The Plein Air Scene

by Sarah Beserra

Scott Burdick, Sarah in Catalina, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches


Fame and Fortune

by Sarah Beserra


Nothing Euphemia Charlton Fortune ever did was done halfheartedly. Strong willed, adventurous, crusty, generous and immensely talented, she pursued her life-long artistic career with a single-minded passion and energy that is reflected in the work she left behind. Today she is considered the best Colorist to come out of the Golden Age of California Impressionism.

The first half of her career was devoted to painting the landscapes and scenes of her Monterey peninsula home as well as the English and French coasts. At mid age, she changed courses radically, and devoted herself to decorating "cheap churches" and making them more beautiful. She was also a major influence on many artists painting at the time, including members of the Society of Six.

It is this first 20-year period which was the focus of an exhibition of her work at the Carmel Art Association last month. According to CAC Executive Director Janet Howell, Fortune was chosen for this special show "not only for her talent but also her strength of character." The last major show of her work was in 1990 at the Monterey Museum with stops at the Laguna Art Museum and the Oakland Museum.

Several of the paintings on display -- Above the Town, and the smaller study owned by the Irvine Museum, as well as Cabbage Patch have gotten wide exposure over the years. But the show included numerous pieces borrowed from private collections never before seen and even two owned by the State that hang in a State Parks building near Lake Shasta!

Fortune studied in San Francisco with Arthur Mathews, where the movement known as Tonalism dominated Northern California for a number of years. Along with other artists, she migrated to the Monterey Peninsula after the Great Earthquake devastated the City in 1906 and settled at a camp set up for San Francisco refugees. There she fell in love with the breathtaking natural scenery of the area and joined fellow plein air painters Armin Hansen, Mary DeNeale Morgan, William Ritschel and others in memorializing the coast.

Later studies in New York at the progressive Art Student's League gave her an international perspective. There she met William Merritt Chase, the best known American Impressionist of the time, who taught her a new way of seeing things, based on European Impressionism. She traveled to Europe many times and lived in St. Ives in England and on the French Riviera, always painting fishermen and boats as she did at home. By 1915 her work was valued enough to grant her a spot at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco where she entered seven paintings and won two silver medals.

Drying Sails was probably painted when Fortune lived with her mother in St. Tropez in 1926. It is an example of her later work, which became more expressionistic as time went on. The small canvas virtually vibrates with color and motion. Slashing brush strokes loaded with primary colors define a harbor scene of fishing boats with sails flapping. A large crimson sail dries over the bow of a blue skiff, juxtaposing complimentary colors for the maximum color saturation, a trick used by the French Impressionists 30 years before. Camouflaged from the viewer is a painter with her/his easel creating a picture within a picture. Was this Fortune putting herself in the painting or a fellow painter? It's hard to tell. In 1928 she painted her last plein air landscape and took up liturgical art.

Solway Firth, Scotland was painted earlier in her career during the period when she had first seen the works of the French Impressionists and Post Impressionists. Reminiscent of Cézanne with its flat planes of color and geometric composition, the work has a calmer touch. Even at this early date, probably around 1910, she was using high key color that set her world apart from her teacher Mathews.

Throughout her career, Fortune was accused of painting like a man. Although women painters had begun to be taken seriously around the State, particularly in the Monterey Colony, it apparently wasn't enough. She continued to sign her work " E. Charlton Fortune," either to hide the fact that she was a woman or perhaps simply because she didn't like the name.

Fortune's plein air paintings are rarely available for sale, but in an unusual twist two of the finest small works were offered up for auction by a private party at the Carmel show. Golden Hillside (St. Tropez) with an opening bid of $150,000 and Mackerel Season, valued at $200,000 both were sold at close to their value. It wasn't clear if they went to a museum or a private party.

Unfortunately for the public, the show hung only one month with no other venues. However, a first rate catalogue is available for purchase containing essays by Pacific Grove gallery owner Steve Hauk, William Gertz and others at (831) 624-6176 and at Kerwin Galleries (340-8400).

© Sarah Beserra, 2001

Read more of The Plein Air Scene by Sarah Beserra in Resource Library Magazine

Sarah Beserra is Editor and Publisher of The Plein Air Scene - a monthly newsletter on plein air painting in California. You may contact Sarah at or (707) 645-7361

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11

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