Peña, Tonita (1893–1949)

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Peña, Tonita (1893–1949)

First Pueblo woman watercolorist. Name variations: Tonita Pena; Quah Ah (Little Bead or Pink Shell). Born Quah Ah on May 10, 1893, in the Tewa pueblo called San Ildefonso in what is now the state of New Mexico; baptized in the Catholic Church as Maria Antonia Peña; died in September 1949; third child and second daughter of Ascencion Vigil Peña and her husband Natividad Peña; attended San Ildefonso Day School and St. Catherine's, Santa Fe; married Juan Rosario Chavez, on March 2, 1908 (died May 17, 1912); married Felipe Herrera, on July 14, 1913 (died July 16, 1920); married Epitacio Arquero, on June 12, 1922; children: (first marriage) Helia Chavez (b. April 4, 1909); Richard Chavez (b. February 12, 1912); (second marriage): Hilario J. (b. May 17, 1920, becamethe noted artist Joseph H. Herrara); (third marriage) Maria Cyrella Arquero (b. February 22, 1923); Virginia Arquero (December 15, 1924–May 8, 1926); Margaretta Arquero (b. August 21, 1927); Sam Arquero (b. July 26, 1929); Victoria Arquero (b. March 4, 1935).

Using traditional Tewan motifs as the source of her paintings, Tonita Peña (born Quah Ah) was the only woman in a group of painters known as the "San Ildefonso Self-taught group." Though the assemblage included such significant artists as Julian Martinez (husband and collaborator of Maria Montoya Martinez ) and Alfonso Roybal, Peña was the first Pueblo woman easel painter and the first Puebloan to work in watercolor.

Born into a family of artists in 1893, in the Tewa pueblo called San Ildefonso in what is now the state of New Mexico, Peña began painting at an early age. Encouraged by her teachers, in particular, Esther B. Hoyt at the San Ildefonso Day School, Peña began to experiment with water-colors while still a child and may have sold her earliest works when she was as young as 16.

Anthropologist Edgar L. Hewett took an interest in Peña early on. It was Hewett who bought most of what she produced for the Art Museum in Santa Fe, where Peña's work was seen by another noted anthropologist, Dr. Kenneth Chapman. Aware that her style was developing in a unique way, Hewett supplied her with watercolors imported from England as well as quality art paper. These men would support and encourage Peña throughout her often tragic life.

Influenza had always been a particularly ferocious enemy of native tribes. In 1905, Peña had suffered the first of several losses to the disease when her mother and younger sister died. Unable to care for Peña, her father sent her to live in Cochiti, 50 miles away. Because in Cochiti the Puebloans speak Keres, a different dialect than the one she grew up speaking, Tonita had to learn a new language, new dances, and new songs. For the first few months, she stayed close to her aunt's side, taking comfort in her painting.

Peña first married just before her 15th birthday, but influenza would strike again, taking the life of her young husband. By age 19, she was a widow with two small children and an incomplete education. Leaving the children with her aunt, she returned to finish school while continuing to work as an artist.

In 1913, Peña married Felipe Herrera, a worker in the iron oxide mines. Herrera was extremely supportive of Tonita's painting and enabled her to finally complete her schooling. The couple had one son, Hilario J. (the noted artist Joseph H. Herrara), before Felipe was killed in a mining accident. When Peña was 29, she married Epitacio Arquero, a former mine worker turned farmer. The couple settled in Cochiti, where Arquero was eventually elected governor of the Pueblo. Peña and Arquero had six children, and they enjoyed a long, productive life together. As well, Peña's artistic life continued to flourish. Her watercolors were shown widely in museums and commercial art galleries. In 1931, at the American Indian Tribal Arts exhibition, her watercolor Spring Dances was labeled "best in show." When Tonita Peña died in 1949, she had probably influenced and advanced Pueblo painting more than any other artist, male or female, leading her to be nicknamed the Grand Old Lady of Pueblo Art.


Dockstader, Frederick J. Great North American Indians: Profiles in Life and Leadership. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.

Gray, Samuel, ed. Tonita Peña. Albuquerque, NM: Avanyu Press, 1990.

Deborah Jones , Studio City, California

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Peña, Tonita (1893–1949)

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