Primitive Mother (Primordial Days in Palm Sprin …

Elanor Colburn
Primitive Mother (Primordial Days in Palm Springs)
Oil on canvas, 1925
50 1/4 x 40 inches
Gift of Ruth Colburn Peabody
1967.001

Elanor Colburn’s Primitive Mother recalls the work of the German Expressionists who celebrated the “primitive” in a brash modern style derived from Cubism, radically simplifying forms and flouting conventions of mass and space. In the case of the German painters, primitive generally meant African; Colburn translated the idea into Native American terms. The bathing mother and her two children are presumably of the Cahuilla people, who have lived in the Palm Springs area for some 500 years.

Colburn used a compositional device known as Dynamic Symmetry, a mathematical system that is based on proportioning laws found in nature, to compose her paintings. The palm fronds, deer, and rocks that surround the figures in Primitive Mother also indirectly refer to the great chain of being—God, angel, man, animal, plant, mineral—a religious hierarchical structure of all matter and life, believed to have been decreed by God and first discerned by Plato and Aristotle.

More obviously, Colburn’s Primitive Mother references traditional European religious art and, in particular, the subject of the Madonna and Child. In one fell swoop, with Primitive Mother, Colburn equates our “primordial” origins with the origins of Western religion, Western scientific thought, and with a deep regard for nature as a guiding principle. While Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, subverts conventional notions regarding the “nude,” Colburn’s painting subverts our expectations of religious art, giving us a new view of the Madonna and Child.

Colburn was an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to Laguna Beach in 1924. She was director of the Laguna Beach Art Association (predecessor of Laguna Art Museum) from 1926 to 1929. She focused primarily on mother and child themes in her art for several years. John McLaughlin, who was a close friend of the artist, interpreted her interest in such themes as her genuine faith in the universal themes in art. Primitive Mother took the first place award in the Eleventh Annual Painters and Sculptors Exhibition in the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in 1933.