Bruton Sisters in Italian Vogue!


The Bruton sisters in Italian Vogue? I was quite surprised to come across this article featuring Imogen Cunningham's iconic photograph of the Brutons. The article, published in November 2020, is about an upcoming -- but temporarily postponed -- Imogen Cunningham retrospective at L.A.'s J. Paul Getty Museum.  

The article describes the Bruton photograph as "not famous or entirely typical, but it has all the qualities that make [Cunningham's] work so distinctive and absorbing. The Bruton sisters, Margaret, Esther, and Helen, were Bay Area artists who were engaged at the time with a mosaic floor piece commissioned by the University of California, Berkeley. Their portrait finds each of them lost in her own thoughts but drawn together, individual in every detail–the necklace, the sweater, the brooch–but still a family group, a united front."(1) 

The Bruton Sisters
©Imogen Cunningham Trust

I love the author's take on this incredible photograph, and he has perfectly described the Brutons: "individual in every detail... but still a family group, a united front."  There are a few factual errors, however: the Berkeley mosaic was a WPA project (not commissioned by the university); it was Helen's work and is signed by her (although her sisters helped); and it was mounted on the exterior wall of the Old Art Gallery, not on the floor (see photo below).  


Helen Bruton's mosaic at UC Berkeley


Helen Bruton's signature on the UC Berkeley mosaic


The author also probably didn't know that Cunningham and the Brutons were very close friends and remained so throughout their lives. The Brutons even babysat for Cunningham's children. The screen in the background of the photo, Corn Dance, was painted by Esther and was inspired by her 1929 visit to Taos. It is now in the collection of the Wolfsonian, the museum at Florida International University in Miami. You can read more about Corn Dance and its companion screen Rabbit Hunt here

The Brutons would probably be surprised to find themselves gracing the pages of Vogue magazine. Their mosaic and terrazzo work created such a mess that when they were working -- which was most of the time -- they donned aprons, head scarves, and gloves. They cared little for fashion or expensive jewelry. Their friend Lucy Valentine Pierce joked that even their new clothes looked old, and that Helen wore her dresses like a pair of overalls.(2)  

Yet at the same time, the Brutons were effortlessly elegant.  In 1938, the Christian Science Monitor remarked that they wore their "slacks with an air."(3)  They were all slender and tall (Helen was 5'10" and Margaret might have been taller), and people who knew them said they made an impression when they entered a room. But it was their personalities that made the biggest impact: their wit, their sense of humor, and their confidence.  Not to mention their talent. Now that's style!

"Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn." -- Orson Welles

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(1) Vince Aletti, "This is Not a Fashion Photograph. Imogen Cunningham," Vogue Italia, November 16, 2020, https://www.vogue.it/en/article/this-is-not-a-fashion-photograph-imogen-cunningham

(2) Lucy Valentine Pierce, letter to Ina Perham, January 3, 1930. Perham Private Papers.

(3)"Mural for Peace," Christian Science Monitor, December 14, 1938, p. 15.







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