Marion Kavanagh Wachtel: 1870-1954

by Jean Stern


Marion Kavanaugh was born on June 10, 1870, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was raised in a home that encouraged artistic pursuits, as her mother and her great grandfather, who had been a member of the Royal Academy in London, were artists. Marion studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later with William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) in New York.

For several years, she taught at the Art Institute and in the Chicago public schools. By the time she returned to Milwaukee, she had established a reputation for child portraits and figure studies. In 1903, she won a commission from the Santa Fe Railroad to paint murals in their San Francisco ticket office. With the benefit of a pass from Santa Fe, she set off to California sketching at every opportunity along the path of the railroad.

The Santa Fe Railway cut through the desert and stopped at several scenic spots to encourage tourism, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. In these places, Marion would encounter the Pueblos of Zia, Cochiti, Santa Clara, and San Ildefonso, as well as others, places she would return to and paint again in future years.

Early in 1903, Marion visited the Cooper Ranch in Santa Barbara, and stayed as a guest for a few months. The Cooper Ranch was owned by Ellwood Cooper (1829-1918), a brilliant agriculturist and horticulturist who published several treatises on California produce. On his ranch, Cooper grew olives, grapes, English walnuts, European almonds, oranges, lemons and Japanese persimmons. He was the first farmer in the U. S. to produce and market olive oil.

Interestingly, since the mid 1870s, Cooper was absorbed with the production of eucalyptus, and by the early 1900s, he had over 50,000 eucalyptus trees in several varieties, growing on 200 acres of his ranch. He was convinced that the fast growing Australian import was the tree of the future for California, a tree that would meet the demands of lumber for housing, poles, fences and railroad ties and replace the dwindling supply of mahogany and other hardwoods.

His unwavering advocacy for the eucalyptus tree helped launch the Eucalyptus Boom of 1907-1912. At the height of this fervor, there were over 100 companies that either grew or processed eucalyptus and sold the lumber throughout the country. Unfortunately, the Boom became a Bust by 1912 when it was evident that eucalyptus wood was unreliable as it cracked easily, rotted quickly and would not hold a railroad spike without splitting.

As for Marion Kavanaugh, the eucalyptus tree had worked its magic. Surrounded by groves of tall, elegant eucalyptus trees in the Cooper Ranch, Marion acquired an earnest passion for the tree and she would paint it in numberless paintings throughout her life.

Soon after her stay in Santa Barbara, Marion travelled to San Francisco. In October, 1903, she showed several of her watercolors at the home of Mrs. Oscar K. Cushing. The show consisted of landscapes painted in and around Santa Barbara and the Cooper Ranch, as well as a series of small portraits, all in watercolor. The display was reviewed in theSan Francisco Chronicleof Monday, October 19, 1903. In all, the show was well received, and the writer stated that "She handles watercolors in a free, fearless way, more like a man than a woman."

Once in San Francisco, she familiarized herself to the city by visiting art studios and galleries. It has been often stated that Marion met and took classes with William Keith (1838-1911), and that Keith introduced her to Elmer Wachtel (1864-1929), who lived in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, there are no extant sources to verify these two events. By contrast, there is no doubt that Keith and Elmer Wachtel were indeed friends, as Elmer had studied with Keith in San Francisco between 1892 and 1894.

Whatever it was that brought Marion Kavanaugh and Elmer Wachtel together, the two artists fell in love and were married in Chicago in 1904. Thereafter she signed her name "Marion Kavanagh Wachtel." 

Returning to Los Angeles, the couple built a studio-home in the Mt. Washington area. They remained there until 1921 when they moved to the Arroyo Seco area of Pasadena. As inseparable painting companions, they travelled throughout Southern California and the Southwest. In 1908, the two artists set out on a trip to the Southwest. A trained portrait artist, Marion painted a notable series of portraits of the Hopi.

Perhaps so as not to compete with her husband who favored oil painting, Marion worked primarily in watercolor throughout their marriage. She earned a reputation as one of the very best watercolorists in California. Her paintings display remarkable dexterity in the handling of the medium, which could be quite unforgiving even to the most skilled. She received high praise for her works, as delicate, lyrical interpretations of the landscape, in a manner that shows her masterful control of tone and color.

Marion Wachtel was a confirmed Tonalist. As a student and admirer of her husband, Elmer Wachtel, there is little in her work to even suggest an interest in Impressionism. Her adherence to Tonalism, the preference for the "earth tones" of browns, deep reds and olives tones is unmistakably manifested in nearly all her watercolor paintings. A weaker case can be made with her oil painting, where one occasionally sees a brilliant array of bright colors and active brush stroke.

Furthermore, Marion's handling of line exhibits a perceptible admiration of Art Nouveau. The manner inwhich she characterizes the tall and elegant eucalyptus tree, among her most popular choice of subject matter, reveals her strong penchant for the organic, undulating line so favored by the painters of Art Nouveau.

Still, at all times, Marion was a great artist, showing a studied approach to the sensitive character of natural light and a love for elegant forms. She was popular on both coasts and exhibited in New York as well as California. She was elected to the New York Water Color Club in 1911, was elected an associate of the American Water Color Society in 1912, and was a founding member of the California Water Color Society in 1921. She also held memberships in the Pasadena Society of Artists and the Academy of Western Painters. Her works were exhibited jointly with her husband's as well as in solo exhibitions in Los Angeles. One-person exhibitions of her paintings were held at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art in 1915 and 1917.

After her husband's death in 1929, Marion Wachtel temporarily lost interest in painting. She resumed working around 1931, painting landscapes around her home on the Arroyo Seco, the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, and several views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, many of which are done in oil paint. Marion Wachtel died at home in Pasadena on May 22, 1954. 


About the author

Art Historian Jean Stern has extensive experience in the field as an author, curator, lecturer, and teacher. He has been the Executive Director of The Irvine Museum since its inception in January, 1993, and is the author of numerous books and articles on California Impressionism.


Editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on July 14, 2010 with the permission of the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Hearst Art Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address: 925-631-4379;

See these essays by Jean Stern in Resource Library:

Art in California: 1880 to 1930 by Jean Stern

Artists in Santa Catalina Island Before 1945 by Jean Stern

The California Missions in Art: 1890 to 1930 by Jean Stern

The Development of Southern California Impressionism by Jean Stern

Franz A. Bischoff, 1864-1929 essay by Jean Stern

Impressionist Style in Perspective by Jean Stern

Impressionism in California, 1890-1930 by Jean Stern

The Irvine Museum in Perspective by Jean Stern

Landscape of Light: Impressionism in California by Jean Stern

Landscape Painting in California by Jean Stern

Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, 1870-1954 by Jean Stern

Masters of Light by Jean Stern

"The Outsiders" -- Modernism in California, 1920-1940 by Jean Stern

The Paintings of Sam Hyde Harris by Jean Stern (2001)

Robert Henri and the 1915 San Diego Exposition by Jean Stern

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Heidi Donner at Hearst Art Gallery for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above essay.

For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Readers may also enjoy: California Art History, Landscape Art: 18-19th Century, 19-20th Century, 20-21st Century, Marion Kavanagh Wachtel from Laguna Plein Painters Association

Return to Superbly Independent: Early Western Landscapes by Annie Harmon, Mary DeNeale Morgan, and Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel


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