An impressive group of female artists were drawn to Carmel, Pacific Grove, and Monterey around the turn of the last century. M. Evelyn McCormick (1862-1948) was a major talent and a leader among them. These painters came primarily because of the striking beauty of the area, but the local welcoming attitude toward women had a lot to do with it as well. The Spanish culture, still strong in California, allowed women to own property, helping women feel more secure here. Also, at this time there was not an elite layer of society setting the rules, thus leaving the artists free to create their own lifestyle.
In 1892 when McCormick first ventured to the Peninsula, Monterey was a sleepy old Spanish town where one could work hard, enjoy the quaint adobe architecture, and sip sangria on cool evenings by the Pacific Ocean. Gnarled cypress trees on white beaches with a backdrop of hills brightened by lupine and California poppies, tempted writers as well as artists to the Bay Area. The tight-knit community quickly became a bohemian haven.
Evelyn and her women friends were primarily trained at the California School of Design by the top California male painters of the period –– William Keith, Emile Carlsen, Amédée Jouillin and Arthur Mathews. McCormick won the same prizes as the men while there. Among her fellow students were Mary De Neale Morgan (1868-1948), Mary C. Brady (1865-1927) and Isabel Hunter (1865-1941). All but De Neale were of Irish descent and all would eventually make their way to the Monterey Peninsula, become successful artists, and remain Evelyn’s good friends. This did not necessarily mean painting together so much as socializing, up and down the coast –– in Carmel, Pacific Grove and Monterey.
Immediately after art school several of the male students journeyed to Paris to study at the Académie Julian, which included women among its students, as opposed to France’s Ecole des Beaux Arts, which did not. Evelyn, showing early signs of being an independent spirit, followed her schoolmate and lover, Guy Rose to Paris to study in 1891. Mary Brady soon turned up in France as well. (Unfortunately, most of Brady’s work is lost, probably due to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which destroyed much of the work of the area’s artists.)
In Paris Evelyn worked on her entry to the Paris Salon, and with an intriguing painting of pumpkins in a walled garden, became the first American woman to be admitted to this annual exhibition. The more famous Mary Cassatt had not been accepted but later, with the support of Edgar Degas, was invited to exhibit her work in the competing Salon des Réfusés.
Evelyn and Guy Rose subsequently traveled to Giverny, a pleasant country village outside of Paris, to live and work. Evelyn had heard from Mary Brady of the wonderful subject matter to paint around Giverny, and the American artists soon learned that the famous Claude Monet lived there. They were profoundly influenced by the work of Monet and began to experiment with his impressionistic technique en plein air. Evelyn, Mary, and a number of male artist friends –– Ernest Peixotto, Guy Rose, and Joseph Raphael among others ––– would import their impressionist style and methods to California. Their new approach included working outdoors, broad and vigorous brush strokes, a brighter palette, and special attention to patterns.
Two younger women artists, Euphemia Charlton Fortune (1885-1969) and Rowena Meeks Abdy (1887-1945) joined the Monterey community after the San Francisco earthquake disaster. These Californians were aware of the Parisian left bank artistic community and seem to have found in bohemian Monterey an echo of this model. But there appears to be little consciousness or identity of themselves as a cohesive group of women painters, even when, in 1917, a group of men around the San Francisco area formed the Society of Six and articulated a common style of painting.
The members of the Society of Six –– William Clapp, Bernard von Eichman, August Gay, Selden Gile, Maurice Logan and Louis Siegriest, did not define themselves strictly as California Impressionists. However, they did share similar instincts, working en plein air and using high-key color.
Women had formed the Sketch Club in San Francisco as early as 1893, primarily to be able to draw live models, which was frowned upon in a mixed group. They didn’t advertise their similarities or exhibit together like the Society of Six did.
Since other art groups did not exclude women, the Monterey females didn’t tout gender as part of their identity. The California Art Club, dominated by Impressionists mainly from Southern California, admitted both men and women. The San Francisco Art Association was founded much earlier, in 1871, and allowed both sexes as well. However, the tight connection between the Art Association and the Bohemian Club, which was only for “gentlemen,” made life difficult for women. One sees evidence of their feeling like second-class citizens in the way several signed their paintings to masquerade as men ––– Effie Fortune became Charlton Fortune and Mary De Neale Morgan became De Neale Morgan.
Most of the Monterey women belonged to the San Francisco Art Association, and Evelyn was an extremely active member. She sometimes drew criticism for her strong opinions on art juries, and some of the men resented her forward attitude on selection committees. As consciousness of a need to assert themselves grew, the Sketch Club changed its name in 1925 to the San Francisco Society of Women Artists.
There were other fine women painters struggling for recognition around Carmel and Monterey at this time –– Jeannette Maxfield Lewis, Eunice Cashion MacLennan, Laura Wasson Maxwell and Edith Maguire. The majority of women artists on the Monterey Peninsula were unmarried, apparently finding a full life in their passion for painting. Although they all viewed the same scenes daily, there is a remarkable diversity of style in their work. What stands out is their strong individuality and commitment to creativity.
California Impressionism has long been the stepchild of American Impressionism. This talented group of women painters in Monterey represents a significant counterweight to east coast American Impressionists, and makes it important for California Impressionism to be recognized as a meaningful part of American Impressionism.
Other reading about M. Evelyn McCormick and California Impressionism
William H. Gerdts and Will South, California Impressionism (Amazon)
William H. Gerdts, Monet’s Giverny; Six Early Women Artists: A Diversity of Style, Carmel Art Association, 1991.
Nelda Hirsh is the author of the historical novel Julia Du Val and A Bohemian Life, a biography of the American Impressionist painter Evelyn McCormick. Nelda's next book is an historical novel about Henry IV of France. Nelda and her husband share their time between New York City and Boulder, Colorado.