Remembering the Past – The Life of Evelyn McCormick
By Jeffrey Morseburg
Evelyn McCormick was the first of the Monterey Peninsula painters to be considered an Impressionist, but she took a very thoughtful, studied approach to painting out of doors. While the French painters who forged the Impressionist style in the 1870s reveled in the portrayal of modernity – of daily life in their own time – and often included figures in their work, McCormick focused on depicting the time-worn adobes of Monterey as her subjects and seldom populated her paintings with people. In fact, other than the neatly trimmed trees and plants around the historic buildings, there were few signs of human habitation in her works. Where the French were broad, free and spontaneous in their brushwork, laying the paint on with a loaded brush, the California woman built up her paintings carefully, in a number of outdoor sessions and usually reserved her dappled brushwork for the skies that served as the backdrops for her structures.
Evelyn McCormick was born in the mining community of Placerville, in the Sierra Nevada. There are widely conflicting dates for her birth, from 1862 to 1873, with 1869 being the most commonly cited. Her Irish-born parents brought her to San Francisco as an infant and she was educated at the Irving Institute, a college prep school in the city. Next, McCormick studied at the California School of Design under Virgil Williams, Amedee Joulin, Raymond Dab Yelland and Emil Carlsen. At the school she received a good basic art education and became friends with Mary Brady, Isabel Hunter and Mary DeNeale Morgan, all of who would loom large later in the art history of the peninsula. It was at the School of Design that McCormick fell in love with Guy Rose, the artistically-talented son of a wealthy Southern California rancher. By the end of her art education in San Francisco she won the Avery Gold Medal for painting, the most prestigious award the School of Design awarded.
In 1889 McCormick followed Rose to France, an adventurous and liberating experience for a young woman of the day. Fortunately, the private Academie Julian had classes for young women and so McCormick and several other “California Girls” were able to study there under Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911), Benjamin Constant (1849-1902) and Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), some of the finest Salon painters of the day.
In the summers, when the academies took a long break from the oppressive summer weather in the French capital, the students went to one of the popular art colonies where they could paint plein-air landscapes, which was a welcome respite from the demanding figure work of the school term.
It was during one of these idyllic summers that McCormick, her friend Mary Brady and her lover Guy Rose were among the first American painters to drift into the orbit of Impressionism. They spent the second half of 1890 in Monet’s shadow, in the village of Giverny, rather than Barbizon or Grez, where the Barbizon School and its moody work still held sway.
In 1891 McCormick had her work “A Garden of Giverny” accepted in the prestigious Salon. This honor was significant for several reasons. First, it meant that she had now become an able professional painter who was respected by her peers. Second, her choice of subjects shows her embrace of the Impressionist influence. Lastly, the garden subject she chose shows that even at the beginning of her career, she would focus on specific, intimate subjects rather than the sweeping views of her contemporaries.
When the spring of 1891 was upon Paris, Guy Rose, McCormick’s lover, left his studio on the boulevard des Batignolles for Giverny. In June she decamped to Giverny to join him. After less than a month together in the French countryside, McCormick and Rose returned to Paris, packed their bags and returned to California. The romantic relationship was over. Rose went home to the San Gabriel Valley, McCormick to San Francisco. Through troubled with illness most of his life, the male artist would marry successfully, but McCormick, like many of the most accomplished women painters of her day, would not.
Once she returned home, McCormick began painting on the Monterey Peninsula. When she exhibited her work at the San Francisco Art Association in 1892 there were a number of works from Giverny and one of Pacific Grove. Her work was selected for the Chicago World’s Fair, where it graced the California pavilion. McCormick showed two works of historic missions and a Giverny work in Chicago. At the important California Midwinter International Exposition in 1894 she showed several works of the gardens at the Hotel Del Monte. These garden works were painted with the Impressionist palette, but with great accuracy. Because of her embrace of the broader French palette, her work stood out.
In 1895 McCormick had a daughter out of wedlock, said to be the result of a love affair with the Poet Charles Warren Stoddard. However, in artistic circles Stoddard was known to have been a homosexual, so this seems unlikely. Perhaps Stoddard stood in for a married man from less bohemian circles, but the truth may not be known. In any event the girl, Evelyn Stoddard Weston (1895-1990) was sent away to an orphanage as women in that era seldom raised an illegitimate child. After the birth, McCormick went to New York for a year, returning to San Francisco in the final months of 1896. In 1898 she opened her first studio on the Peninsula in Pacific Grove, probably because her life-long friend Mary Brady lived there.
By 1900 McCormick was working out of a studio in the Monterey Custom House, often working from the balcony, which is one of the things that characterizes a Spanish Adobe as one of the “Monterey Style.” She began to concentrate on views of the old houses and buildings that remained from the Spanish era. McCormick’s life took on a familiar rhythm, with the foggy winters spent back in San Francisco and the rest of the year spent painting in Monterey. When the Hotel Del Monte gallery opened in 1907, it gave McCormick and other local painters a prestigious venue to exhibit their work.
In the years after Carmel was founded and the colony of artists and writers had settled in the new town, there was still a vibrant community of painters in Monterey and Pacific Grove. The cultural life on both sides of the peninsula was then at its peak and the outgoing McCormick was in the thick of it. She dressed comfortably, sometimes in western style clothing with a low-brimmed cowboy hat. Her friendships with Isabel Bishop and Mary Brady seemed to nurture her, but she also socialized with the male artists – Charles Rollo Peters, Charles Dickman, and Francis McComas – who lived nearby. McCormick also shared in the shenanigans of George Sterling and Carmel’s bohemians.
In the years before the turn of the century, immigrants to the “land of sunshine” like the influential journalist Charles F. Lummis (1859-1928) rediscovered the missions and began to raise money for their preservation. Preserving the past became a priority for the first time in California’s young history. McCormick’s vision of the historic adobes, seen in bright, intense mid-day light was in dramatic contrast to the works of her friend Chalres Rollo Peters. While his works portrayed the old buildings as mysterious, even haunted relics of a vanished civilization, she painted them as a living part of history, shaded by trees with leafy gardens. She preferred to work from life, “alla prima” style, working on a painting day after day under the same conditions until it was complete.
As McCormick’s career advanced, builders began to return to Spanish style architecture. The word “Mission” became a byword and in 1912 John Steven McGroarty’s (1862-1944) famous Mission Play, opened, hastening an appreciation for anything to do with the romantic days of Spanish California. This trend helped to give viewers a greater appreciation for McCormick’sd work, which was now focused on accurately documenting the remaining buildings of the Spanish era. At the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, she exhibited her “Old Custom House: Monterey” and earned a bronze medal.
McCormick lived in the Hotel Royal on Alvardo Street for almost half her life and for many year she kept her studio in Monterey’s old customs house. In 1923 she had saved enough to go to Europe, traveling extensively until her return to Monterey in 1925. She exhibited her paintings from France and Italy at the Hotel Del Monte but once home she began to concentrate on local subjects once again. The Great Depression hit the artists hard and McCormick was no exception. Through the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, which was very active on the peninsula, she was commissioned to paint a series of canvases dedicated to the subject she loved the most – the historic structures of old Monterey. In 1948, when she died, the work of Evelyn McCormick and that of her contemporaries was a like relic of a bygone era, largely forgotten but due to be rediscovered by later generations. Copyright 2008-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without specific written permission of the author.