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The Story Behind the Painting

Apr 24, 2014
ESF  010 2554 300x453 The Story Behind the Painting  photo

Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930), Dress of Indians in Mountains of Oaxaca – Mex., 14 July 1908. Watercolor on paper, 30 x 20 cm. Below the painting Eva wrote, “On a model in my grounds. Pasadena.” (Courtesy Pasadena Museum of History Archives, Fenyes-Curtin-Paloheimo Papers, ESF.010.2554

The model sits comfortably on an old tree stump in a forest glade. Her head is slightly tilted and she gazes directly at the painter. Her costume is styled in the tradition of Oaxaca, Mexico, and she wears huaraches on her feet. On her lap she holds a piece of pottery, a vase or a statue, possibly a handcrafted artifact. The scene could be a setting in the mountains of Oaxaca, but actually the woman poses in a garden in Pasadena, California, for artist Eva Scott Fenyes.

Eva and her husband Adalbert were not long returned from their trip to Mexico when the painting was made on July 14, 1908. Adalbert, an entomologist, had been searching for beetles while Eva spent her time learning about the culture in which she was immersed. She practiced her Spanish, read about the history of the country, carried her camera and watercolor kit as she explored the countryside and villages, and in the evenings she wrote in her journal. On this particular trip, her journal filled ten very small volumes, each measuring only 2.5 x 5.5 inches when closed, but she managed to pack each page with a surprising number of efficiently constructed sentences that captured the essence of her day.

 

FCP 35 5 Mexico 1908 The Story Behind the Painting  photo

Cover and pages from Eva Fenyes’ 1908 Mexico journal. (Courtesy PMH Archives, FCP.35.5)

 

April 30, Córdoba:  A very nice woman showed us some remarkable costumes made by Indian women in the mountains about Oaxaca. They are of a peculiarly woven white cloth embroidered in red with figures of birds, flowers etc. She says the women do their quilt without patterns. I tried to buy her costume. Am to know today, if she will let me have it — the skirt is woven in white & red horizontal stripes & the long chemise-like over garment is embroidered. She says we ought to go to Amattan [possibly Amatan, Chiapas] on Sunday which is a great feast [Fiesta de las Cruces on May 3rd]. The indians come from miles around in their finest embroidered costumes. Dr. is afraid we shall get small pox in the crowd, but I am willing to risk it.”[1]

Eva did not go to the festival; but, she did secure the Oaxacan costume and her fascination with these dresses continued.

May 1, Córdoba:  Towards evening the rain held up & Dr & Mr Knab & I strolled…to the photographer & I picked out a lot of negatives to be printed, mostly of Oaxacan Indian women in their embroidered costumes.”[2] Shown here is a sampling of the prints she purchased:

FCP 34 9 Indian Women The Story Behind the Painting  photo

 

FCP 34 9 Women of Oaxaca1 The Story Behind the Painting  photo

 

FCP 34 9 Mexican girl Oaxaca The Story Behind the Painting  photo

Three photos of prints in this grouping courtesy of PMH Archives, FCP.34.9

 

Notice that in each of these posed photographs the Oaxacan women hold something: flowers, a sprig of leaves, a fringed scarf, and the little girl holds a doll. Eva added an archaeological component to her painting, and her model holds an object perhaps representative of the ancient artifacts that attracted her attention and enlivened her journal entries. After one lengthy condemnation in her journal, when she wrote about the historic and present-day plunder of Aztec jars, idols, and statues, she concluded with disgust, “It makes my archaeological blood boil to contemplate the spoliation of such precious relics.”[3]

The next day she wrote, “This evening Prof Rincon brought one of his finds in the cave…It is 1/3 life size & is a hollow head of an Aztec warrior with a helmet of Jaguar’s head. The nose is short, the face blackened, the eyes large with well arched brows – the mouth round & partly open, with the tip of the tongue showing. Just below the nose & in each ear lobe are round pieces of clay said by Mr. Rincon to represent emerald ornaments worn only by officers of high rank.”[4] Eva precisely described the artifact and then captured its curious visage in a watercolor painting. “The rain poured down this p.m. so I put in the time in a life size sketch of the Aztec warriors head.”[5]

ESF 010 2535 The Story Behind the Painting  photo

Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930), Terra Cotta Head of Miztec Warrior, Córdoba, Mexico, 1 May 1908. Watercolor on paper, 35.5 x 25.5 cm. Next to this painting Eva wrote, “Found in a cave at El Refugio (Ver) where thousands of vases, statuettes, etc. are still remaining.” (Courtesy PMH Archives, FCP Papers, ESF.010.2535)

 

Returning to the photographs Eva bought, note that, except for the child who wears boots, all of the women are barefoot. Eva painted her model wearing huaraches. Throughout the trip she often wrote about and photographed the clothing worn by the people of Mexico, and at least once she referred to the sandals worn by a young boy on his way to church. “The little fellow had a rather clean shirt, a pair of cotton drawers, guaches [sic], or sandals & a sombrero.”[6] This final

touch in Eva’s painting may seem to be inconsistent with the barefoot women in the photographs, but huaraches represent an element of early Mexican history that was carried forward into modern times. Eva as a student of history and material culture would have known this.

Perhaps after her trip, when she was posing the model in her garden, she was assembling recollections and painting a tableau of special memories—a mountain setting in Oaxaca, a hand-woven and embroidered Oaxacan dress, an ancient clay artifact, sandals of pre-Colombian origin.

Many more memories from this trip and others are preserved in the journals Eva Fenyes wrote, the photographs she took, the ephemera she collected, and the watercolors she painted. Her journals and paintings have been digitized and the images can be viewed on computers in the Reading Room at the Pasadena Museum of History Research Library and Archives.

Julie Stires, Project Archivist
Pasadena Museum of History
470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena CA 91103
PasadenaHistory.org


[1] Journal of Eva Scott Fenyes, Córdoba, Veracruz, Mexico, 30 April 1908. Fenyes-Curtin-Paloheimo Papers, FCP.35.5 vol. 7 pp. 44-45.  Pasadena Museum of History Archives.

[2] Journal of Eva Scott Fenyes, Córdoba, Veracruz, Mexico, 1 May 1908. Fenyes-Curtin-Paloheimo Papers, FCP.35.5 vol. 7 p. 49.  Pasadena Museum of History Archives.

 

 

[3] Journal of Eva Scott Fenyes, Mexico, 29 April 1908. Fenyes-Curtin-Paloheimo Papers, FCP.35.5 vol. 7 p. 39. Pasadena Museum of History Archives.

 

[4] Journal of Eva Scott Fenyes, Mexico, 30 April 1908. Fenyes-Curtin-Paloheimo Papers, FCP.35.5 vol. 7 pp. 45-46. Pasadena Museum of History Archives.

 

[5] Journal of Eva Scott Fenyes, Mexico, 1 May 1908. Fenyes-Curtin-Paloheimo Papers, FCP.35.5 vol. 7 pp. 48-49.

Pasadena Museum of History Archives.

[6] Journal of Eva Scott Fenyes, Mexico, 12 April 1908. Fenyes-Curtin-Paloheimo Papers, FCP.35.5 vol. 4 p. 10. Pasadena Museum of History Archives.




3 Responses for “The Story Behind the Painting”

  1. Laura V says:

    Wow! Beautiful images and fascinating story!

  2. I was aware of her attraction to the then crumbling California Missions, but not her photography of Oaxacan women’s wear. A treat! Can the public visit the archives?

  3. Julie says:

    Yes, the public is welcome to visit Pasadena Museum of History Research Library and Archives. Admission is free. Our Reading Room is open Thursday through Sunday, 1-4 pm.

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