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by Kathy Zimmerer

(OCMA, Newport Beach, Orange County; Adamson-Duvannes Galleries, West Hollywood) Two exhibitions tracing the career of Mabel Alvarez, a California painter of rich portraits, still-lifes and luminous symbolist works, bring a remarkable talent to light. Mabel Alvarez: A Retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art and A Radiant Thread: Paintings by Mabel Alvarez at the Adamson-Duvannes Galleries explore Alvarez’s unusual jump from dramatic portraits to dreamy symbolist paintings.

The daughter of Dr. Luis Alvarez, a distinguished Spanish-born physician, Mabel Alvarez’s artistic talent was discovered early and was encouraged by her family. While studying under the California Impressionist artist William Cahill, she learned to combine intense outdoor colors with a fluid, abbreviated brush stroke. Her lush Impressionist Portrait of Mrs. H. McGee, from 1919, shows her mastery of light and color as she surrounds the figure with glowing pointillist daubs of paint. Also dating from her studies with Cahill is a superb academic drawing of a woman’s head from 1916. Alvarez’s precise modeling and incisive grasp of portraiture are clearly evident in this powerful drawing.

A highly cultured woman, Alvarez immersed herself in art and the spiritual teachings of Will Levington Comfort. Comfort espoused Theosophy with a belief in karma. Alvarez embraced these theories for a time, but her pragmatic nature won out. She had a pivotal meeting in 1919 with Stanton Macdonald-Wright, the progressive Los Angeles artist who founded (with Morgan Russell) Synchromism, one of the earliest modernist painting movements. Macdonald-Wright’s towering personality and impassioned teachings had a profound influence on Alvarez. He introduced her to the European avant-garde and expanded her horizons beyond regional California Impressionism. In 1922, Alvarez joined the Group of Eight, who were painters with a modernist orientation.

Her luminous Self-Portrait [1923] shows how adept Alvarez became at combining progressive ideas with traditional painting techniques. Silhou-etted against an ivory white ground, Alvarez directly faces the viewer with an uncompromising look. Her face is beautifully modeled with strong planes of color, while the rich green of her dress complements and balances the deep oranges of her dress collar and hat.

In 1925 she painted one of her most profoundly spiritual paintings with Symbolist overtones, Dream of Youth. Flattened and elegant allegorical figures reside in a pastoral hierarchy of soft blues, yellows and greens, with a haloed female figure at the very core of the composition. The Self-Portrait and this eerie Symbolist work illustrate the two directions Alvarez’s work took. The artist was firmly rooted in realism, yet she did not hesitate to create symbolist works that are permeated with spirituality.

Alvarez created a truly stunning series of paintings in the twenties and thirties. In the Garden is a luscious portrait of a young girl against a flattened yet vibrant profusion of flowers. Again, Alvarez’s mastery of color and light shine through in the girl’s golden-hued dress and the vivid flowers rendered in violet, crimson and tangerine. The delicate modeling of the girl’s lovely head and neck are a tour de force in paint. Also superb is Mood (Portrait of Arabella) [1934], where a pensive model is illuminated by a glowing light that Alvarez achieves through her skillful choice of colors. The model’s ivory skin color is intensified by the cream colored slip she wears. The entire figure is enhanced by the deep rust colored ground and the brilliantly colored tablecloth.

During the 1950’s Alvarez’s works became more symbolic and decorative. Her interest in color harmonies dominated over form in ethereal compositions such as Two Women in a Field of Flowers [c. 1965].

Alvarez was a prominent woman artist during her lifetime, and was the subject of a solo exhibition in 1941 at the Los Angeles Museum. She began as a successful regional Impressionist who was not afraid to experiment and participate in the Los Angeles avant-garde. These shows clearly reveal a modern California master.

“Dream of Youth,”
o/c, 58 x 50 1/4”, 1925.
Courtesy of Adamson-Duvannes
Galleries, Los Angeles.

"Portrait of Mrs. H. McGee
Bernhart," o/c, 25 x 30".
1919. Collection of
Mr. Joseph Moure.

"In the Garden,"
o/c, 20 x 24", 1925.
Collection of the Orange
County Museum of Art,
promised gift of Nancy
Dustin Wall Moure.

"The Artist in Her Studio,"
o/c, 36 x 30", c. 1945.
Estate of Mabel Alvarez,
courtesy of Glenn Bassett.