In the West Hall of the Mausoleum at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana is the crypt of Nellie Gail Moulton, entombed just to the left of her husband, Lewis. The Orange County matriarch, philanthropist, society matron, plein-air painter, and art patron died in 1972.
The bronze plate on the couple’s crypt is unassuming. Laurels drape across the top and hang down the sides, framing their last name, as individual plates announce their birth and death years.
There are no flowers in the crypt vases, save for a tiny fragment of a red petal left inside Nellie’s. The thick dust at the top and on the ledge of the crypt suggests there hasn’t been a visitor there for some time. Despite being one of the first female artists when Laguna Beach began to create a name for itself as an artist’s haven, Moulton is better known today for her last name than for her art.
That might change this month.
A retrospective of Moulton’s work as a painter will open March 13 at the Casa Romantica Gallery in San Clemente. Curated by Maurine St. Gaudens and Joseph Morsman—co-authors of the ambitious four-volume set “Emerging From the Shadows: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860-1960”—this is the first major exhibition of Moulton’s work in 50 years.
“In selecting individuals for inclusion in the book, we looked at hundreds of artists,” Morsman says. “We took into account not only their individual artistic ability but also their story. In many instances, the life they lived was just as important as the quality of their work.
“Nellie Gail … was more accomplished in developing the components of composition in her artwork than many artists of the period, both male and female. She was able to portray the land in well-constructed compositions—never overworked or too complicated. Her understanding of the physical forms as they appeared in nature was translated to her canvases with no embellishment. She captured what she saw and physically felt … be it the California landscape … or the sites encountered in her travels across the American West or around the world.”
Born in Kansas in 1878, Nellie Gail and her family moved to the state of Washington. In 1902, while she was working as a teacher in Seattle, her father took a job in California as El Toro’s postmaster and the manager of a mercantile store. On a visit south to see her family in 1903, Gail met the recently divorced Lewis F. Moulton, a landowner and rancher who, with his partner, owned 22,000 acres in and around Rancho Niguel. Nellie and Lewis married five years later. “She hated the landscape of Southern California at first,” local curator, writer, and art historian Evan Senn says. “Having spent so much time in Washington, she loved the lush green vegetation of the Pacific Northwest and thought that California’s brown grass hills were not impressive. However, her artwork would tell us another side to that story, one that shows us she fell in love with the California coast.”
The Moultons’ wealth led to an increase in social prominence for young Nellie. She joined the El Toro Women’s Club and the fledgling Laguna Beach Art Association, her $1.50 donation in 1934 putting her name alongside the founders in the association’s new gallery, which went on to become the Laguna Beach Museum of Art in 1972. The June 12, 1936, Society page of the Orange Daily News describes her attending a tea fundraiser in Villa Park for the art association. Two years later, according to the Santa Ana Register and Los Angeles Times, the group held another fundraiser, this time at the Laguna Beach Art gallery, with Nellie serving as hostess. After Lewis died in 1938, Moulton managed the vast properties for more than a decade, eventually closing down the cattle ranch and dividing then selling off most of the land. She spent the last decades of her life devoted to art and philanthropy.
Her many landscape and seascape paintings, done in plein-air style—out in the open and subject to changing light and weather conditions—serve as a freeze-frame in time, capturing the county in its youth. “She was a painter who desired to meld two approaches to the landscape,” Laguna College of Art + Design President Jonathan Burke says. “In her best work, she deftly balances both the painterly plein-air and the linear and classical to celebrate the natural world.”
Wealthy enough that she could make art a vocation and not worry about keeping a roof over her head, she could paint whatever she wanted. It wasn’t a hobby, however; one could make the argument that there was an aspect of the historian and the journalist in her work: “It was obvious to us that she was a serious artist who spent a good deal of time recording her environs while studying art,” Morsman says. “What makes Nellie Gail special is that throughout her work as an artist, she was able to absorb and capture the richness of early Orange County, the area surrounding Laguna and the Pacific coastline as it appeared before it became a popular destination for the public and … the onslaught of development.”
She exhibited at the Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach in 1939, and two years later chaired a touring exhibition of California artists, including herself. She was named president of the art association in 1948.
“There’s a wonderful photograph of her, pen in hand and steely-eyed, ready to sign up new members at a membership drive around 1945. She must have been hard to resist,” Laguna Art Museum Executive Director Malcolm Warner says. “As the association edged toward becoming a museum, Moulton championed the idea of building a museum-like permanent collection. She was the association’s president in 1948 and ’49 and a major contributor and fundraiser toward the first major expansion of the gallery on Cliff Drive. As realized in 1950-51, the expansion included a new studio for art classes and exhibitions named Moulton Hall in her honor.”
With a donation of $500, Moulton went on to become the first benefactor of Laguna College of Art + Design, founding it in 1961. There is a continuing endowment in her name at the college to this day.
Her devotion to the arts included a love of the theater: In 1962, she was honorary chairwoman of the Festival of Opera; in the late ’60s, she gave $100,000 to name the new Laguna Playhouse the Laguna Moulton Playhouse. Richard Stein, CEO of Arts Orange County, says “Athalie (Richardson) Irvine Clarke (Joan Irvine Smith’s mother) gave $90,000. The story was that they were friends and though Clarke could have given more, she knew how much Moulton loved the theater and wanted her to have the name on it.”
Chapman University (when it was still called Chapman College) was also a beneficiary of her largesse, with Moulton donating the land that became known as Nellie Gail Ranch to the college. The school’s Moulton Hall, also dedicated in her honor, wasn’t completed until after her death. Today it’s home to Chapman’s arts, theatre/dance, and communications departments, as well as a theater and gallery.
There are still no flowers in the vases at the crypt of Nellie Gail Moulton.
But change is coming.
As curators and art historians put a halt to the practice of female artists passing into oblivion.
As forgotten artists of the past are re-appraised.
As their work is shown again in galleries like Casa Romantica’s.
Inevitably, a young artist, a woman perhaps, will come along.
One who heard about Moulton’s legacy, read about her in a four-volume set of art books, or has been a beneficiary of an arts program that Moulton created or funded. She will drive to the Fairhaven Mausoleum and arrive at that crypt. She will bring a cloth and gently, attentively, wipe away the dust and polish the nameplate.
She will place a single red flower in Nellie Gail Moulton’s memory, and say “Thank you.”
That time is coming.
LOCAL LEADERS WEIGH IN ON NELLIE GAIL MOULTON:
“Her plein-air landscapes of Orange County captured some of the optimism of the first half of the 20th century—very idealized. I think many people today might consider her work to be overly idealized … but she was a woman of her times and her privileged socioeconomic status. Nellie Gail Moulton’s paintings were very idyllic, portraying a harmonious bucolic landscape. … There is no sense in her work of ‘social realism,’ of the often-gritty realities of urban life, but that was not her reality.”
—Jane Magdalena Baumann, artist and fine arts professor at Coastline College
“Few artists encapsulated the breathtaking landscapes of pre-suburbanized Orange County quite as well as plein-air painter Nellie Gail Moulton. Her masterful use of light and composition secured her a place in history alongside notable contemporaries such as Anna Hills and William Wendt. Perhaps lesser known is her contribution to the establishment of a thriving art scene in Laguna Beach. Moulton’s oeuvre is deserving of our admiration, (but) it was her generosity and dedication to the Orange County art community for which we should look back with due gratitude.”
—Laura Black, curator
“Her artwork is illustrative and detailed but impressionistic, showing less concern for making sophisticated and perfect images and more care for expressing the beauty and majesty of the natural world. … Her skill for manipulating color to express the natural beauty of this area is pretty impressive for a mainly self-taught artist.”
—Evan Senn, curator, writer, and art historian
“She stands forever at an interesting axis in Orange County history. Her paintings preserve the feeling of the open lands her family cultivated. On the other hand, her name is widely known because of an upscale housing development and the giant street that runs along it.”
—Suzanne Walsh, writer and curator
Who was Nellie Gail Moulton? Pioneer, Artist and so much more
Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens
415 Avenida Granada,
San Clemente, 949-498-2139
March 13 through May 31