Born on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, Mabel Alvarez arrived in California with her family in 1906. In 1909 they moved from Berkeley to Los Angeles where Alvarez’ artistic talents were recognized by her high school art teacher. Alvarez’ early artistic career is best defined by those she sought as mentors and teachers. Her lifelong quest for spiritual fulfillment and professional challenge encouraged an open exploration of ideas. Ultimately these qualities joined together in art works which demonstrate considerable talent as well as innovative thinking.


In the teens and twenties Alvarez became acquainted with early American modernists working in Los Angeles. Her first teacher, William Cahill, encouraged study through live models and introduced Alvarez to Impressionist styles which she adopted with great success. When Cahill moved away, Alvarez worked under Stanton MacDonald-Wright who shared with her what he had gleaned from European avantgarde movements. MacDonald-Wright served as Alvarez’ mentor and teacher during the twenties, encouraging her to abandon Impressionistic colors for a stronger, more modern palette. During this time Alvarez befriended other artists who focused on figures and still lifes instead of the popular landscape. Among those she associated with was painter Henrietta Shore.

Alvarez’ quest for a spiritual practice or philosophy was in part motivated by her hope that through her art she could manifest the beauty and dignity she found in the world. She understood that her art would benefit from a deeper understanding of the human condition, commenting that it was useless to paint when it does not come straight from the center. Better to say nothing at all.

Alvarez’ openness allowed her to consider alternative concepts willingly. Around 1918 she was introduced to Eastern mysticism and began to meditate on a regular basis. In 1924 she traveled and absorbed a great deal of Eastern art including Persian, Indian and Tibetan. In the 1920s Theosophy lectures and societies made their way to southern California. While a student of Cahill’s, Alvarez discovered the writings of Will Levington Comfort whose ideas were rooted in Theosophy, a kind of eastern religious thought that explored distinctions between the world of form and the formless world, encouraging believers to make visible their inner sensations and feelings.

Alvarez’ spiritual explorations led to a series of symbolic paintings done between 1925 and 1933 in which she begins to record her dreams. Unlike the surrealists whose dream canvases tell of spontaneous and random connections, Alvarez depicts an ideal world where forms float in fantasy-like landscapes. In the paintings Alvarez referred to as “Dreamscapes” women in a meditative position are the central subjects. In Silent Places a figure is situated in a brightly colored mountainscape. This mysterious wonderland may be lonely but is anything but threatening. The halo-like glow surrounding the woman reflects Alvarez’ desire for a spiritual home.

Dream of Youth done in 1925 is perhaps Alvarez’ most significant painting of this period in that it summarizes both Eastern and Western influences while illustrating her desire to experience life’s transitions and transformations. This painting can be read from a western as well as an eastern vantage point. The vignettes around the central figure can be seen as spects of maturation from the revelry of music to friendship and partnership. The same vignettes can be interpreted as various stages of enlightenment. Angelic figures are nearly transparent in this arcadian landscape which is filled with symbolic forms—doves and lotus flowers hold equal weight. The central figure is the artist herself who serves as the trunk or support for the tree of life. The pastel palette of Dream of Youth is illustrative of Alvarez’ meditative search for harmony. This image of peace and stillness is in part made so by Alvarez’ choice of green as the main color.

Alvarez’ diary indicates that she was captivated by the idea of color’s possibilities and sought to create harmonies that reinforced her ideas of a unified, poetic world. Like many artists of this time Alvarez was familiar with Wassily Kandinsky’s spiritual interest in the power of color. Green was the color of choice for many of Alvarez’ paintings. In color symbolism, green is the most restful color representing love, hope and youth. For Alvarez’ friend MacDonald-Wright green was the color of calm and quiet.

In 1933 art critic Arthur Miller gave Alvarez what at the time constituted a sincere compliment, raising her from dilettante to professional, when he stated in a Los Angeles Times article: She isn’t a woman painter, she’s an artist. In addition to her symbolist work, Alvarez did many portrait commissions for prominent Los Angelenos and occasional still lifes. Later in her life she spent time in the Caribbean. The c. 1954 Untitled image shows a further simplification of Alvarez’ modernist style. Faceless, non-individualized women frequently appear in symbolist paintings as representations of all humanity. Her love and understanding of color’s power is also clearly evident in this canvas.

During her lifetime Alvarez exhibited at the San Francisco Art Academy, the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento, the Frye Museum in Seattle and was the focus of solo exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1929, 1940 and again in 1980. In 2000 Dream of Youth was included in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000 exhibition.

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Mabel Alvarez (1891-1985) United States


Silent Places

c. 1929, oil on board, 8” x 10”


Dreams of Youth

c. 1925, oil on canvas, 58” x 50”



c. 1954, oil on board, 12” x 16”