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Mabel Alvarez (1891 – 1985)

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

Modern Girl (Untitled), c. 1920s, oil on canvas board, signed lower left, 9 x 12 inches


About the Painting

Mabel Alvarez’s Modern Girl (Untitled) is a striking example of 1920s portraiture. In her essay in Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, Teresa Carbone writes, “Portraits from the twenties are indeed characterized by a sometimes uneasy alliance between youthful beauty and penetrating focus. Bound up in the new photographic aesthetic that straddled the borders separating ‘serious art,’ advertising and the movies, these images fixed on the close-up as the new portrait from of choice. No matter how aesthetically elevated, the modern close-up fully participated in the latest standards of beauty, which were unremittingly broadcast through advertising, and which prompted incessant self-scrutiny and the obsession with perfection.” Alvarez’s portrait has the hallmarks of the aspiring 1920s “It Girl.” The sitter is fresh-faced, fit, beautiful, rouged and, by the look in her eyes and her pursed lips, determined, with a curl of bobbed hair peeking out from beneath a cloche hat. The simplicity of her dress and plain page boy collar tell us, she is not a glamourous Hollywood starlet. Rather, she is one of the millions of ordinary young women who read popular women’s magazines, go to the movies on a weekly basis, and absorb and emulate the prevailing aesthetics of the day. Her closely cropped profile against a glowing background of golden yellow gives the impression of a thoroughly modern icon of 1920s womanhood.

About the Artist

Mabel Alvarez was an important painter in the Los Angeles art world during the period between the World Wars. Born in Hawaii, Alvarez first moved with her family to Berkeley, California before relocating to Los Angeles in 1909. Her high school art teacher, Edwin McBurney, recognized her talent and helped arrange for advanced art courses and invited her to work with him on a mural project for the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego in 1915. Later, in 1920, Alvarez studied with Stan MacDonald-Wright and began a friendship with Morgan Russell, the two modernist painters who founded synchronism. From this pair, she developed a strong sense of color with many of her works having deeply saturated tones. Her body of work is varied and includes still lifes, transcendental dreamscapes, and portraits, such as Modern Girl (Untitled). She was a favorite of the noted Los Angeles art critic Arthur Miller, and her works were well received by art juries and the public. She exhibited widely during her long career showing nearly four dozen paintings at the California Art Club’s and the Painter’s and Sculptor’s Club’s exhibitions during the 1920s and 1930s. Outside of California, Alvarez exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Alvarez’s paintings won numerous awards between 1916 and 1984. Alvarez was a member of the “Group of Eight” artists who held a 1927 exhibition at the forerunner to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She is listed in Who was Who in American Art and all other standard references.


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