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Introducing the Brutons

The three Bruton sisters, Margaret, Esther, and Helen, were prolific and inventive artists working in California from the 1920s through the 1970s. Together, and separately, they experimented with modernism in a wide variety of styles and mediums, collaborated with important artists and architects, were lauded by the press, and won countless art prizes, frequently besting male artists who went on to have more successful careers. Known as the “gifted sisters from Monterey” or the “three amazing Bruton sisters,” they were called “geniuses” who “impress by the intelligence of their art.”  They earned commissions for important public art projects funded by the WPA, culminating in their masterful execution of a bas relief mural for the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. The Brutons were paid $20,000 for the mural (more than $350,000 in today’s dollars), an astounding sum to earn in the final year of the Depression.  

Despite their prominence in the early twentieth century, the Brutons were largely forgotten by the time of their deaths. Like many successful women artists of the early twentieth century, the “famous Bruton sisters” were victims of the changing post-World War II art scene; modernism came to be associated with its male practitioners, and women were left out of the canon. This was especially discouraging for women artists like the Brutons, who were afforded so many opportunities through the WPA art projects of the 1930s.  Recently, however, the Brutons' art is reappearing in museum exhibits and has become increasingly attractive to collectors. Their works have been on display in recent museum exhibitions at the Monterey Museum of Art (2012), the Honolulu Museum of Art (2014), the Chaffey Community Museum of Art (2018), and the Pasadena Museum of History (2019).  The Buck Collection, an extensive collection of early twentieth-century California art donated to UC Irvine in 2017, includes twenty-eight works by the Brutons.

This blog is devoted to the fascinating story of the Brutons, whose dynamic personalities and endless experimentation resulted in an eclectic body of modern art, recently rediscovered and newly appreciated for its fearless creativity.

Photo at top:
The Bruton Sisters, Artists, 1930
by Imogen Cunningham
© Imogen Cunningham Trust
Used with permission


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