Agnes Pelton

1881-1961 | Cathedral City, CA

“The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.”

In this FSA Inspiration, we highlight the work and life of German-American artist, Agnes Pelton (1881-1961). Renowned as a visionary within the Transcendental artists movement, her modernist paintings explored abstraction and spirituality through the lens of biomorphic compositions and luminescent phantasms. 

Born to American parents in Germany, Agnes Pelton’s tumultuous family matters and weak constitution  led to her becoming withdrawn at an early age. Though she led aife of introversion and at times solitude she was well traveled and attendedstudied school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York and the British Academy of Arts in Rome, Italy. After an enlightening visit to the home of Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, New Mexico her work, which had primarily consisted of portraits and symbolism became heavily influenced by desert landscapes and esotericism. This led to her founding and leading, along with long time friend Raymond Jonson, the Transcendental Painting Group. The Group featured various artists inspired by theosophy, mysticism, Buddhism, astrology, numerology, and metaphysical philosophy. Pelton’s emotive and ethereal works were compiled by the Whitney museum in an exhibition spanning her career titled “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist.” 


“Pelton’s exquisitely finished, otherworldly abstractions are full of mysterious shapes and distant horizons, glowing vessels, flowers, several kinds of stars and other celestial events.

“Pelton’s exquisitely finished, otherworldly abstractions are full of mysterious shapes and distant horizons, glowing vessels, flowers, several kinds of stars and other celestial events. They are the stuff of dreams, visions and mirages; they often came to the artist while she slept or meditated and they arrived remarkably whole, […]. as indicated by the sketches from her journal reproduced in the catalog, which originated, with the show, at the Phoenix Art Museum. (It was organized by Gilbert Vicario, chief curator there, and overseen at the Whitney by Barbara Haskell, with Sarah Humphreville.)  

—Roberta Smith, New York Times

Agnes Pelton is one of four artists featured in Erika Doss’s new study “Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth Century Artists and Religion” (2022). Reviewed by Elizabeth L. Langhorne for Panorama Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art, she summarizes Doss’s profile on Pelton: “Pelton never became a member of an organized faith. Her spirituality was private, finding expression in her art. She began painting wan females in misty landscapes around 1911 but became convinced by 1917 that Cubism could best convey her mystical experiences. Pelton’s abstractions were fed by her encounters with a panoply of belief systems and practices: New Thought, Theosophy, astrology, and Agni Yoga, which pop-culture scholar Christopher Partridge helpfully names ‘occulture.’ Especially important to Pelton was Theosophy, which promoted spiritual evolution toward a Higher Self, through which one could gain contact with a Universal Divine Principle, the root of ALL [..] Above are a flame and an aureole of stars, emblems New Age practitioners of today might recognize as expressions of self-realization and yogic practice. Pelton increasingly practiced yogic rituals in the quiet of Cathedral City in southern California, disturbed only by the necessity of making money, which she accomplished by painting desert landscapes for tourists. Recognized in her younger days as a participant at the Armory Show of 1913 and a member of the Transcendental Painting Group in the 1930s, Pelton died largely unknown, having created remarkable and affective visualizations of her meditative and spiritual states that today are sought after by museums and collectors.”

Top left image: Agnes Pelton in a photograph by unknown photographer, c. 1940s.