Exhibit Spotlight: E. Charlton Fortune: The Colorful Spirit
By Natalie De La Torre
Even though Impressionism is considered the first artistic movement to include women, female Impressionists still struggled to achieve the same achievements as their male counterparts. As you can imagine, for those women who weren’t part of a popular artistic movement, it was damn near impossible. Euphemia Charlton Fortune (b. January 15.1885 –May 15,1969) was an American artist living and working in early twenty-first century California. Her current retrospective at the Crocker Art Museum chronicles the four main stages of Fortune’s career. First is her Monterey period, followed by her short stays in St. Ive’s and St. Tropez. The show ends on the final stage of her career–her Liturgical designs.
As an artist, Effie often went by gender-neutral versions of her name such as E. Charlton Fortune or E.C. Fortune. Feminism was coined around 1910, and more women were pursuing careers and departing from convention. Women’s suffrage passed in California in 1911. Still, female artists were not yet considered desirable to galleries or collectors. Going by these gender-neutral names enabled her to sell and show more paintings. It also fooled people into thinking she was a man, describing her work through male-gendered adjectives. Dubbed a “female flaneur” by Chief Curator Scott Shield, Fortune was fierce and independent as an artist, and a woman.
Fortune embodied a New Woman– “energetic, strong-willed and assertive.” She didn’t marry or have children. Instead, the closest relationship she had was to her dear friend, Ethel McAllister Grubb. It’s believed that Fortune was in love with McAllister, a married woman. The two were definitely close, but it is unclear whether McAllister was romantically interested in Fortune. Either way, the friendship had a great impact on Fortune and she considered their time together some of the happiest of her life.
Fortune’s career began in Northern California, as does the Crocker exhibition. Many of Fortune’s active painting years were spent in Monterey. One of her more well-known paintings from this period is Afternoon–later named Waters Off Monterey (1912). While not familiar with the name E. Charlton Fortune, I knew immediately that I had seen this painting. The almost rainbow effect created between the cliffs and swelling water is dynamic, and there are three women dancing in the foreground–possibly an allusion to the three graces.
Throughout the 1920s, she lived and painted abroad for extended periods in St. Ives, England, and Saint-Tropez, France. She lived in St. Ives for about two and a half years before moving on to Saint-Tropez. During this time, Fortune painted a lot of harbor scenes with boats, shoreline, people and birds.
After an unsuccessful first show back in 1927, Fortune decided to explore other avenues of creation. She founded and directed the Monterey Guild, a group of skilled craftspeople. Under Fortune’s direction, the Monterey Guild created original, modern artworks and furnishings for churches. The Monterey Guild–under Fortune’s direction–decorated 60 churches in 17 states. One such example was the altar and decorations for the St. Rose Church in Sacramento (commissioned by McClatchy family). The Crocker was able to borrow two candlesticks from the altarpiece, but included a life-sized photograph to represent it in its entirety for visitors. The portion of the show demonstrates Fortune’s keen eye and skill as a designer, not solely a painter. She’s yet another example of a bad-ass, female artist who doesn’t limit herself in her creative endeavors.
Shields ended the talk with a story that encapsulates Fortune’s sharp wit. A reporter asked her what she found to be the most challenging aspect of painting, to which she responded, “when the wind blows my easel over.”
If you’re a Sacramento native, or you find yourself in town before April 22, you should do yourself a favor and go look at some amazing art. E. Charlton Fortune’s paintings are a Northern California treasure, and she should be celebrated for her talent and determined spirit.
Natalie is a host of the Art History Babes Podcast. When she's not working on the podcast, she enjoys cooking, working out, watching tv with her dude, and attending concerts whenever possible. She loves wine, traveling and folk music.