Painting California: “…a very valuable thing…”

“It seems to me it would be a very valuable thing if you could carry out your plan to make accurate water-color studies of the old buildings in this region. Accuracy is the first requirement; and such a series would have serious historic value. I hope you may be able to realize this plan...” (1) Charles Fletcher Lummis to Eva Scott Fenyes regarding Fenyes’ plan to paint the adobes of Old California, February 10, 1904.

The first time Eva Fenyes painted in California it was 1888. At the time, her name was Eva Muse, and her ten year marriage to Marine Captain William Sulivane Muse was troubled and failing. Within a year of their arrival at Muse’s new assignment on Mare Island near San Francisco, she had left the Captain and California behind. In 1889, Eva took her daughter, the Muses’ only child, to New Mexico where she obtained her divorce and started a new life. Yet, California had forever captured her historian’s mind, her preservationist’s heart, and her artist’s eye, and one day she would come back.

On the back of this painting, Eva wrote, "Sketch of Veranda, Mr. Muse's House.” Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). View from Marine Barracks, Mare Island, California, 1888. Watercolor on paper, 10 x 14 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.006.1469)
On the back of this painting, Eva wrote, "Sketch of Veranda, Mr. Muse's House.”
Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). View from Marine Barracks, Mare Island, California, 1888. Watercolor on paper, 10 x 14 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.006.1469)

Seven liberating and fulfilling years of travel passed before Eva returned, this time to Southern California, with her husband, Hungarian physician Dr. Adalbert Fenyes, and her now seventeen year old daughter Leonora. Eva settled her family into Pasadena life. She enrolled Leonora in Miss Orton’s Classical School for Girls, engaged Pasadena society, and built her Moorish mansion on South Orange Grove Avenue. And, as always, she studied. She acquainted herself with plein-air artist Benjamin C. Brown and went out, as once before, to paint California with its golden landscapes and picturesque adobes and missions. She introduced herself to Charles Fletcher Lummis, founder of the Landmarks Club, an advocacy group dedicated to saving California’s crumbling Spanish missions.  She studied Spanish, explored California, New Mexico, and Mexico, and she read California history.

Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). San Gabriel, San Gabriel, California, 21 October 1902. Watercolor on paper, 7 x 10 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2075)
Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). San Gabriel, San Gabriel, California, 21 October 1902. Watercolor on paper, 7 x 10 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2075)

To compare this field sketch with the finished watercolor housed in the Library and Archives of the Autry, follow this link FEN.13 

While she learned and observed, Eva developed an idea for a project. According to her plan, she would systematically paint the crumbling adobes of California as they still survived. She wrote and introduced her idea to Charles Lummis in February 1904; and, with the same letter she enclosed her lifetime membership application joining Lummis’ newly founded Southwest Society of the Archaeological Institute of America. (2) Just days before Eva wrote this letter, Lummis had sent her the society’s constitution, its list of officers for the year, and a circular with the membership invitation. (3) The society would advocate for and work to preserve the material culture and social customs of the Native American, Spanish, and Mexican societies of the American Southwest. And eventually it would build a museum, the Southwest Museum. Eva Fenyes would apply her knowledge of architecture, history, and archaeology to research, locate, photograph, and sketch en plein air many of the extant adobes of Old California. Her enthusiasm never waned. 

Eva Fenyes worked for the next twenty-six years painting adobes for her project, from 1904 until 1930, and in her will she provided for their donation to the Southwest Museum. As Charles Lummis predicted, “...such a series would have serious historic value...” Initially the Southwest Museum on Mount Washington and later the Autry National Center in Griffith Park housed and preserved Eva Scott Fenyes’ adobe paintings. “These works date from 1898 to a week before Mrs. Fenyes’s death in 1930. Many of these adobes are no longer standing; in the case of some historic buildings, a Fenyes painting is the only image that still exists.” (4) Digital images of these paintings can be viewed on the Autry National Center website.

In this photograph, circa 1917-1920, Eva’s daughter Leonora Muse Curtin and Leonora’s daughter, also named Leonora, stand left. Adalbert stands behind Eva who sits near her umbrella sketching an unidentified adobe structure. Eva and Adalbert, who was an entomologist as well as a physician, conducted their fieldwork together, he collecting insects of the order Coleoptera and she painting. Together they combed California looking for adobes and beetles. (Fenyes Papers, FCP.63.10)
In this photograph, circa 1917-1920, Eva’s daughter Leonora Muse Curtin and Leonora’s daughter, also named Leonora, stand left. Adalbert stands behind Eva who sits near her umbrella sketching an unidentified adobe structure. Eva and Adalbert, who was an entomologist as well as a physician, conducted their fieldwork together, he collecting insects of the order Coleoptera and she painting. Together they combed California looking for adobes and beetles. (Fenyes Papers, FCP.63.10)

Shown here are several of the field sketches Eva made in May 1904. These she preserved in Volume 8 of her fourteen volume collection of drawings and paintings that comprise her lifetime of sketching. (5)

The small white sign in the center of this painting reads San Gabriel Hotel. Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Old house (Grape Vine), San Gabriel, California, 10 May 1904. Watercolor on paper, 7 x 10 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2136).
The small white sign in the center of this painting reads San Gabriel Hotel.
Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Old house (Grape Vine), San Gabriel, California, 10 May 1904. Watercolor on paper, 7 x 10 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2136)

To compare this field sketch with the finished watercolor housed in the Library and Archives of the Autry, follow this link FEN.152 

Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Padilla House, San Gabriel, California, 16 May 1904. Watercolor on paper, 7 x 10 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2115a)
Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Padilla House, San Gabriel, California, 16 May 1904. Watercolor on paper, 7 x 10 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2115a)

This adobe is not represented in The Autry’s Collections Online.

Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Tirrell House, N. Pasadena, California, 23 May 1904. Watercolor on paper, 7.1 x 9.8 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2138)
Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Tirrell House, N. Pasadena, California, 23 May 1904. Watercolor on paper, 7.1 x 9.8 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2138)

To compare this field sketch with the finished watercolor housed in the Library and Archives of the Autry, follow this link FEN.143 

Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Tirrell House, N. Pasadena, California, 23 May 1904. Watercolor on paper, 7 x 10 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2139)
Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). Tirrell House, N. Pasadena, California, 23 May 1904. Watercolor on paper, 7 x 10 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2139)

To compare this field sketch with the finished watercolor housed in the Library and Archives of the Autry, follow this link FEN.144 

Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). The House at Foot of Raymond Hill Pasadena, California, 23 May 1904. Watercolor on paper, 7 x 9.8 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2141)
Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). The House at Foot of Raymond Hill Pasadena, California, 23 May 1904. Watercolor on paper, 7 x 9.8 in. (Fenyes Collection, ESF.008.2141)

To compare this field sketch with the finished watercolor housed in the Library and Archives of the Autry, follow this link FEN.140  

- Julie Stires

This article was originally published on the Hometown Pasadena website in 2015. 

(1) Charles Fletcher Lummis (CFL) to Eva Scott Fenyes (ESF), 10 February 1904. Fenyes-Curtin-Paloheimo (FCP) Papers, FCP.30.5.

(2) “Finding Aid to the Southwest Society Institutional Archives, 1903-1917.” Access at  http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt2s2036cm/entire_text/

(3) CFL to ESF, 5 February 1904.  FCP Papers, FCP.30.5.

(4) Kim Walters. “Capturing California’s Romantic Past: The Watercolor Works of Eva Scott Fenyes.” Online Exhibit: http://theautry.org/collections/fenyes-biography (link no longer active)

(5) More than 3700 of Eva Fenyes’ drawings and paintings are preserved in fourteen folio sketchbooks that date from 1866 to 1928.