Self Portrait, 1923, oil on canvas, 23 3/8 x 19 1/2 inches
M abel Alvarez was born in 1891 to a prominent Spanish family who lived on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Her father, Luis, a physician, was involved with the leprosy research begun by the legendary Father Damien. Dr. Alvarez was also a skillful real estate investor, and by the time the family relocated to Los Angeles in 1906 they were financially secure. Her brother, Walter, would later distinguish himself as a physician-research scientist, and would be proposed for a Nobel prize for his contributions to medicine.
Mabel demonstrated a special artistic talent at a very young age. In 1915, she enrolled in Los Angeles' leading art school, directed by William V. Cahill. She painted two noted works at this time, a large mural for the Pan-California Exposition in San Diego and a haunting charcoal portrait of a woman in profile used by the Cahill School for its catalog cover.
Her first portrait painting was displayed at the Los Angeles Museum (now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) in 1917, a museum with which she continued a close relationship until her death.
As a young woman, she was influenced by the philosophical writings of Will Levington Comfort, who espoused principles of Theosophy and Eastern mysticism.
She attended many lectures and meditation sessions at Comfort's Highland Park home, experiences which would provide fertile ground for artistic experimentation and departure.
Mabel's work of the 20's and early 30's provides a tantalizing glimpse into her private dream world, where all her wishes, hopes, longings, desires and her rich imagination yearned for expression, with such works as Reverie, Myself with Dreams of Youth and With a Lion and A Unicorn.
In 1990, art historian Michael Kelley explained, "The spiritual ideals that Alvarez sought seemed to exist in a parallel universe which was removed from the hard realities of normal, everyday existence. Consequently, her symbolic paintings are always staged in a distant idyllic world where less than ideal realities cannot intrude and dreams have become reality."
The primary color that Mabel used to express her personal symbols was green; many soft hues of green, which represent joy, love, hope, youth and mirth.
These were played out on a stage of canvasses in the forms of universal ideals and archetypes: the child, the innocent maiden, the alluring and seductive temptress, the faithful wife, the spiritual seeker, the earthbound spirit in limbo, and the liberated spirit that has transcended Earth's constraints.
1. see the articleTheosophy and Symbolist Art: The Point Loma Art School by Bruce Kamerling for an explanation of Theosophy.
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