The Mexican Odyssey of an American Painter

Doris Rosenthal

By Carleton Deals
Midtown Galleries
605 Madison Avenue
New York City

Few American painters have as an adventurous spirit as Doris Rosenthal. Fearlessly and alone she has traveled to the remotest Indian corners of Mexico in search of material, not merely for her paints, but to feed that spirit of freedom and exhaltation out of which good art has always been distilled. For many the more direct story of her personal adventures, both physical and spiritual, would quite likely be fully as exciting as her canvasses, into which she has poured the essence of her experience.

Most American painters who have felt the “Mexican urge” have been trapped into sterile limitation of such native masters as Diego Rivera or Clemente Orozco, or they have been too easily duped by picturesque or the bizarro. But Doris Rosenthal’s paintings has remained wholly original and more basic, and though the setting, when she is not concerned with American themes, may be unusual, she has remained so close to the warm roalitios of simple everyday life, wherever she has found herself, be it in New York or the jungles, that she immediately bridges, without losing the essential quality of alien incidents, the gulf of geography, race and culture that separates us from our southern neighbors. The deepest enjoyment of her paintings comes not so much from the novel scene as from the human warmth, the universality of the emotions and acts she portrays, plus her shrewd organization of theme, her rhythemic design, her strong but subdued colors, and her skillful brushwork. Her sincerity, honesty and knowledge are well fused in nearly every canvas.

Born in California, Miss Rosenthal was graduated from Los Angeles State Teacher’s College and completed her studies at Columbia University. At the Art Students League, she studied under Bollows and Sloan, among others, then traveled extensively in Europe, sketching and gaining knowledge.

She began her own teaching career at Teacher’s College in New York City and at present is an instructor at the James Monroe High School, a 10,000 pupil institution, in the same city. She is one of the few persons who has twice received a Guggerheim Fellowship ( in 1932 and 1936). She utilized the stipends to live and work in Mexico over long periods of time.

Her one-man exhibits from time to time at the Midtown Galleries in New York City have nearly always been favorably and often enthusiastically received by nearly all the critics, and she is now represented in leading public collections in the country. Her Sacred Music, purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of New York, has been described by an outstanding authority as “typical of her most distinguished gift, that of rhythmic yet disciplined design.”

I first met Doris Rosenthal at a luncheon ten years ago in the home of Frances Adame in New York City. Later in Mexico City, I had the pleasure of accompanying her and her husband, who is connected with theater in New York, on their first visits to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, Tenayuca and Santa Cecilia and on various other excursions. When opportunity has presented, I have visited them in their studio apartment on 86th Street in New York and in their home in Silvermine, Connecticut. Once my wife and I were lengthy guests in their somewhat primitive but throughly delightful quarters on a roof in Mexico City, reached through quaint back alley corridors and a caracole iron ladder. The thrill of such visits has always been when Doris would finally reluctantly pull out her most recent work to show us.

She has an irrepressible enthusiasm about everything and everybody she meets, a perennial eagerness for experience and knowledge. Her comments are keen, sharp-edged, often dismayingly frank, but they are invariably accompanied by so much laughter and good cheer that I have never seen anyone take offense however direct her thrust. She is jealous of her working time, but boundless in her hospitality.

In Mexico she soon found herself quite as much at home as her own country, not merely in the capital, but out in the remotest Indian pueblos in the mountains where in some cases, no white person had been seen in a generation. She just missed a tidal wave on the far west coast of Colima. She lived long periods alone in the mountains of Michoacan among the Terascan Indians of the famous but little known “Eleven Pueblos, “ in Cheran, Mahuatzin, Cuouchushu and Ibaetzio. She has been in the Tierra Caliento -- the hot country--and has spent time in far-off Tacambaro and down on the Gulf in Alvarado, the quaint mestizo fishing town below Vera Cruz at the broad mouth of the Papoloapam, the River of Butterflies. Not everyone would enjoy spending his Christmas in an alien setting, on a far, narrow strip of sand and wind-blown pines, down among the smelly fish wharves, the piled up puestos of bananas and pineapples, and the chatter of market women, but for Doris--initiated into the mysteries of the hilarious pre-Christmas festivals, the posedas, the uproarious breaking of the pinatas, and the quaint candle-bearing processions of children along the ancient weather-beaten streets and through the patios--it was probably the happiest Christmas she ever spent.

With only and Indian guide she struck through the most rugged part of the Oacaca Siorras, up to the famed Yalala of the women of sixty necklaces; and in the western mountains of Nayarit, she traveled through what is usually considered very dangerous country from Acaponeta over to Muajicori. In the Sierra de Puebla she lived in Acaxochitlan and Huechinango, and only last summer mule-backed up through those same lofty peaks and valleys far into the interior to Pahuatlan, and from Zaragossa on horseback to Cuetzalan-- gorgeous country all of it, where from high up in the clear crisp southern air one can see the far silver-blue waters of the Gulf.

One suspects that in one of her canvases Arrivals and Departures the primitive Mexican courtyard of milling animals and muleteers and stacked carbines, of the village posada called El gran Hotel Paris, the figure modestly entering off to one sie of a burro, loaded down with artist’s paraphernalia, is perhaps a humorous representation of the artist herself embarked on one of her numerous inland voyages.

Humor constantly peeks into the details of Doris’ canvases--usually it is warm and kindly, but occasionally more mordant. Rarely however does her work have a purely anecdotal quality; her mastery of form and color, her intimacy with plants, animals, human beings and settings is too profound for her to depend on mere story telling to carry her canvases. She has an original rhythm of line, very dominant yet subtle, which gives her paintings a structural quality different from that of any other artist, a composition usually daring yet so mastered that it never startles one away from appreciation. Proper balance--not merely technical, but of all the elements, color content and inner meaning, never permits false distortion. Miss Rosenthal covers over the ribs of her own technique competently.

For a woman to travel alone in rural Mexico is wholly unconventional, and rural Mexico so isolated by poor communications, is sharply suspicious of all outsiders, let alone foreigners; yet Doris managed to overleap the barriers and establish herself on a footing of friendliness. Everywhere she went she has found folk to make friends with. Anyone who knows such places will realize that more coin of the realm would not procure a single model to draw. Persuasion, trust, friendly interest are the only things that could have turned the trick.

The results is seen in her work. Not a single canvas fails to demonstrate the author’s vital intimate knowledge of the places and peoples she depicts. She is not content with surface lines and colors, but goes behind to the essence. Hence all her work has considerably more than technical dimensions; it has spiritual penetration, a knowledge of cultural unity and continuity, of the relationship of people to their plants, their fruits, their animals, their dwellings, their food; and these relationships--which a scientific anthropologist would need a whole volume to classify--emerge in her canvases in a swift illuminating correlation of the bend of the arm to the arc of a banana stalk, of a falling fold of a rebozo to the drapery of Vegetation, the angle of a leg to the adobe hut or the truncated pyramid. The whole weaves into an integrated pattern that achieves a unity over and beyond her satisfying technical proficiency, because it is the unity also of the life which she discovered, participated in, felt and thought about. The synthesis is a admirably achieved in one canvas I remember vividly, an adolescent Indian girl seated on a rude bench, holding a bunch of bananas on her head. The deep liquid eyes, the infinite patience tie in with the native aesthetic, the luxurious simplicity of flowing limbs and white garments, fluid curves echoed in the fruit forms and the whirl of black hair, the dark heavy background, portentousness achieved by mere color without detail. The whole is poignant and rich.

Unlike many of her modern contemporaries, Miss Rosenthal nowhere reveals a bleeding artist’s soul, crucified by our harsh times. Her canvases do not stagger toward any passionate unfilled striving. She has a more clear-eyed conception of her role The emotions are to be created in the observer with relation to the material presented. Her own emotions are non-essential as a mere spectacle, they are essential only in so far as her art can recreate such emotional stresses in those who examine her work. For her the real values are to be found in the relationship set up between her audience and her materials, rather than her audience and her own ego. Perhaps this is one reason she never fell under the spell of the leading Mexican artists. She loves people, her material and her art too much to throw it into the maw of her own agonizing soul, as does Clemente Orozoo. She is too honest and objective with her material to make it an unwilling hand-maiden to partisan propaganda as does Diego Rivera, who thereby frequently sacrifices the inner essence and presents us with a poster-like anecdote, often close to caricature.

Doris particularly happy in her pictures of children. She has a warm understanding for them, and her studies have such sentiment without over being sentimentalized. She understands the waywardness and deviltry of children just as much as their more blessed qualities. Her scenes of Mexican school roams, despite their friendly warmth, are freighted also with pathos and the tragedy of Mexico, a country long shrouded in ignorance and falteringly seeking new light.

She is not wholly tied to the Mexican scone. Many of her canvases tell the authentic story of New England attics, old and warped. She knows the common denominator, true for all the centuries, of a Connecticut woman looking into a cracked mirror by a dormer window, and voluminously garbed women primping from rouge pots on a patio veranda in the distant tropics. She has poked around the sweat shops and ateliers of New York. Her canvas Regents shows that she is quite as fascinated by her own New York students as by those in Mexico. The Concert depicts two New York boys playing accordions, while a third listens intently.

For ten years I have watched the talents of Doris Rosenthal steadily expand, her abilities increase, her understanding deepen, and I believe that her work will outlast our own times, that she has made a permanent contribution to American culture.

And just as a foot note: if our good officials would sprinkle in a larger number of Doris Rosenthals, along with business men, army officers and diplomats, the good neighbor policy would be probably not so often gang aft aglee. Such contact, both north and south of the Rio Grand, bring a real contribution to the friendly interchange of knowledge and culture. The Mexicans who met her vividly realize that America is something greater than concessions and dollar chasing or even international policy. And those Americans who look at her work can not help but gain, in one swift illuminating moment, a whole new comprehension of the beautiful world discovered by the artist, and with it a feeling of warm generosity towards the people who live in her canvases.