Mabel Alvarez

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Mabel Alvarez was born in 1891 on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, into a large, prominent family of physicians, scientists, and performing artists. She was a significant painter of beautiful evocative portraits and introspective spiritual subjects. She was an important leader in in the Los Angeles art scene in the 1920s and 1930s. Her studies with major artists, including modernists Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Rissell, fueled her lifelong fascination with new styles and diverse mediums. 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 lithographs, Mabel created a body of work that was impressive to her fellow artists and the critics alike.

In 1906, Mabel and her family moved to Berkeley, California before settling in Los Angeles in 1909. Mabel'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. Mabel's watercolor sketches for this work show the influence of both art nouveau and symbolism.

In the early part of the 1900s, the impressionist style of painting was beginning to take root in California, owing in some measure to the arrival in Los Angeles of William Vincent Cahill. Mabel 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.

Later, Mabel found a new mentor in the revolutionary modernist Stanton MacDonald-Wright. Studying with him through much of the 20s, she produced strongly colored, solid works. She also became a close friend of Morgan Russell, who, together with Stanton, founded the synchronists movement, one of the earliest attempts to create paintings of purely abstract shapes and color. She painted portraits for Irving Berlin and Samuel Goldwyn during this time and received rave reviews from Arthur Millier in the Los Angeles Times.

Mabel's insatiable curiosity and quest for self-improvement, artistic and personal, drove her to explore metaphysical meditation techniques, to travel to the East Coast and Europe, and to study the arts of Asia. She pursued her diverse interests with energy and dedication, meticulously logging her experiences in diaries the 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. A number of important exhibitions featured her work, a testament to her local and national prominence.

Soon after her father's death in 1937, she made a year-long visit to the islands, where she still lifes and figure studies of the Hawaiian people. She returned to Los Angeles before the attack on Pearl Harbor and then painting took a back seat to her war-time volunteer efforts -- teaching art to jelp the rehabilitation of wounded veterans.

The 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 use 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.

Mabel Alvarez passed away on March 13, 1985, at the age of ninety-three.

Member: Group of Eight; Los Angeles Art Association; California Art Club; San Diego Fine Arts Society; American Federation of the Arts; Los Angeles. Museum Association.

Exhibited: San Francisco Art Association, 1918; Art Institute of Chicago, 1923; Museum of Modern Art, 1933; California State Fair, 1950 San Joaquin Pioneer Museum, 1950; Crocker Art Gallery, Sacramento, 1951; Los Angeles County Museum of Art 1929 (solo), 1941 (solo), 1954, 1955, 1980 (solo).

Awards: silver medal, Panama-California Expo, San Diego, 1916; California Art Club, 1918, 1919, 1933; Federal Women’s Club, 1923; Laguna Beach Art Association, 1928; Ebell Club of Los Angeles, 1933-35; Oakland Art Gallery, 1938; Honolulu Printmakers, 1939; Madonna Festival, L.A., 1954; Laguna Beach Museum, 1984.

Works Held: Haggin Museum, Stockton Law Building, USC.

Source: Emerging from the Shadows: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860-1960. Vol I. by Maurine St. Gaudens