Modernist Mystic: Agnes Pelton

Michael Pearce, Ph.D., American Fine Art Magazine, May 1, 2023

Although born in Stuttgart, Germany, to American parents, Agnes Pelton became a quintessential artist of the mystical American Southwest. Her abstract work is full of the sublime sensuality of the desert’s numinous silence, its merciless and ever-present threat, and the alien delicacy of its fragile nature. Her spiritual perceptions of this vast landscape were an integral part of her work, but her focus on metaphysics and gentle disposition made her a poor fit for the materialistic brand of masculine American modernism championed by the New York hegemony of the early 20th century, despite the bond of belief that should have tied her tightly to Peggy Guggenheim’s clan of esoterically-minded abstract painters like Mondrian and Kandinsky.


Pelton was born in 1881 to Florence Tilton, who sparked an infamous scandal that wrecked Henry Beecher’s standing as America’s preeminent preacher, and ruined her mother Elizabeth’s reputation when she informed her father that Elizabeth and Beecher had been sexually intimate. The scandal was a catastrophe for the Tilton family and Agnes said it overshadowed both her mother Florence’s life, and her own. Florence was sent to Germany to study music and married wealthy Louisianan William Pelton, Agnes’ father. When Agnes was nine, William died from an overdose of morphine. In Brooklyn, Florence opened a music school, and invested in an alternative medicine practice which used massage to treat a mostly female community of patients.



Pelton’s bourgeois but unconventional upbringing allowed her to enjoy a life in art—at 18 she won a third prize scholarship to the prestigious Pratt Institute in June 1899 and graduated a year later, when she was handed her diploma by the honored speaker Dr. Merrill Gates, whose address to the graduating class rephrased Emile Zola’s famous axiom as, “A picture is a bit of the universe seen through temperament.” After Pratt, Pelton’s life entered a hushed decade—she collapsed when she was 19 and diagnosed with neurotic fever. Little is recorded about her activities during the aughts of the new century.


In 1910, Pelton travelled to Rome to study figure drawing at the British Academy of Arts, and returned in 1911 to help her deeply religious mother run her music school. She had accumulated a considerable body of work and began exhibiting and selling. Between 1911 and 1914, she studied with Hamilton Easter Field at his studio in Ogunquit, Maine, where Walter Kuhn, secretary of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors saw her work and secured an invitation for her to participate in the Armory Show of 1913. Kuhn had noticed her debt to the metaphysically oriented work of the prominent artist Arthur Bowen Davies, who was the president of the association which organized the famous international exhibition. Pelton showed two canvases, Stone Age, and Vinewood. Her reputation as a serious artist was blossoming.



Immediately after her success at the Armory, Field invited Pelton to show her paintings at his in-home gallery Ardsley Studios, alongside a collection of Japanese prints and paintings. Field committed to the venture with a series of newspaper ads and Pelton gained some individual attention from the press. The New York Sun reviewer loved her work, writing lyrical prose to describe her painting Sound as “a ballet unlike any yet seen at the Metropolitan.” The paintings offered an alternative to conventional pictures and were “not to be approached in an academic frame of mind.” Brooklyn Life compared her work to William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience”, and commented on her “extreme notes of joy and sorrow,” and ran a picture of her lyrical Summer Morning. The Brooklyn Sun compared her work favorably to paintings by Davies.


Seeking a path to financial stability, during 1914 Pelton repeatedly offered line drawings to popular magazines, but was met with a string of rejections. She took her painting Romance to the National Academy, and to her delight it was accepted—but then suffered crushing disappointment when it was not hung. A collector wrote to her asking if she could trade her painting Cry in the Night for “something perhaps more cheerful to live with,” because her husband and children found it too disturbing. She took two pastel drawings instead. Another disappointment followed when she was invited to exhibit eight paintings in an international show in Paris, which turned out to be a fraud. Good news came at the end of the year when her patron Alice Brisbane Thursby gave her $200 to spend on studio furnishings. Resolute Pelton continued submitting her work and by 1915 she had found some small success in placing it in exhibits, but it was not enough, and in March of 1919 she began circulating fliers advertising herself as an interior decorator. After producing a few decorative murals, she abandoned her imaginative paintings and concentrated on portraiture.



In 1921, Florence Pelton died and, alone and without the security of her mother’s support, Agnes moved to the Hamptons on Long Island to live in a disused windmill which she rented as her studio until 1932. The windmill had an iconic status in her imagination—she painted it on the height of a twilight skyline in about 1920, a potent symbol set in darkness and silhouette. In her bohemian tower in the comfortably bourgeois Hamptons, she embraced portraiture as her bread and butter, painting wealthy New Yorkers who fled from the crush and press of the city to the popular summer refuge. This income soon started drying up, though, and by 1926 she was again struggling. She scrawled notes on ideas for making money from occasional fundraisers in a scrappy diary, thinking about how to monetize the windmill’s potential as a cultural center. Nevertheless, she saw herself as a romantic individualist, and distanced herself from the stain of capitalism, writing, “I am first an artist and stand for beauty and personality rather than commercial enterprise whatever I do to sell—as a mother of art and inspiration.” Struggling to balance her need for financial stability with her need to connect her art to her spirituality she began making the first of her transcendent abstractions in the windmill, painting the first, The Ray Serene. The windmill was more than a home, it was a magnet for cosmic energy. She wrote, “The windmill is a mystical house reaching into heaven and radiating from its centre distributing sustenance.”


A winter season spent in Taos, New Mexico, with Alice Thursby in 1919 had introduced Pelton to the immense desert that spreads across the Southwest of the United States and in 1928 she traveled to Los Angeles, where she stayed with her friend Emma Newton, subsequently renting a house in Pasadena for six months. In April 1929, she mounted a well-reviewed show of her flower paintings, portraits and “decorations” at the Grace Nicholson Gallery in Pasadena—a photograph of her charming portrait of a young Asian girl, Goldie Li, was printed in the Los Angeles Times—and her abstract paintings were moved to Jake Zeitlin’s Los Angeles bookstore in June. She returned to New York inspired and committed, and held an exhibit at the Montross Gallery in 1930, subsequently meeting Dane Rudhyar, the pioneer of humanistic astrology, who saw her work there and visited her at the windmill. Rudhyar was destined to become a trusted friend, and had an important influence upon Pelton’s spiritual investigations. Pelton’s financial insecurity came to a head in 1931 when the owner of her beloved windmill sold the building. Hungry for the calm call of the desert, she moved to the 100-person town of Cathedral City in California, where she would live for the rest of her life, immersed in theosophical new age spiritualism and devoted to finding inner peace.



Motherless, fatherless, 50, and living alone in the elemental home of emptiness, the desert, Pelton at last became herself—a hermetic hermit, a solitary soul content to commune with the mystical in airy silence. In the small Cathedral City community, she led an artistic double life similar to the one she had enjoyed in her windmill, painting landscapes to sell to the tourists who came to Palm Springs for the golf, and the air, and the dry heat, while expressing her spiritual self by painting beautiful, non-objective images. Perhaps Gates’ words at her Pratt graduation ceremony had lodged deep in Pelton’s memory, for her cosmic new paintings were unashamedly individualistic, and deeply personal reflections on pieces of the visionary universe. Her art truly was Zola’s “nature seen through a temperament,” and her temperament was calm, and spiritual and beautiful.


Pelton died aged 79 in 1961, just as boomer hippies began to embrace the spiritual eclecticism theosophists had been immersed in for almost 100 years. Now yoga, trance and metaphysics were dragged into the essential streams of popular alternative culture. However, the materialist mainstream of the U.S. establishment’s conventional avant-garde ignored the soft spirituality of Pelton’s abstractions, which vanished into private collections and the storage units of a few museums. In the 2020s, as a generation raised on the alchemical magic and mystery of “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” embraces adulthood and embarks upon collecting, Pelton provides a perfect point of entry into the arcane mysteries of metaphysical art.