Glenn Bassett Essay
Mabel Alvarez (1891 – 1985)
A Personal Memory
At the end of 1971, just after Mabel Alvarez turned eighty, she decided to give up the Beverly Hills apartment/studio where she’d lived and worked for thirty years and move into the elegant Fifield Manor retirement home in Hollywood, originally the Chateau Elysée, built as an apartment hotel in the 1920s by William Randolph Hearst. A friend of mine lived there, and that’s where I met this amazing woman who was to become my friend.
Suddenly Miss Alvarez found herself among an assortment of “old people,” that included a widowed member of the Danish royal family, a courtier-dressed octogenarian alcoholic, whose prominent family had parked her at Fifield to minimize embarrassment, who lurked in her doorway enticing with tumblersful of straight bourbon any male who happened by, and a tall, sepulchral lady who cluttered the elegant French drawing room with the scraps of paper that comprised her vast collection of postmarks. Watching these “inmates,” as Mabel referred to them, sitting hunched over their meals in the dining hall she likened them to a bunch of Trappist monks. She wrote in her diary, “How boring they all are – talking only about who is in the hospital with the latest broken hip, etc., etc. Pathetic. They have no inkling of the strange wonders in the world I encounter every day.”
This tall, slender, always beautifully turned out Miss Alvarez, usually dressed in some shade of green, was well-read in both English and Spanish literature, and for some reason, despite the several-decades difference in our ages, each of us found the other interesting. We became close friends and remained so for the last dozen years of her life.
Eventually, a broken hip took its toll on Mabel’s body, though her mind never grew old. She was forced to move to a nursing home. She came to rely on me to keep her in touch with the outside world. Once I took her, in her wheelchair, to the opening party of a Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition, which included one of her pictures. An elderly European gentleman rushed up to Mabel and kissed her hand. He said he’d admired her work for many years and had always wanted to meet her. He’d been a friend of Modigliani and was one of his pallbearers in Paris in 1920.
As it is with anyone, to understand Mabel Alvarez it is necessary to know a little about the environment in which she grew up. The youngest of the five children of Dr. Luis Fernandez Alvarez and the former Clementine Setza, Mabel was born in an old converted Anglican church, complete with bell tower, at Waialua, near the north shore of Oahu Island, Kingdom of Hawaii, on 28th November 1891, the first year of the short reign of Queen Liliuokalani.
Mabel’s father was a native of the Asturias region of Spain. Her paternal grandfather was the business manager for El Infante Don Francisco de Paula, third son of King Carlos IV of Spain and great-great-great grandfather of Spain’s present King Juan Carlos. Mabel’s mother, a talented and accomplished pianist with a beautiful singing voice, granddaughter of a German sea captain, was a member of a prominent St. Paul, Minnesota, family of musicians that included Uncle Charles Schütze, a composer and, according to newspaper clippings and concert programs, “the greatest concert pianist in the Northwest.” Cousin Mildred Potter, an operatic contralto who Mabel said “sang with Jenny Lind” (the famous “Swedish Nightengale” of the 19th century), was, according to family records, the only American of her time to sing at the Metropolitan Opera without first having sung professionally in Europe. Another cousin, a Mr. Pottgeiser, was a concert pianist of some renown. It was, therefore, through her mother that Mabel and her brother Milton (who died in the Philippines of a tropical disease while still a young man – the only one of the five siblings not to live more than 89 years) came by their artistic talent. The rest of the family were, to one degree or another, scientists, taking after their remarkable father.
And what scientists they were! Mabel’s elder brother, Dr. Walter C. Alvarez, was the noted Mayo Clinic physician-research scientist, syndicated columnist, lecturer, and author of many common-sense books on medical subjects for the layman. His newspaper column ran every week for more than thirty years in most of the country’s major newspapers. His autobiography, Incurable Physician (Prentice-Hall, 1963), was a best-seller.
Dr. Luis Alvarez, Walter’s son, long associated with the University of California, Berkeley, was a member of the Manhattan Project and later a senior member of the team of atomic scientists at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Among his many other achievements were the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1948 for his invention of the first all-weather landing system for aircraft (which President Truman said had made the Berlin Airlift possible), work in the field of stabilized optics that resulted in binoculars and cameras that maintain stable images in such unstable atmospheres as helicopters, with his son Walter, the renowned archaeologist (author of T-Rex and the Crater of Doom, (1997, Princeton University Press)) the generally-accepted theory that the dinosaurs disappeared as a result of the collision of an asteroid with the earth, and the 1968 Nobel Prize for Physics.
Upon graduation from the Cooper Medical College in San Francisco (now Stanford University School of Medicine), Mabel’s father was offered the position of assistant to the chair of nervous diseases at Cooper, but at that point he was very tired and he felt that he needed first to take a break to restore his health. To benefit from the sea air he booked as the physician on a steamship bound for Hawaii. When he arrived in Honolulu in 1888 he learned that King Kalakaua’s government was looking for a doctor to care for the plantation workers who were just then beginning to migrate there from the newly-opened-up Japan (the very first Japanese to settle anywhere outside Japan) and from China. Mabel always suggested that King Kalakaua had a direct hand in the hiring of her father, and a clue as to why is offered by David Forbes in his book Encounters With Paradise, Views of Hawaii and Its People, 1778 – 1941 (published by the Honolulu Academy of Art, 1992.). There having been quite a bit of tension between Hawaii and Japan arising from reports that the Japanese sugar cane plantation workers were being ill-treated, King Kalakaua had gone so far as to commission the artist Joseph Strong (Robert Louis Stevenson’s son-in-law) to paint a large picture depicting the contented Japanese workers on Claus Spreckels’ plantation to present to Japan’s Emperor Meiji. It is reasonable to believe that hiring a doctor to care for their health was part of this pacification campaign. (The Joseph Strong painting is now in a corporate collection in Tokyo and is reproduced in Mr. Forbes’ book and in Nancy Dustin Wall Mouré’s California Art – 450 Years of Painting & Other Media (Dustin Publications, 1998).)
Mabel’s father learned the Hawaiian language fluently, and he also spoke Spanish, English, and French. But he had little success gaining the confidence of his Asian patients until one Chinese family found its ox, so necessary to their survival, sick and near death. As a last resort they decided to ask this strange white doctor to help. The ox was soon cured, and at least one barrier fell. These and other difficulties of the young Dr. Alvarez, in his first years in Hawaii, are reflected in his amusing writings, which are in the Alvarez archive at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, and in the Mabel Alvarez papers in the Archive of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington.
It wasn’t long before the Alvarez family moved into Honolulu, into what the 1899 book Hawaii Nei called “a fine place on Emma Street.” Dr. and Mrs. Alvarez became friendly with Queen Liliuokalani and her yankee husband, John Owen Dominis, and Dr. Alvarez served as physician to the Queen.
Mabel told an amusing story that when the family was still living at Waialua Mr. Dominis would ride his horse out to spend weekends with them, telling Queen Liliuokalani that he was going there for a weekend of hunting. No fool she. Mr. Dominis had a fondness for strong drink, and she knew he was just getting away from her for a weekend “toot.” So just before sundown on the Sunday afternoon the queen’s coach could be seen approaching in the distance. She knew that by that time he would be greatly the worse for drink and unable to ride his horse back reliably. So he was piled into the coach, his horse tied on behind, and they returned to Honolulu. When he was drunk the queen wouldn’t allow him into Iolani Palace, so he was obliged to remain in an outbuilding on the palace grounds, built for just that purpose, until he was again presentable.
After Liliuokalani was forced to abdicate in 1893, Dr. Alvarez went to Baltimore to learn all that was known about leprosy at John’s Hopkins University and returned to Hawaii to continue the leprosy research begun by the legendary Father Damien. His title was Superintendent of the Experimental Hospital for the Treatment of Leprosy. Aided by the recent invention of the microscope, he developed a method of diagnosing the disease in its earliest stages, before any symptoms were visible. He also discovered that the leprosy bacillus is spread by mosquitoes. He represented the Republic of Hawaii at the World Lepra Conference in Berlin in 1897, conferred with the Norwegian Dr. Hansen, who had recently discovered the leprosy bacillus (it’s still sometimes called “Hansen’s disease”), and lectured on the subject at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and other places.
The King of Spain appointed Dr. Alvarez to the honorary post of Spanish Consul to Hawaii, and he later served for many years in the same position in Los Angeles. For this service he was awarded the Order of the Crown by King Alfonso XIII.
So you can see that Mabel grew up in a home forever tingling with intellectual energy and associations with interesting people. Their society soon included not only Queen Liliuokalani, but also the Judds, the Castles, the Cookes, the Halsteds, and – last but not least – Dr. Alvarez’ friend (and, as Mabel always said, a rare intellectual equal), the aristocratic young Mr. Wong, said to be the first Chinese graduate of Harvard. A c.1895 photo portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Wong and their young son survives.
In addition to the family’s spacious home on Emma Street, Honolulu’s equivalent of Millionaire Row, Dr. Alvarez owned a great deal of real estate in downtown Honolulu. The land boom of the 1890s and early 1900s made him a wealthy man. A few years after Hawaii became an American protectorate, Dr. Alvarez felt that his work there was done.
Mabel’s sister Florence told an interesting story to explain why they left Hawaii. Their mother, Florence said, was very much disturbed when a young man told her he had married a beautiful Hawaiian girl and now they had a small daughter. He realized he was trapped forever in the Islands, because his wife and daughter would be considered black in the United States. Mrs. Alvarez thought of her own children approaching marriage age and felt it was time to go.
Mabel’s version was quite different. She said that a young haole (white) lady, for some reason, came to Dr. Alvarez to be tested for leprosy and, though she showed no symptoms, she tested positive. Under Hawaiian law that meant mandatary removal to the leper colony on Molokai, where she’d have to spend the rest of her life. She begged Mabel’s father to let her go home, promising to turn herself in at the first visible symptom of the disease. He felt sorry for her situation and covered for her. But before long her lesbian lover turned her in, and it caused a stir that involved Dr. Alvarez. And that, Mabel said, was when they decided to leave the islands.
In 1908, the family settled into a large Victorian mansion on West 25th Street in Los Angeles, in what was then a fashionable district near the campus of the University of Southern California (USC). Dr. Alvarez devoted the remainder of his life (he worked almost until the day he died in 1937), to the practice of medicine, with little regard for fees, among the poor predominantly Mexican population of Los Angeles.
From her earliest childhood, Mabel was clever at drawing. There survives a delightful group of her childhood drawings, including a set featuring a little girl in high-button shoes in various poses with Easter lilies, Easter card designs that Mabel made for her and her sister Florence. Some of these drawings were shown in the 1999 Mabel Alvarez retrospective exhibition at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, and at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach.
Mabel’s artistic talents were discovered and encouraged by her high school art teacher, James E. McBurney. Through his efforts she was invited to produce a large mural for the Pan-California Exposition in San Diego in 1915-16. It won her the Silver Medal, and from that time forward Mabel never had the slightest doubt that her life would be devoted to art.
In 1915, she enrolled in Los Angeles’ leading art school, the School for Illustration and Painting, founded by John Hubbard Rich and William V. Cahill. She showed a talent beyond both her years and her training. Her haunting charcoal portrait of a woman in profile (seen in the Will South essay reproduced here) was used by the school as the cover of its catalogue well into the 1920s. The original drawing survives in her estate, and copies of the catalogue are in the Smithsonian.
Her father recognized that she was both talented and serious about a career in art, so he arranged for her financial security that made it possible for her always to try every new idea that appealed to her and to stay with each idea only for as long as she felt inspired by it, never making any compromises to the marketplace For example, her most famous painting, her 1923 “Self-portrait,” which forms the cover of the popular art book Independent Spirits, Women Painters of the West by Dr. Patricia Trenton (University of California Press), brought a generous purchase offer from Mrs. Arabella Huntington (the Huntington Library and Art Museum in San Marino, California) soon after she’d completed it. Mabel had no interest in selling it to even so important a collector, because she knew that Mrs. Huntington meant to hide the picture away in her home in New York.
During the Industrial Revolution, primarily the few decades after about 1870, science influenced more change in people’s lives than perhaps during any previous millennium since the beginning of mankind. That seems to have caused many people, especially those such as the intellectual and scientifically-inclined Alvarezes, to redefine the very nature of religion. In many cases they turned away from the traditional religions, at least from beliefs that seemed to be contradicted by the new developments in science. Mabel’s parents had both been raised Catholic and had married in the Catholic church in St. Paul. But, feeling that too much of religious practice was exclusionary and in opposition to their idea of the essence of religion, the Golden Rule, they soon left the Church for the freedom to investigate, question, and to weigh the teachings of all the world’s religions. The family attended the Congregational Church in Hawaii and on the Mainland and maintained a sensitivity to the ideals of religion. But there is no evidence that any of them ever subscribed seriously to any established religion.
None of the family, it seems, searched longer or more diligently for spiritual grounding than sensitive, romantic and intellectual Mabel. She gives evidence of this by returning time and again, all her life, to religious and philosophical themes in her paintings.
Around 1918, Mabel met Will Levington Comfort (she had, in fact, read his book, Child and Country, as early as 1914), and she discovered the principles of Eastern mysticism and what became known as Theosophy. She began attending Comfort’s lectures and meditation sessions at his establishment in the Hollywood hills, and she became a regular visitor to the philosophical “experiences” at his home on Avenue 54 in Highland Park. Her involvement in these and other modernist groups, a fertile ground for artistic experimentation, deeply moved and transformed her in a way that affected her art for the rest of her sixty-year career – a career that continued for some thirty years beyond almost all of her contemporaries.
During the 1920s and early 1930s, Mabel executed a series of symbolic paintings which set the tone of all the pictures she painted thereafter. They provide tantalizing glimpses into her private dream world, where all her wishes, hopes, longings and desires and her rich imagination yearned for expression. Even the titles for her pictures reflect that dream world: “Reverie” for a large, pensive portrait of her sister Florence, “Silent Places,” “The Brigham Nose,” “With a Lion and A Unicorn” (the unicorn in this context symbolizes the incarnation of Christ and the principle of moral purity in action), “Variations on an Icon,” “Dream of Youth,” “Myself with Dreams of Youth,” a magnificent self-portrait in a soft but intense green dress surrounded by her dreams (romance, music, religion, etc.) in vignettes.
Michael Kelley, in his 1990 essay “Dreams, Visions and Imagination,” stated, “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.”
Even her portraits show this sensitivity. It has been noted by critics that the 1923 self-portrait shows evidence of some sadness in her heart at the time she was painting it. What they hadn’t known is that Mabel’s mother died while that picture was being created. She didn’t mention her mother’s death in her diaries, but she painted it in her portrait.
Another example is her stunning portrait “Abraham, Hawaiian Boy” that betrays a haunting vulnerability in an otherwise strapping fifteen-year-old. It took me years waiting for a time when she could remember what was so special about Abraham. Not long before her death she remembered: Abraham was deaf-mute. Mabel had painted it in his eyes.
The primary color that Mabel used to express her personal symbols was green, many soft hues of green, which represents 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. An entry in her diary in 1918, just as her work was beginning, summed up her entire career, “I want to take all this beauty and pour it out on canvas with such radiance that all who are lost in the darkness may feel the wonder and lift to it.” Look at her work and you will see that she meant it. All of her life her paintings expressed her strong sense of passion and love of life, and they made real her dreams and in so doing echoed the dreams of mankind. One of the reasons so few of Mabel Alvarez’ paintings come to the market is that their collectors tend to connect so personally with them.
One of several early champions of Mabel’s work was Arthur Millier, the longtime and powerful art critic for the Los Angeles Times through the 1920s and ’30s. “She isn’t a woman painter, she’s an artist,” he wrote of Mabel, and he exposed her work and applauded her in the pages of his newspaper many times.
During those years Mabel began a long list of important exhibitions that included the Art Institute of Chicago (1923), the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia (1924 & 1937), the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor (1931), the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1933), Budworth Gallery, New York (1934 & 1937), Rockefeller Center (1935), the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco (1939), Honolulu Academy of Art (1940 & 1992), many exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from 1920 to the present. In 1927, Mabel was on the committee that accepted Aline Barnsdall’s gift of her Frank Lloyd Wright home, Hollyhock House, to the California Art Club.
Mabel always loved children. She took a special delight in painting pictures that appealed to children. But these pictures are not just cartoons or caricatures; they are serious, intellectual compositions. Her nieces and nephews and many of the other children she knew received pictures of clowns (the one that I call Ferdinand, painted for Luis’ children in Berkeley, has personality to die for!), toys doing funny tricks, children and animals with anatomical features depicted incorrectly (such as a head turned backward, a dog’s hind legs facing the wrong way, the upper half of a child’s body facing one direction and the lower half turned the opposite way). In 1929, Mrs. Samuel Goldwyn asked Mabel to paint some pictures, one of which was a funny Santa Claus, to decorate her small son’s room (he is now the movie mogul, Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.). These caught the attention of the Irving Berlins when they visited, and Mabel was asked to paint a portrait of their little girl.
In 1929, The University of Southern California commissioned her to paint the official portrait of the retiring dean of its law school. Mabel told me that the poor, dying man was so wracked with cancer that it took all her skills to portray him in a manner that could please him and the school. She succeeded.
In 1923 and 1924, Mabel and Kathryn Bashford, her next-door neighbor and lifelong friend, traveled in the eastern part of the country (New York, Boston, Philadelphia) and in Europe, the first of several such trips over the years, making personal contact with the world’s great art that had therefore been available to them only in mostly black and white photos. After a stay in Paris, where Mabel soaked up as much as possible of the work of, particularly, Cézanne and Matisse, whose techniques she had studied for several years, they moved on to Florence and then to Rome. There they met a young scholarship student at the American Academy of Music who was to become a friend. He was Howard Hansen, later the famous American composer and director of the Eastman Rochester Symphony Orchestra.
Mabel’s stay in Paris was recalled in 1998, when the U. S. State Department mounted an exhibition at Weber House in Paris of the paintings of eighteen of the American women artists who were there in the half-century between 1880 and 1930. Mary Cassatt, Henriette Wyeth, Mabel’s friend Henrietta Shore, and Mabel Alvarez were among those represented.
In the early 1920s, Mabel met the artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright. He recognized her talent immediately, and she studied and consulted with him, drew encouragement from him from that time to the end of his life.
In August of 1931, Morgan Russell, Macdonald-Wright’s collaborator in founding the Synchromy art movement in Paris about 1912, arrived in Los Angeles from France for a protracted visit. Russell had been a student of Cézanne and Matisse, a protégée of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art), one of the artists in the sphere around Gertrude and Leo Stein in Paris, and later married to Monet’s niece. For the remaining twenty years of Russell’s life Mabel was his student, his confident, and his financial mentor. His letters to Mabel are a part of the extensive Morgan Russell archive in the Montclair (New Jersey) Museum. The Matisse-Russell artistic legacy was a natural fit with Mabel’s special characteristics, and her work reflected it for the rest of her life, especially in the joyous, colorful canvasses that she produced in her last twenty years.
Mabel was one of those rare beings who are comfortable with all kinds of people, low-born and high-, rich and poor, black, white, brown and yellow, gay and straight – – as long as the person was interesting. I think she was a great deal less concerned whether the person was good or bad – relative terms, withal – than whether he or she was interesting. She was completely comfortable with Morgan Russell’s transvestism. She told me about going with him to Bullocks Wilshire, the elegant Los Angeles department store. He wanted a new corset for himself, and it would have been at least awkward for a man to purchase such a garment in those days. Mabel said they’d wait for the saleslady to turn away for something, then Morgan would quickly hold the corset up to himself to judge whether it was the correct size. After he’d made his selection Mabel would buy the garment for him.
Mabel was, as anyone who has seen one of her portraits knows, a strikingly beautiful woman, both when she was young and after she became old. Men hoping for romance, or at least a concupiscent relationship, flocked around her. But she fended them off with the determination of a lady of her class and of her time. So I was amused and somewhat surprised to read in her diaries of her erotic jousting with the sculptor Karoly Fulop (“He has X-ray eyes (seemingly all men do),” she wrote) and her little nocturnal window curtain games with the much older Englishman Mr. Culley across the street from their home in Hancock Park. And there was the suitor to whom she wrote poems that she didn’t send and whom she only referred to as “G” and a Mr. Dickson who expressed “desperate” love for her. Her relationship with Bob Kennicott seems more romantic than erotic, which probably explains why she pinned such hopes on him.
Early in 1932, Mabel met, through her brother Walter, the prominent Beverly Hills physician, Dr. Robert Kennicott. Among his patients and/or intimates (much to the consternation of Mabel’s “socially dedicated” sister Florence, who glided through the Great Depression in the family’s magnificent Packard, safely sealed off from the country’s problems and Mabel’s “arty” friends) were Agnes DeMille (not only had Bob removed her appendix, but they had once been engaged), Jean Harlow (when her husband hanged himself from a tree Bob was called to identify the body), the Edward G. Robinsons, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and Ralph Bellamy and one or two of Bellamy’s procession of wives. Bob’s favorite pastime was sketching and painting and attending every sort of art function. He and Mabel were a natural match. Outings to the country to sketch, sharing models, entering little exhibitions together, they were almost inseparable throughout the decade, during which Mabel’s fantasies of marriage and the “happy ending” seemed ever on the verge of reality. Her diaries (now in the Archive of American Art, Smithsonian) mention numerous occasions when they were assumed to be husband and wife at social events, or someone would ask her if she was Mrs. Kennicott, and she would be over the top for days.
But, alas, marriage never came, to Dr. Kennicott or to anyone else. By 1939, the little signs that had accumulated in her mind over the years suddenly, and shockingly, added up to a suspicion that she had hitched her dreams to a gay man who would never give her marriage. Many years later I became acquainted with Adrienne Tytla, the widow of Will Tytla, the Disney animator who created Dumbo, and a friend to and model for Mabel during the 1930s. Adrienne said to me, “I knew Bob was gay the first time I met him; I can’t imagine Mabel was so naive that she took that long to figure it out.”
Occasions such as that called for people of her class to go away and clear their heads for a few months. (The lower classes, for whom such long hiatuses weren’t an option, simply fought it out and the survivor went on with his or her life.) After all, Mabel had already caused poor old Mr. Culley across the street to flee to Northern California for some months. His passion had mounted until he was eventually emboldened to address her by her Christian name and to touch her arm – whereupon she rebuked him – whereupon the poor man deposited at her back door under cover of darkness the Renoir folio she’d loaned him. And then he left town to clear his head.
As luck would have it, at that very time a friend of Mabel’s, who lived in an apartment on the Ala Wai in Waikiki, was going to Europe for some six months, and she invited Mabel out to house sit while she was away. So Mabel took a single stateroom on the Lurline, sailing on June 9, 1939. This was Mabel’s first trip to Hawaii since her family had left there in 1903. It was to prove a spot of great luck.
While helping a friend, Miss Haynes, who operated the Ala Moana School, with her art classes, Mabel suddenly realized just how much the Hawaiian race had been diluted by foreign blood in the intervening years since she’d lived there. It seemed to her that soon there would be no Hawaiians left. The cliché “the old Hawaii is gone forever” that had been repeated since the first missionaries arrived in 1820 had at last fulfilled itself. Mabel felt an urgency to paint and sketch as many as possible of those Hawaiians that remained. So she had her Los Angeles apartment closed and her little Plymouth shipped out to her. She remained in Hawaii until mid-1940 and produced a wonderful collection of portraits, each labeled with the complete blood mix of its subject. (It seems that the plight of the Hawaiians was even worse than she thought, for the only pure Hawaiian in this collection, as far as we’ve been able to determine, was Abraham Kamahoahoa, the deaf-mute boy.) It is probably the only such collection of paintings ever produced. It was seen as a solo exhibition in almost every major art museum along the West Coast during the 1940s and at the Honolulu Academy of Art (her splendid portrait of Mary Oneha is there in the permanent collection. It was reproduced in David Forbes’ 1992 book Encounters with Paradise, Views of Hawaii and its People and in the April, 1999 issue of American Art Review magazine).
During the war years Mabel did volunteer work, primarily at the naval hospital in Long Beach helping, through sketching and painting, the rehabilitation of the injured servicemen. Nevertheless, the 1940s was a restless decade for her. She felt her work had gone stale. She was unable to find a new direction that interested and fulfilled her, and she painted fewer finished pictures during those years than during any other decade.
In 1953 Mabel took a trip through the islands of the Caribbean. This opened up the new direction she was looking for and put a new light into her palette that would remain there until her last completed picture in 1973. Reds and oranges and bright pinks and blues run rampant through scenes of flower sellers, peasants’ shacks, tropical family groups. One of the most memorable of these pictures, “The Blue House,” a tumble-down little shack with a rusty tin roof and bright blue walls, had such an impact on the Haitian-born wife of the American Ambassador to Nicaragua that she asked to borrow it while they were there.
The Mexican muralists, “los Tres Hermanos,” were a major influence on Mabel’s later work. She had long known Ralph Stackpole, had in fact watched him at work on his famous mural at the Coit Tower in San Francisco, and she was intrigued by the work of Stackpole’s close friend Diego Rivera and that of David Alfaro Siqueiros. She also sought out Jose Clemente Orozco during his time in Southern California and watched him at work on his important mural at the Claremont Colleges.
A trip through Mexico in 1955 added to this new passion for color and increasing abstraction. That trip inspired pictures of fruit markets, churches, public festivals with streets full of celebrating people, fascinating old buildings.
Mabel’s last completed work, her 1973 “The Man in Red” seems to have brought her full circle in her lifelong spiritual quest. An abstract oil and paper collage, it depicts a Rouault-like Christ laboring under the weight of the cross, dressed in the red of a Prince of the Church of her Spanish forbears.
On 13th March 1985, we were aware that Mabel would almost surely not live through the night. Her mind was clear as a bell, but the life was slowly, steadily fading out of her body. She had spent the past couple of years, after breaking a hip, in a large room in one of Los Angeles’ most comfortable nursing homes, surrounded by her own elegant furniture and a small group of her favorite paintings.
Among her little connoisseur’s collection of books was a first-edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. It seemed just right that I should read to her from this book, after Mrs. Rogers, her secretary/companion, had left and the room was quiet. I read it from cover to cover while she seemed to take quiet pleasure from Stevenson’s special words. But about mid-way through it I suddenly stopped and said, “Mabel, I’ve just thought of something. In future times Walter Alvarez will be remembered only as Mabel Alvarez’ brother. His books have been out of print for years, but your work will continue to delight people for centuries.”
She opened her eyes and looked up at me. “You know,” she said in a clear, strong voice, “I never thought of that!” She passed quietly away a bit after 10 that night, in her ninety-fourth year.