Desert in Winter

Agnes Pelton (American, born in Germany, 1881–1961)


Overall: 45.7 x 61 cm (18 x 24 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

Not On View


Americas, Contemporary Art



At age fifty, Agnes Pelton relocated from Long Island to the desert of Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, in California’s Coachella Valley, an arid plain ringed with dramatic mountains rising over 10,000 feet. She arrived in the winter of 1932 with plans to stay for a season and stayed the remaining thirty years of her life. She thrived on the sparse beauty and bright, dry heat of the desert. In California, Pelton’s painting output fell into two discrete groups: spiritual abstractions and desert landscapes. As a founding member of an organization of artists known as the Transcendental Painting Group, Pelton labored over bold, colorful abstractions that were infused with spiritualism and esoteric symbolism. Pelton believed these spiritual abstractions were her true calling in life, yet they were emotionally draining and time consuming to paint, and proved difficult to sell. As a respite from the strain of the abstractions, and to make saleable work, Pelton often returned to realism, grounding herself by crafting careful studies of the surrounding landscape.

In stark contrast to her ethereal transcendental abstractions (see “Prelude”, [2008.1404]), paintings like “Desert in Winter” are actual locations near Pelton’s home. She marketed these landscapes to locals and visitors who, if less favorably inclined toward abstraction, shared her appreciation for the spare aesthetic of the region. The sales provided much needed income to sustain her independent life in the desert.

“Desert in Winter” presents a vista across a valley to the mountains in the distance. While the scene appears barren at first, it is full of color. Various hardy shrubs are seen in the foreground, some tipped green from winter rains. In the middle distance a small house is surrounded by more verdant vegetation. A red tile roof peaks out from the trees. Toward the center of the valley is a strip of green, likely representing an irrigated field. Like the desert, which appears lifeless at first and then reveals a myriad of activity on closer inspection, in Pelton’s canvas, the artist’s deep appreciation for the arid land becomes evident upon careful scrutiny. Throughout the canvas, from the peaks of the mountains to the foreground flora, Pelton uses subtle touches of adventurous color. Within her generally dusty tan desert palette are gleaming dabs of mauve and pink, highlights of ocher and umber. Touches of soft peach and buttery yellow suggest the feathery crowns of scrub vegetation.

The artists inscribed the canvas in the lower-right with her standard signature for the desert landscapes, “Agnes PeLTon”, with a capital “LT” in her last name. She left it undated and the painting could have been completed anytime from the mid-1930s through the 1950s, based on similar works and Pelton’s exhibition history.

Cody Hartley


on stretcher: Agnes Pelton Cathedral City California (u.l.) Desert in Winter (u.r.)


lower right: Agnes Pelton


Given by the artist to Helen Caldwell Correll; November 2005, by inheritance to Sharon Patton; gift to the MFA.

Credit Line

Gift of Sharon Patton and Francis Days in memory of Helen Caldwell Correll