Thursday, September 12, 2019

Marjorie Eaton and the Love of Her Life Juan Mirabal, Together Again 85 Years Later at the Taos Art Museum

Juan Mirabal & Marjorie Eaton

Majorie Eaton (1901-1986), moved to Taos, New Mexico in 1928.
Taos was her primary residence until 1933, (with a short return in

Marjorie Eaton & Juan Mirabal shoveling snow, 
looking as if they enjoyed every moment of each other's company

For years Eaton had immersed herself in the world of art.
She attended the Walker School of Architecture in Boston where
her sepia portrait drawings were first admired. During the 1920’she
travelled in Europe off and on, returning to the Bay Area to live at
the family ranch (the historic landmark Juana Briones House, Palo
Alto). She eventually attended the San Francisco Art Institute
(formerly the School of Fine Arts). In 1926 she purchased a few
paintings by Paul Klee from an art dealer specializing in the Blue
Rider group. In California she met Lloyd Rollins, Director of
the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, who
promised her an exhibition at the museum if she committed to
painting for three years. 

Portrait of Marjorie Eaton by Boris Deutsch

To facilitate this she then travelled to Taos
(enticed by an open invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan) where she
stated, “It was a marvelous experience… I realized I had found my
soul when I was out there…”.

The Plasterer's Study, Head of Juan, Woman with Bracelet

In Taos she met Juan Mirabal, son of then Taos Pueblo Governor Geronimo Mirabal, whom she fell in love with and became her companion, often the subject of her paintings.

Watercolors of Portrait of Juan, Mexican Woman, Sitting Child

In February through March of 1932 a one-woman exhibition included 35 paintings and drawings at the Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco.

Dinner Party 2

In the mid-30’s Eaton studied at the Arts Student League where at the time the influential painting teacher was Hans Hoffman. Louise Nevelson was a roommate during her time in New York City, where they lived in the same building as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Rivera was there at the time to create murals for the Rockefeller Center building in 1934. During this time period she also befriended Abstract Expressionist painter Arshile Gorky who she’d turn to for critiques of her painting. 

Carmen, Woman with Object, Father & Son

As Rivera & Kahlo prepared to return to Mexico they invited Eaton to join them. She lived in Mexico for approximately three years, primarily in the Mexican village of Panuatlan. 

Dinner Party 2, Taos Indian Girl Arms Crossed

Her first year in Mexico was saddened by the death of her father, which eventually drew her back to the ranch in California where she then focused her attention on acting. It’s unknown whether Eaton ever painted again, but she became instead a well respected and sought after actress for the last forty years of her life.

The “Portrait of Juan” (ca. 1928) is a loving tribute to the Taos Pueblo man she fell in love with. This is one of those paintings that reveals her art education and knowledge of what portrait painting can be, influences of cubism (especially in the color palette), movement of shapes and color bring this portrait to life. As Taos Art Museum Executive Director Christy Schoedinger Coleman explained, Eaton had misplaced (or hadn’t unpacked them among her belongings yet) her brushes, yet was so enthralled with Juan that she painted this portrait with her fingers and whatever else was available to her to create one of her first paintings in Taos. Mark making in this painting includes dots made by her fingers and sgraffito scratches into the surface of the paint.

Indian Reclining, Lunette Study

The painting “A Dream” depicts Juan in repose over a set of grazing sheep, in a drawing study for this painting the figure arches as if floating on a cloud. 

“Taos Landscape” with elements of cubism is as close an approach towards abstract painting as Eaton gets, perhaps an homage to the Klee paintings she carried with her everywhere she lived.

Eaton was known to have been one of the artists of this time period who used photographs of her subjects to allow for a type of accuracy. The exhibit includes a photographic portrait of Juan tying his hair as he stands in a cornfield. The much more mysterious and dark painting of this portrait shows a blackened swirling sky immersing Juan. The exhibition includes a notebook located on the windowsill behind the piano, take the time to browse through it.

“Tribes, Double Sided, Juan Portrait” and “Snow Indians” are standouts in this exhibition, they draw you in. The subtle use of color around the multiple faces in each of these gives the viewer nowhere to go but to look and keep looking.

A few paintings of the women of Taos Pueblo included in the exhibit are “Taos Pueblo Women in Walter Ufer’s Studio”, “The Plasterers” and “Lucinda, Juan’s Mother”. These for the viewer in Taos, seem timeless portrayals of women at the village of Taos today. The involvement of people of the Pueblo with a variety of artists coming to Taos shows an interaction that is deeper than just artist and model. Every portrait is an honoring and respectful depiction of the sensitivity that coexisted among them, each artist inarguably becoming dear friends with the people of Taos.

Two paintings that require your attention and time are the lovingly compassionate  “Woman Nursing Child, The Storm” and “Corn Mother”. These versions of ‘the Pieta’ (Michelangelo) either on purpose or by default, are as important as anything in this body of work. It becomes obvious as you’ll later think about this exhibit that Eaton had three loves, art, Juan, and motherhood/children during this time period in her life. The influence of Rivera is here as well who also had a great love of children and depicted them with a deeper meaning than realized. Diego’s twin brother Carlos passed away at the age of fourteen months. In the Eaton painting 'W.N.C. Storm' shown here a child lies on the ground behind the mother below a storm covered mountain. Rivera considered children and his depictions of them as portraying the promise of a hopeful bright future.

Untitled Recto, Indian Reclining Lunette Study, Untitled Portrait Taos Pueblo Indian

Woman Reading Letter, Woman Reading,  Untitled Mexican Man

The drawings “Young Juan”, “Untitled, Recto”, “Pahaulita”, to “Untitled, Mexican Man”, “Woman Reading”, “Untitled, Seated Sideways” Eaton’s line quality eventually becomes more confident, less searching. This change in drawing style from roughing it out through the use of a big thick line quality to a more elegant lighter touch happens after her time in Mexico and mentorship of Diego Rivera.


Man in Cloak 1

Juan Mirabal (1903-1970) much like Eaton had almost become one of the least known artists of Taos. Yet here in this exhibition his paintings stand side by side with the work of his lost love. Mirabal, like many who modeled for other artists, was quick to pick up on painting and soon developed a style all his own. 

Naven Velvet Skirt Kachina, Native Figure on a Horse

A 2003 exhibit at the Harwood Museum of Art, Taos included Juan Mirabal along with two other Taos Pueblo painters, Albert Lujan and Albert Looking Elk Martinez was the first to give these artists the recognition they deserve. Mirabal’s paintings are thought to have a ‘modernist’ style, due to being influenced by Eaton. My personal opinion is that this viewpoint is flawed, it’s more likely that Mirabal of a prominent family at Taos Pueblo would have seen a great deal of styles of art. The Dorothy Dunn School style of a flattened non perspective depiction of Puebloan life is evident in his paintings. Perhaps a bit from this style and that style is more likely. It is also noteworthy to view Eaton's two paintings in this exhibit "The Plasterer's" and "The Plasterer's Study" as examples of her being influenced by Mirabal.

Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo

His iconic paintings of the multi level stacked buildings at the village of Taos are by far his best which this exhibit has a nice range of. 

Taos Pueblo Mural with artifacts in foreground

It is also noted but often forgotten that Juan painted on other surfaces around Taos, a portion of a large mural that he’d painted was rescued and framed, now owned by the Harwood Museum, is included here. 

The other painting of note still in plain site in Taos (not in this exhibit but worth seeing) is a fresco mural under the far end of the portale at the Adobe & Pines B&B of Ranchos de Taos ca 1950.

Eaton Necklace

Eaton dresses

Eaton Necklace, possibly by Dorothy Benrimo

In researching this article I went to 8 reference books about western women artists, not a single one of them mentions Marjorie Eaton, even though she’d been recognized with a solo exhibit by a major museum in San Francisco. Eaton does however appear in film reference books, as her acting career spanned 40 years.
It also doesn’t help matters that writers often change the spelling of her surname to ‘Eaten’.

Taos Indian Girl Arms Crossed


“Marjorie Eaton: A Life in Pictures” is on view through March 2020
Taos Art Museum at Fechin House is open 10-5, Tuesday-Sunday 575-758-2690
The Taos Art Museum at the Fechin House, at 227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte is conveniently situated in the center of Taos, NM. 

Christy Schoedinger Coleman

One of the aspects of this museum is the Fechin building itself, in the photographs I've tried to depict its presence as well. All photographs by permission of Taos Art Museum were taken by myself to illustrate this article. With gratitude to Christy Schoedinger Coleman of the Taos Art Museum, David Witt, Owings Gallery and Gerald Peters Gallery.

View of Taos Art Museum at Fechin House through the gift shop studio door

1 comment:

  1. Rare to read a ‘review’ as thoughtful or as sensitive as what you have written. This goes for the photographs as well. Altogether my appreciation and understanding of these works, their makers and context resonants fully. Thank you for all you’ve done here.