Arts & Theater

This California artist was an outspoken free spirit. See her vibrant paintings at the Crocker

Above the Town, 1918
Above the Town, 1918 Collection of Stephen P. Diamond

Her first name was Euphemia. But she hated it and so went by Effie and signed her bold and vigorous oil paintings with her first initial, leading to the misconception that she was a man. Her assured, painterly brushstrokes and strong, active compositions were often described in the press as “masculine” and “virile,” adding to the confusion.

Witty, independent-minded, outspoken and never-married, E. Charlton Fortune (1885-1969) was a perfect example of “The New Woman” who came of age at a time when women’s roles were being redefined, though women wouldn’t get the right to vote until Fortune was 35.

Born in Sausalito, she studied art at San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Institute of Art and the Art Student’s League in New York. Among her teachers were Arthur Mathews and Edward Steichen.

In the 1910s, critics began to say no female artists in California had a brighter future than she. After travels abroad, including a visit to her father’s birthplace in Scotland, she returned to California in 1912 and spent that summer painting in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Riding her wooden-wheeled bicycle with her painting materials on her back to paint outdoors, she was a free spirit whose daring paintings, ahead of their time, moved from Tonalism and Impressionism and then quickly towards Modernism.

The largest exhibition of her work ever assembled is at The Crocker Art Museum through April 22, and if you are a painter or a lover of painting, you won’t want to miss it. I can’t think of a better way to lift your spirits than by spending time with her fresh, energetic landscapes of San Francisco and the Monterey Peninsula and European sites in Scotland. England, and France.

Organized by The Pasadena Museum of California Art and curated by Scott Shields, Associate Director and Chief Curator at the Crocker, the exhibition features 85 works that span her career, including portrait drawings, her most important plein-air paintings, and examples of ecclesiastical paintings and furnishings made for the Catholic Church.

The show begins with “Poet’s Reverie (The Raven),” 1907, a dark, moody painting of Poe’s foreboding bird that suggests both Tonalist and Symbolist influences, while the tender greens and lilacs of “Summer,” 1914, which was exhibited in San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition at the Palace of Fine Arts in 1915, is a quiet example of Impressionism, the dominant style at the exhibition.

“Summer” contrasts markedly with “The Pier,” also done in 1914, whose assertive brushwork, vibrant color, and daring composition reflect her strongly individual nature and her focus on forceful images of the Monterey area that forsook the picturesque for real life. Among these are images of working people (“Picking Apples,” c. 1920) and rough workplaces (“Fish Cannery Monterey,” 1919-1920).

Beauty, however, is not missing in her work. Few paintings are as lovely and full of fresh air as “Above the Town (Monterey Bay),” 1918, with it’s panoramic view of the bay and the bright, lushly painted houses of the town, or as magical as the imposing nocturne “Summer Night,”1920, a scene of a rambling house atop a rocky promontory bathed in silvery moonlight.

Having been nominated and rejected for membership in the National Academy of Design (probably because of being a woman and being from California), a disappointed Fortune left for England in 1921, where a show of her California landscapes at a London gallery was a great success both in terms of sales and positive attention in the press.

After traveling to Ireland and Scotland, where she painted Edinburgh Castle and her father’s family home, she settled in St. Ives, a small fishing village in Cornwall, a place that, she wrote to a friend, “would make a sick cat paint.” There she painted the busy harbor in buoyant, radiant, active images like “Summer Morning, St. Ives (St. Ives Harbor),” 1923. Depicting water filled with boats coming in, a shore crowded with workers and travelers, and a sky alive with wheeling seagulls you can practically hear calling, it’s a masterful painting that won a silver medal at the Societe des Artistes Francais Salon of 1924 in Paris, the award going to “Monsieur Fortune (Charlton)” which amused her more than annoyed her.

Moving on Saint-Tropez in the South of France, also a fishing village and harbor, she captured warm sunlight on bright structures and flapping sails. Vibrant, alive, and full of subtleties, the landscape, she wrote, sounded “like the low notes of a cello.” Again she gave us strong images of working men and women in “The Green Boat, St. Tropez,” 1925, a scene of workers mending sails on a magnificent emerald green boat on a busy shore.

Returning to the United States in 1927 and settling again in Monterey, she traded in her bicycle for an automobile she dubbed “Blasphemia,” she resumed painting and exhibited her European paintings at the famous Hotel Del Monte Art Gallery, San Francisco’s Galerie Baux Arts, and the California State Fair in Sacramento. Her paintings of sites in Scotland, England, and France, eventually traveled in a circulating exhibition throughout California, where it received mixed reviews.

Critics from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Christian Science Monitor called Fortune “the ablest thinker and producer [among] living California women artists” and her San Francisco show ”the outstanding exhibition of the Fall season.”

But others offered less flattering assessments, comparing them to “magazine illustrations,” and describing them as “disorganized...lacking in consistency, and sometimes in conviction.”

While she had been gone, the art world had moved on to new territory. The year she returned to showing in San Francisco coincided with Diego Rivera’s arrival in the city to work on a mural reflecting social concerns of the time. Outshone by the Mexican master’s celebrity and monumental Social Realist works, Fortune’s style of painting fell into disfavor.

Her market dried up, her reputation faded, and the stock market crash in 1929 depleted her savings. Abandoning easel painting, she turned her mind and hands to creating liturgical artworks and objects for Catholic churches. She was very successful at this and created a modern version of a medieval crafts guild that carried out her designs in wood, metal and needlework.

Eventually she and her craftspeople transformed more than 70 Catholic church interiors in 16 states, from California to Rhode Island. In 1955, Pope Pius XII granted her the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (For Church and Pope) medal and certificate, the highest distinction awarded to an artist by the Vatican.

Examples of her paintings, designs, and altar accoutrements are included in the show, among them a design for a large mosaic of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a large oil painting of Jesus with angels and two of his apostles in Gethesmane, and altar furnishing, including tabernacle, candlesticks, and gilded wooden crucifix carved with rose leaves and roses from Saint Rose Chapel in Sacramento.

The exhibition is accompanied by 236 page fully illustrated catalog written by Scott Shields, who will give a talk on Fortune’s paintings at the Crocker on March 4 at 2 p.m. Tickets ($10 members; $12 students and youths; $14 non-members) are available at www.crockerart.org .

E. Charlton Fortune: The Colorful Spirit

Where: Crocker Art Museum 216 O Street, Sacramento.

When: Through April 22. 10a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays.

Cost: Adults $10, seniors and college students $8, youths 7-17 $5, free for Crocker Museum members and children 6 and under. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Day.”

Information: 916-808-7000, www.crockerart.org

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