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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
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Bruton sisters featured in Imogen Cunningham retrospective at the Getty Museum

I have always been a fan of Imogen Cunningham's work, and I was delighted when I learned that she was good friends with the Bruton sisters. Cunningham took numerous beautiful photographs of the Brutons throughout their lives, and in return, they babysat her three boys and welcomed Cunningham to stay with them in Monterey when she came to the area for exhibitions and workshops.

This weekend I had the opportunity to see Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective at the Getty Museum. This stunning exhibition explores all phases of Cunningham's career, starting with her early platinum prints, which have a dreamy, soft focus and were influenced by the art and literature of the Pre-Raphaelites. Next, the show explored her photographs of flowers and plants. Although these works are dramatic and incredibly artistic, it's heartbreaking to learn that they are from a period in her life when she was tied to her home with young children, and she could photograph only what she discovered in her own garden.

I was especially interested in the part of the exhibition titled "A Network of Women." This section explains how after her divorce from Roi Partridge in 1934, Cunningham found it increasingly difficult to make her way as a professional photographer. She discovered a much needed support system when she joined San Francisco Women Artists. This concept of a network of women artists who supported and encouraged each other has always been especially interesting to me.  

Imagine my surprise when I rounded a corner to discover two photographs of the Bruton sisters included in the exhibition, as seen below:

It was a thrill to see the Brutons represented in this beautiful and significant exhibition.  

I highly recommend that you make a visit to see the Imogen Cunningham retrospective before it closes on June 12. Enjoy, and keep an eye out for those Brutons!


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