Monday, June 6, 2016

The Brutons: Sisters in Art

The Bruton Sisters, Artists
Imogen Cunningham
ca 1930
Gelatin silver print
Imogen Cunningham Trust
Margaret, Helen, and Esther Bruton, San Francisco Bay Area natives, lived and worked together at home, in an old-fashioned decidedly female "refuge" with an attic studio. They exhibited together, and frequently collaborated on projects. Their modernism was a combination of tradition, innovation, and experiment that enabled them to cross boundaries with style. The sisters worked in nearly every medium: easel painting and murals, mosaics both large and small, ceramics, etchings, woodcuts, and linoleum block prints.

It isn't possible to write about one without including the others as they singly and collectively contributed to the cultural life in the Bay Area .

Margaret Bruton, the eldest daughter, is often known for her landscapes, figures, graphics and murals. Although her family had lived in San Francisco, California, Margaret was born in 1894 in Brooklyn, New York, where her mother had relatives. When she was two months old, Margaret returned to California with her mother where she and her sisters Helen and Esther attended public high school. As a young girl, Margaret showed artistic talent, which prompted her art education in 1913. She began her studies at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco where she learned under Frank Van Sloun. At the age of twelve she won a prize for her artwork and later earned a scholarship that enabled her to study at the Art Students League in New York City. She studied with Frank Vincent Dumond and Robert Henri.
Margaret remained in New York for four years, returning to California in 1918. Bruton worked at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco for two years until the end of the war after which she traveled south of the city to Monterey, California where she attended open-air sketching classes with Armin Hansen. By 1924, her entire family relocated to Monterey. In 1923 Bruton won a prize for a painting she exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum. In 1925 Margaret and her sisters traveled to Europe to study art and she remained in Paris, France to study at the Academie de la Grand Chaumiere for a year. When she returned to California she gave her first solo-exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in San Francisco (1926). 
Margaret Bruton
Barns on Cass Street 
ca 1925
Oil on canvas
38 x 44 inches
Monterey Museum of Art
When the Beaux Arts show traveled to Bullock's Wilshire gallery in Los Angeles the following year, the critic Arthur Miller praised the women separately and as a group. "The showing consists of paintings and drawings by Margaret, decorative scenes in silver and gold, wood engravins and drypoints by Eshter and wood-block prints by Helen, and its immediate impression is on the score of the intelligence, order and clarity of style displayed in the work of each..."
Margaret Bruton
The Harmonica
ca 1930-35
Oil on canvas
40 x 34 1/2  inches
Collection of Teresa and Eric Del Piero
During 1929 she spent time in New Mexico for inspiration, discovered Native American art which led to painting Indian portraits and exhibited her works when she returned to California. She took frequent sketching trips with her mother and sisters to Nevada and Mexico. Margaret often exhibited with the California Society of Etchers, the Club Beaux Arts, the San Francisco Society of Women Artists and the San Francisco Art Association. Margaret Bruton died in California in 1983.
Bruton Sisters
Peacemaker's Mural, Court of Pacifica
ca 1939-40
Golden Gate International Exhibition
(California World's Fair)
(Anne) Esther Bruton
Esther Bruton is best known as a skilled muralist, and for her ability to work with wood and paint. Born in Alameda, California in 1896. After attending a local public high school Esther joined her older sister Margaret in New York City. From 1917 to 1918 she studied under George Bridgeman at the Art Students League in New York. She studied commercial art at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. After her studies she took a position as an advertising illustrator at Lord and Taylor department store in New York.
After her return to the family home in Alameda, she worked for the prestigious I. Magnin department store as a fashion illustrator over the next seven years, while also traveling periodically with her family. In 1924 Esther spent four months in Tahiti where she lived with a friend in a grass-hut. She headed for Europe in 1925 with her sisters where they took classes in Paris at the Studio de la Grande Chaumiere. Esther ultimately gave up her job as a commercial artist in 1929 to concentrate on her Fine Art. On another trip with her family to Taos, New Mexico she sketched the Pueblo. When the family returned, Esther and her sisters gave a joint exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in San Francisco in 1929. During the 1930s she continued to show her work within California where she gained critical praise and earned awards.
Esther Bruton
Art in Action
ca Mid twentieth century
Dry point
4.4  x 3.1  inches
de Young Museum, San Francisco, California
Each sister had unique talents and Esther’s was her ability to work with wood and paint. She made painted screens and was a skilled muralist. One of her commissions included the circus-theme murals in the cocktail lounge at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco. Esther was selected chairman of the jury for the fifty-seventh Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1937. She remained an active member of the California Society of Etchers and also the San Francisco Art Association in her later years.
Helen Bruton had intended to be a sculptor but turned instead to woodblock printing and engraving. She later became known for her mosaic murals. Born and raised in Alameda, California, Helen attended the University of California, Berkeley where she majored in Art.
During World War I, she worked with her sisters in occupational therapy at the Letterman Hospital in San Francisco. In 1920 she moved to New York to take classes at the Art Students League for one year under sculptors Sterling Calder and Leo Lentelli. She joined her sisters in Europe to study art, mainly in Paris.
Returning home, Helen became interested in California-Spanish architecture. She was commissioned by tile producer McBean and Company to create mosaic panels for the Mudd Memorial Library at the University of Southern California. In 1929 Helen and her mother, along with sisters Margaret and Esther, traveled to New Mexico where all three young women painted and sketched. When they returned they held a joint exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in San Francisco. Helen also exhibited at the California Society of Etchers and the Progressive California Painters in 1934. She later worked with her sister Margaret on a WPA project for the Fleishacker Park in San Francisco. The sisters designed and implemented the two mosaic panels that were the first tile mosaics to be done in San Francisco by local artists. Helen later received a commission from the University of California Berkeley to create mosaic panels to adorn the University Art Gallery (1936).
Florence Swift and Helen Bruton 
Left: Music and Painting - Right: Sculpture and Dance
ca 1936
Mosaics-Byzantine Style
18  x 10 feet 
UC Berkeley Old Art Gallery
Helen Bruton died in Monterey, California in 1985.
The following murals created by the Margaret, Esther, and Helen, on the Mother’s Building at the San Francisco Zoo were projects for the WPA. 
Bruton Sisters
Mosaic
ca 1934
San Francisco Zoo
Detail of St. Francis Mosaic,
ca 1934
San Francisco Zoo
Individually and collectively, these three artists created a tremendous body of work that was dynamic and experimental, unconventional and intelligent. Their work remains an important contribution to the fabric of the San Francisco Bay Area .

Sources_________________________________________________________Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki Kovinick, An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1998, p. 34.Marian Wardle, ed., American Women Modernists, The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, London, 2005, pages, 47-51.WPA Murals.com, The Bruton Sisters, http://www.wpamurals.com/bruton.htm, retrieved June 6, 2016. askart.com, The Bruton Sisters, Bruton Sisters WPA Mural at the San Francisco Zoo, http://www.artandarchitecture-sf.com/bruton-sisters-wpa-mural-at-the-san-francisco-zoo.html, retrieved June 6, 2016.Helen Bruton's Tile Murals at the Golden West Hotel, http://www.artandarchitecture-sf.com/tag/tile-art, retrieved June 6, 2016.