Fortune favors the waves

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 62

Isobel Cockerell describes how E. Charlton Fortune found herself beside Monterey Bay

In the early hours of 18 April 1906, a devastating earthquake shook San Francisco, destroying most of the city and killing thousands of inhabitants. As dawn broke, a young art student picked her way through the rubble with her mother. Her house, her art school, and virtually all of her paintings had been destroyed. All she had was a label pinned to her chest bearing her name: Euphemia Charlton Fortune. Her greatest fear was that, should she perish, her body would remain anonymous.

She hated her first name, Euphemia, preferring the nickname 'Effie', and after the earthquake she began to sign her paintings 'E. Charlton Fortune', or simply 'Charlton', eschewing not only her first name, but also any certainty about her gender. This was common among female artists at the time, whose work regularly commanded – and continues to command – smaller sums than that of male counterparts. In Fortune's case, it had the desired effect: critics regularly referred to her as male, and years later, when she was awarded a silver medal at the 1924 Paris Salon, it was engraved 'Monsieur Fortune'. To her friends and immediate circle, however, she would refer to herself as the 'gal from Hurricane Gulch', the well-appointed neighborhood in Sausalito in which she grew up. Her identity was something she continued to grapple with throughout her life and work, traveling extensively but always finding herself returning to the landscapes and spectacular colors of California.

Of her work, the young Fortune said blithely: "The conservatives think I'm very modern and the modernists think I'm completely conservative." The critics view her as California's finest Impressionist, applauding her brushwork, eye for color, freedom of technique and overwhelming sense of immediacy. She was avid about working en plein air and her paintings express every aspect of a particular moment: her surroundings, the time of day, the quality of the light, as exemplified by her spectacular Monterey Bay painting, to be offered at the Bonhams California and Western Paintings sale in Los Angeles on 21 November.

Fortune was born, in 1885, with a cleft palate, which she inherited from her father. In those days, this was an untreatable deformity: she resolved never to marry, so as not to pass it on to the next generation. This decision perhaps cemented her ultimate ambition – to be an artist.

After the death of her father in 1898, she went to Britain to live with her aunt and attend a convent school in Edinburgh. She then took a foundation course at 'The Wood' – St John's Wood School of Art in London. It was a radical training ground for aspiring Royal Academy artists, at which Vanessa Bell was a teacher. But rather than joining the RA, Fortune decided to return to America, enrolling at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, San Francisco in 1905. Her timing was unlucky – the life-changing earthquake followed just a year later.

Following the disaster, Fortune moved to New York to continue her training under William Merritt Chase, a well-known champion of Impressionism, then in 1910 she traveled to London and Paris with her mother to further her avant-garde education, just as Cubism and post-Impressionism were sweeping Europe.

On Fortune's return to California she began work on her most enduring subject. In summer 1914, as the First World War broke out in Europe, she went on holiday to Monterey Bay, just south of San Francisco. The distinctive deep blue crescent of the ocean in contrast with the dark pine trees on the shore had a profound effect on her, and, in something of a frenzy, she began to paint, cycling up to the hills with her canvases to paint out in the open. There is a distinctly Californian feel to the blues and purples of the hills, the deep azure of the sea, and the deft, decisive youthfulness of her brushstrokes. The pictures tell of an artist finding her style, her subject. Her exhibition at the Schussler Galleries in San Francisco in autumn 1914 was rapturously received, with Fortune taking artistic ownership of the Bay. Critic Michael Williams wrote, "You have of course seen heaps of Monterey Bay pictures, and pier pictures galore – but you've rarely seen such fresh, strong, simple interpretations of the romantic charm and deep color of Monterey Bay as these." These early works are most sought after, regularly commanding seven-figure sums: Late Afternoon, Monterey, estimated at $400,000-600,000, sold at Bonhams in 2007 for $1.8m.

After the war, Fortune moved to St Ives. The peculiar quality of the light in the Cornish fishing village exerted a magnetic pull on Fortune – just as it would on the many great artists who colonized the town after her. "I'm doing the best stuff I've ever done now," she wrote in 1922. She was fascinated by the inconstancy of the weather, in such contrast to the steady Californian sun. "It is impossible to take large canvases out of doors here as the light changes so rapidly," she said. "The harbor, when the tide is in, is generally a sheet of melted silver." She began working in monochromatic schemes, massing her shapes together into blockier, more abstract suggestions of form. The St Ives paintings show a new panache and confidence in her paintings. She exhibited all over the UK and Europe.

California – and her favorite subject, Monterey Bay – eventually reclaimed Fortune in 1927. After nearly a decade away from America, there was a very apparent shift in her style. The Cézanne-like renderings of color and shape were more pronounced. There was a subtler approach to light and shade, no doubt acquired from her experience painting changeable Cornish seascapes. These late 1920s pieces – such as Fortune's untitled Monterey Bay painting offered this November – show Fortune at the height of her powers.

In her later years, Fortune turned to ecclesiastical painting, working chiefly on commissions for Catholic churches across California. She could often be spotted in her corduroy suit on her bicycle – which she nicknamed 'Blasphemia' – exploring the Bay Area hills. Her love for her native California never left her, nor did her need to be outdoors, looking down at a view from on high.

Isobel Cockerell is Assistant Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

Sale: California and Western Paintings & Sculpture
Los Angeles
Monday 21 November at 6pm
Enquiries: Scot Levitt +1 323 436 5425

From August 2017, The Colorful Spirit, a year-long traveling retrospective of E.Charlton Fortune's work, will be exhibited at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, the Crocker Art Museum and the Monterey Museum of Art respectively.


Related auctions