“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”
- Francis Bacon
The curse of the art historian is to be forever asking questions. Where? When? How? But every so often (and generally at the most frustrating moment), we find ourselves faced with an informational hollow, a query to which there are no search results. Such it is with the enigmatic painter whom the world has come to know as Marion Kavanagh Wachtel.
Records on the artist’s exhibition history, educational background, family, and ouvre are fairly extensive; information on her personal life, however, is not. We know that in 1904, Ms. Kavanaugh added the surname Wachtel – an understandable consequence of her marriage to fellow artist, Elmer Wachtel. Following her wedding, however, Marion chose another, somewhat more enigmatic name-change: she abandoned the fourth vowel in Kavanaugh, and it became the middle-name, Kavanagh. Scholarship on exactly what precipitated this latter change is sparse, though the move was not without precedent. Six years earlier, soon-to-be-renowned artist Granville Redmond changed his name from Grenvillein a similarly befuddling move. Whether these subtle rebrandings affected the artists’ respective rises to prominence is unknown.
The events surrounding the meeting of Marion and Elmer are the matter of some debate, as well. The prevailing theory states that the two were introduced through renowned Dusseldorf-cum-Barbizon School painter, William Keith. By the turn of the century, Keith had long since established himself as a leading California landscape artist – so well known, in fact, that he was referred to as the “Dean of California painters.” It makes sense, then, that he was well acquainted with East Coast transplant and emerging Southern California landscapist, Elmer Wachtel.
Marion, for her part, had spent the last decade immersed in her painting. She studied under William Merritt Chase at the Art Institute of Chicago, taught courses for her alma mater, and traveled the Santa Fe Railway on a commission to illustrate the quintessential American Southwest. By the turn of the century she was widely regarded as one of the nation’s premier watercolorists – renowned for her bold tonalism and technical precision.
In late 1903, as the story goes, Marion was in San Francisco to exhibit landscapes depicting an area surrounding the estate of wealthy patron and entrepreneur, Elwood Cooper. Her pieces were well received, positively reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle, and garnered the artist a measure of positive attention in the Bay Area. It is here that the artist came to the attention of the aforementioned Keith – and here that the general consensus among historians diverges.
One story says that Marion was studying directly under Keith for some period of time in San Francisco. Lacking definite bibliographic evidence, some will venture no further than to say that the two knew each other in passing. Those that assert the more intimate relationship go on to say that it is Keith who referred Marion to Elmer, the latter residing in LA at the time. Still others posit that it was of her own volition that Marion traveled to Southern California where she encountered the charming Elmer.
Whichever story is true, it so happened that in 1904 Marion wed Elmer, and the two began their artistic lives together in Southern California. The couple settled in the Arroyo Seco near Pasadena. For the next 25 years, they would travel the region, painting the landscape as they saw it – Marion in watercolor, Elmer in oil. Marion became famous for her immaculate, deliberate washes; her vivid descriptions of the California landscape. Together with Elmer, their work was highly sought after and exhibited around the country, from San Francisco to Chicago to New York.
Though Marion received critical acclaim in her own right, watercolor as a medium was at the time still viewed as subordinate to oil (it isn’t until the 1920s that watercolor gained wide acceptances as high art). It is an interesting question, then, why an artist such as Marion – so renowned for her technical prowess – never sought the accolades afforded the medium of oil.
Although the official record on the matter is scant, historians are nothing if not happy to speculate.
It has been proposed that Marion refused to paint in oil out of deference to her husband, Elmer. Perhaps presaging the tumultuous relationship of Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner in the mid-20th century, she was happy to avoid comparison and inevitable competition with her artist husband. This analysis gains credence through the events following Elmer’s death in 1929. For several years afterward, Marion was unable to bring herself to paint at all. When she finally picked up a brush in the early 1930s, she burst onto the scene with something the art community never expected: paintings in oil.
In addition to a change in media, her palette brightened considerably. Whether this change was an homage to her late husband, or a personal expression that could only find voice after his death, remains a mystery.
Marion continued to paint and exhibit, both in watercolor and in oil, until her death in 1954. To this day, the truth behind her personal story remains largely obscured. Who was this enigmatic artist, really?
The work of Marion Kavanagh Wachtel is held in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum, the Irvine Museum, the Orange County Museum, the Santa Fe Railway Co., and the LA County Museum of Natural History.
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