Agnes Pelton (1881–1961) was an American painter, often associated with American modernism, abstraction, and transcendental painting. Pelton’s work was characterized by abstract and symbolically charged compositions. Her exploration of spirituality and nature’s transcendent qualities set her apart, creating a distinctive visual language. As an artist who navigated both abstraction and representation, Pelton’s legacy continues to captivate audiences, inviting contemplation into the intersections of art, spirituality, and the human experience.
Agnes Pelton’s Imaginative Paintings
Pelton was born in 1881 in Stuttgart, Germany, to American parents. She traveled all over Europe with her parents, before eventually settling down in Brooklyn, New York. Her early years were difficult. Her father died when she was just nine years old and she lived with her mother and grandmother, who she described as deeply religious and unnecessarily serious. At 14, she attended the Pratt Institute, where she studied under Arthur Wesley Dow who was a well-known painter.
After graduating, she became seriously ill for six weeks and she nearly died. This ailment halted her creative drive in painting, leading to a seven-year period of stagnation during the early 20th century. In 1907, she took up the brush again, and in 1910 she took a transformative trip through Italy, where the Renaissance masterpieces moved her deeply. It was under the guidance of artist Hamilton Easter Field between 1911 and 1914, that she crafted her first original works. The Imaginative Paintings were highly symbolic and featured solitary women in nature. Two were showcased in the influential 1913 Armory Show.
Room Decoration in Purple and Gray shows a lone woman, whose purple clothing matches the tones of her environment. She stands in a stylized forest, depicted in shades of purple, before a tree with bright gold leaves. There is a golden bird perched on the branch before her, with whom the woman seems to be communicating. There is a sense that the woman is in harmony with the natural world. This sense of harmony, and a reverence for the natural world, are something we see again and again throughout Pelton’s career.
Early Abstract Works
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
In 1921, Pelton moved to an abandoned windmill near Southampton, Long Island. Her aim was to refine her artistic practice and earn money by painting portraits for rich summer residents in the area. She lived here happily for ten years, engaging in reflective studies of nature, and honing her abstract approach. For Pelton, every part of nature—flowers, mountains, rivers—symbolized the broader interconnectedness of the world. To her, everything was connected. This perspective profoundly influenced her abstract vision, and she created her first wholly abstract work in 1926.
During this period she became interested in the writings of the spiritual teacher Helena Blavatsky, as well as the ideas of Theosophy. Theosophy was a new-age faith, which brought together elements of the occult and Eastern religion. Theosophists believed in a singular, divine truth, which was evident in nature and in humans. They believed in the limitless potential of all human beings. Theosophy was massively influential across Europe and North America and was practiced by artists such as Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, and Hilma af Klint.
In Fountains, Pelton painted a completely abstract composition of curving lines and gentle forms. Only the title suggests that the work is actually grounded in reality. The luminous curving lines become jets of water shooting upward, catching the light of the yellow sun. In Pelton’s early work, we see that she is not necessarily trying to depict something beyond physical reality. Even as her works became more purely abstract later in her career, the natural world remained an important inspiration.
Much of Pelton’s work includes layered and obscure symbolism. Three years before she painted Ahmi in Egypt, she spent eight months in the California desert, where she lived with a spiritualist colony called the Glass Hive. During her time here she sketched lotuses, which to her were a symbol of illumination, protection, and self-renunciation. Here she incorporated this potent symbol, alongside the swan, possibly drawn from Greek mythology, into a strange, mystical landscape. The work invites the viewer into another world, full of potent symbols and obscure meanings.
In 1932, she had to leave her beloved Hayground Windmill, so she moved permanently to the California Desert, settling near Palm Springs. At this time, there were many cults and new-age religious groups in the area, so it was the perfect place for Pelton to live and work. She lived alone but had plenty of friends and took part in many exhibitions. She believed that art was a means of communication and unless her work was seen, it was essentially meaningless.
In Messengers, golden leaves frame a pillar of light above the mountains. These leaves bring to mind classical Greek wreaths, symbolizing victory. They also refer to the Haku lei—wreaths of leaves used in Hawaiian rituals—which she probably observed during her time on the Pacific islands. The leaves become a crown, sitting on top of a spectral head, suggesting a spirit or another being made of light. Once again the viewer is invited to enter another world and to interpret the symbols. In Pelton’s work, many elements are often allegorical and open to interpretation.
Although Pelton preferred painting abstract pieces, she also painted landscapes throughout her career. She did this because she always felt a deep connection to nature, but she also did it in order to earn a living. She was greatly moved by the landscape in the desert, paying particular attention to the vast expanses of flat earth, the beautiful smoke trees, and the mystical light that poured from the sky. Her studies of the desert landscape informed a lot of her abstract works too. In the bloom of the desert, she stated, I found a natural expression of that color radiance I have tried to develop in my abstract painting. In Smoke Trees in a Draw, Peloton used loose brush strokes and a cool palette in order to explore the texture of the tree and the play of light and shadow in the desert.
She was, however, wary of becoming bogged down in the details of a landscape. She did not want to create realistic paintings but was more interested in capturing an impression of the landscape. She spoke of wanting to try realism in free verse. By this she meant that she would loosely depict the world in front of her, only painting details when they were required, leaving lots of empty space in her canvases.
Agnes Pelton’s Final Years
In the late 1940s, Pelton mostly stopped painting landscapes and devoted herself once more to her abstract works. She stated that she missed working with weightless substances or forms, pure immaterial color. She would spend the rest of her days painting abstract compositions inspired by the desert landscape, until her death in 1961. Pelton suffered from chronic health issues throughout her life, and would often struggle to paint her large abstract canvases.
However, she remained committed to painting them, as she found them spiritually fulfilling. In these later paintings called Light Centre and Departure we see the orb and the circle which are two very common motifs in Pelton’s work. These motifs appear repeatedly throughout her career, often as floating presences in abstract landscapes. The circle is often associated with the infinite and with unity. It is an important symbol in Pelton’s transcendental vision.
Agnes Pelton’s Artistic Legacy
Pelton did not achieve great fame during her lifetime, in part because she did not really promote her work. Although she participated in exhibitions and was part of the Transcendentalist Painting Group, widespread success or fame was never of interest to her. It was enough for her to share her work publicly. She did not need massive recognition.
In the present day, her work is often compared to Georgia O’Keefe’s, but Pelton’s visual language is significantly different. While many of her contemporaries embraced urbanism, Pelton ventured physically into the desert and conceptually into the metaphysical realms. She bridged artistic innovation and spiritual introspection. Today, Pelton is a widely respected and admired artist.