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


Overall: 96.5 x 76.2 cm (38 x 30 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

Not On View





Agnes Pelton was a founding member of the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG), a loosely organized circle of non-representational artists active in the Southwestern United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They shared an interest in creating images that evoked “deep and spontaneous emotional experiences of form and color, a more intense participation in the life of the spirit” (TPG Statement of Purpose, 1938. Jonson Gallery Archives). Using a number of individual styles, the members of the TPG attempted to transcend the appearance of the physical world in order to address spiritual truths. “Prelude” embodies Pelton’s desire to convey, in paint, the spirit of the natural world. In it, she offers an interpretation of natural beauty seen through the prism of the imagination, enlivened by light, color, and line.

Pelton’s precise surface treatment and rhythmic brushwork add visual sophistication and interest to her composition, encouraging contemplative study of the surface. A fantastic desert landscape fills the lower third of the canvas. A rock outcropping on the right glows with the color of a fire at its base. Bands of silver and grey clouds float over the land, ending in a ribbon-like flourish on the left. Overhead, soft, glowing spheres and machine-like “gears” interlock and drift across the space. Closer examination reveals that these ingredients are crafted with delicate color gradations and harmonies.

“Prelude” was completed early in the summer of 1943. In July, Pelton shipped it from her Cathedral City, California, home to the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA), the first venue for a solo Pelton show that traveled to a number of museums in California. Pelton conceived the composition and color arrangements three years earlier, however. A drawing for “Prelude” is found in a sketchbooks dating to June and July of 1940, annotated with descriptions and color notes for the various elements (including the “wheels” and “crenellated circles” in the sky and the “lurid red” in the rock formation below) (Agnes Pelton papers, 1886-1958. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 3427:0010). Pelton also left clues about the meaning of these forms. In a letter to a close friend, written two weeks before she shipped the painting for exhibition, she described “Prelude” as “a war reaction,” and related her struggle to complete the painting, “I’m still feeling my way, though the worst is over” (Letters from Agnes Pelton to Jane Levington Comfort (Jane Annixter), 1934-1959. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).

If interpreting “Prelude” as a war picture, one might envision the mechanical cogs in the sky as crushing threats to the delicate life of the desert below. Pelton resisted such interpretation, however, in a pair of poems related to the painting (she frequently wrote short poems to introduce her spiritual abstractions). The two undated poems turn the equation around, describing “brute force below” and locating spiritual energy in the ovals floating above the land. One text heralds “a prelude, to a new day” and the other “a prelude to the approach of a new state.” Pelton perhaps looked forward to the end of fighting and the subsequent rebirth of humanity, but her vision may also have been more individual. Raised as a Christian, Pelton later explored many belief systems, including Buddhism and Theosophy. Her painting may be about the afterlife, whether that be a Christian death with the promise of heaven, or a reincarnation of the spirit.

Cody Hartley


Until at least 1954, with the artist. Fall 2002, purchased at a shop in California by Jay Caldwell Gallery, Manlius, NY, who owned it in partnership with Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood and Karges Fine Art, Los Angeles; 2008, consigned by this partnership to Peyton-Wright Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; 2009, sold by Peyton-Wright Gallery to the MFA. (Accession Date: March 25, 2009)

Credit Line

The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund and Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordan Tompkins Fund