Newly unearthed Agnes Pelton painting leads Heritage's American Art Auction

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Newly unearthed Agnes Pelton painting leads Heritage's American Art Auction
Agnes Pelton (American, 1881-1961), Purple Star Icon, conceived 1936, completed circa 1939-1940. Oil on canvas, 23-1/2 x 14-1/2 inches.

DALLAS, TX.- There’s something in the American Southwest that not only calls out to generations of artists, but has enabled some of the greatest American and European painters to ascend to the realm of visionary. In the early and middle part of the last century, some of those artists experienced a level of liberation in that vast landscape that allowed them to become true legends. It's not terribly surprising that two of the most famous, Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin, were unconventional women in search of a kind of freedom, if not rebirth, away from the constraints of polite society. It’s also not surprising that a third name was posthumously added to this small but significant canon of tremendous women painters who were drawn to the desert: Agnes Pelton sought and found her ultimate place in the desert town of Cathedral City, California in the early 1930s, after years of living and working on the East Coast, and in her chosen landscape become one of the most influential and inspirational painters of the last century. Her acclaimed retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2020 catapulted her into a rarified spotlight that has new generations of artists and collectors, institutions and historians buzzing with admiration and fascination with the heretofore mysterious genius of Desert Transcendentalism.

Only weeks before the cataloging was complete for Heritage’s upcoming May 15 American Art Signature® Auction, an elusive and mythologized Pelton painting surfaced: Pelton’s Purple Star Icon emerges as an exceptional piece among her rare transcendental abstractions. Only four of her Desert Transcendental paintings — her most iconic and sought-after works — have graced the auction block in the last 29 years, and this larger and pristine variant of her historicized Purple Star Icon was until now known only through archival records. This extraordinary painting leads an auction that continues Heritage’s ascent as a leader of scholarship and storytelling in the category of great American art, which includes 18th through early 20th-century painting, Golden Age Illustration Art, Modernism and Magic Realism, blue-chip sculpture and more. Heritage’s approach to showcasing the greatest artists who helped build the very foundations of our national identity is careful and considered; every one of the 92 lots in this tight auction is marked by a rich provenance and considerable historical weight. Significant works by Rembrandt Peale, Dean Cornwell, Jared French, George Sotter, Joseph Leyendecker, Hughie Lee-Smith and John Ford Clymer are on the bill ... and here, in the final stretch of its planning, a prime painting by the indomitable Agnes Pelton joins them.

The original sketch and handwritten notes documenting the nascent idea for Purple Star Icon appear in Pelton's sketchbook covering the years 1936-1949. In it, Pelton notes that she conceived of the composition in the summer of 1936, a handful of years after her move to the then-quiet desert town near Palm Springs. Cathedral City is where she found her ultimate refuge and vision, and lived until her death in 1961. Under the vast desert sky, she penned the inception of this work:

"Purple Star Icon
Intense deep purple around star- duller blue but not much lighter away from it, & not too light toward horizon -
Deep night -
Star luminous white points not too sharp
Double wave [pencil drawing] Darker & lighter again
Sky showing spots of reflection of star in trough of wave."

Pelton’s affinity for the cosmos was no fleeting impulse; it is a profound connection that began to weave its way through her abstract works after her inaugural visit to the California desert in the late 1920s. Stars became recurring symbols in her work, reflecting her belief in the cosmic communion between the celestial and the spiritual.

“This larger version of Purple Star Icon carries the same title as its smaller counterpart,” says Aviva Lehmann, Heritage's Senior Vice President of American Art. “It was previously recorded in Robert Knott's survey Abstract Art of the 1930s and 1940s published by Wake Forest University's Fine Arts Gallery in 1988. The grand unveiling of this piece draws back the curtain on a treasure previously known only in theory.”

The present painting Purple Star Icon — with its radiating pale blue to blue-black sky, roiling desert sands below, and luminous single star as its apex — places it alongside other Pelton star-anchored compositions with which it shares a symbolic kinship, including Star Gazer (1929), The Guide (1929), Illumination (1930), Sand Storm (1932), Resurgence (1938) and Future (1941).

“The discovery and subsequent public offering of Purple Star Icon reveal Pelton’s legacy as an incomparably visionary painter,” says Lehmann. “It joins her pantheon of cosmic creations and stands as a radiant testament to her role as an artist who not only gazed upon the heavens but felt their sublime influence.”

Speaking of a woman who quietly made big waves in the art world, women historians, collectors and philanthropists have played a significant role in shaping the discourse across decades of American taste making. The May 15 auction is partly anchored by a collection built by a distinguished academic woman with superior knowledge and a killer eye. Among its highlights are a 1938 tempera painting by Reginald Marsh titled Fifth Avenue, No. 1,which embodies the artist’s iconic scenes of New Yorkers in their preferred cosmopolitan settings;a 1991 oil painting by Hughie Lee-Smith titled Ambiguities, which, via Lee-Smith’s signature psychological incisiveness, captures the liminal spaces of urban life where reality merges with the subconscious; and a visually stunning 1918 painting for an illustration by Dean Cornwell titled The Den of Iniquity, The Valley of the Giants. Cornwell's mastery is evident in the elaborate architectural details that frame the central group engaged in an intimate yet intense conversation.

Another auction highlight comes from yet another woman’s collection: The Estate of Princess Maria Romanoff, New York City. It is a rare Augustus Saint-Gaudens marble, Psyche of Capua, exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The 1873-74 masterpiece, which stands as a testament to the sculptor's productivity during his Roman sojourn from 1870 to 1875, was originally commissioned by William M. Evarts, a prominent New York lawyer and statesman, and was eventually acquired by Princess Maria Romanoff. The work was displayed in her New York residence until her death in 2023 and echoed the Romanoff family’s long-standing legacy of art patronage.

And yet another extraordinary woman’s eye shapes this event — that of Ruth Sylvia Nelkin. This auction is among the first of Heritage’s to introduce selections from the sweeping and extraordinary Nelkin Collection, which will unfold at Heritage across nearly a dozen categories over the course of 2024. The collection, amassed over decades by the late philanthropist, includes a handful of remarkable paintings, including the oil-on-canvas Spring Valley by Edward Willis Redfield, and the oil-on-Masonite House in Winter Eveningby George William Sotter. The latter work, featuring the artist’s hallmark portrayal of a cold winter's night illuminated by the warm glow emanating from the windows of a stone house, is a true gem of Pennsylvania Impressionism.

The artworks mentioned above are only some of the extraordinary lots in this auction. One particular oil-on-canvas by the great Joseph Christian Leyendecker, Caught in the Rain, created as a cover for a 1914 Saturday Evening Post, captures the essence of an American girlhood and exemplifies the motif of a child shielded by an umbrella against the rain — an enduring symbol within the arts. Another is Rembrandt Peale’s authoritative 1857 oil-on-canvas Portrait of George Washington. Here the artist intentionally rivaled the work of fellow portraitists John Trumbull, Gilbert Stuart, and his own father, Charles Willson Peale, as he made it his professional mission to render “the national portrait and standard likeness” of George Washington. Here he has achieved that goal and sent us right back in time to the very founding of this country.

“Each auction embodies a unique spirit and vitality, and our May 15 event is distinctly remarkable,” says Lehmann. “Collaborating with my colleagues to curate this auction has been exhilarating, bringing together works of outstanding quality, rich narratives, esteemed provenance, and deep connoisseurship. We are excited to contribute to the narrative of American art as we find new custodians for these distinguished masterpieces.”

Previews for this auction will take place in Dallas and Chicago, and also, notably, Heritage will hold an inaugural preview in galleries of its newly expanded New York headquarters on Park Avenue. Heritage will exhibit key works from the auction during American Sale Week with the American Art Fair running simultaneously. During this preview, Heritage will host the Initiatives in Arts and Culture’s American Art Symposium with a focus on Modernity: The 2024 American Art Conference: Multiple Modernities | IAC ( features an incredible lineup of speakers including Wanda Corn, David Anfam and Glenn Lowry.

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