideas including ancient secrets, clairvoyance, travels on the astral plane.
Not surprisingly, Swedish painter Hilda af Klimt was an adherent to Theosophy. “Rediscovered” in the late 20th century and tagged as a hugely influential early modern abstractionist, af Klimt believed that the entire universe was an interconnected single unit and that humans had multiple different states of consciousness. She designed her paintings to communicate these messages.
Woman’s contribution to modern abstraction is still being written. A salute then to Agnes Lawrence Pelton on her birthday for the courage to break from the conventional art styles of her day and remain resolutely true to her own vision.
Agnes Lawrence Pelton at The Whitney
Agnes Lawrence Pelton at The Crocker Museum
The Spiritual in Art (LACMA catalog)