Zorach, Marguerite Thompson (1887–1968)

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Zorach, Marguerite Thompson (1887–1968)

American painter and tapestry designer. Born Marguerite Thompson in 1887 in Santa Rosa, California; died in 1968; educated at Fresno High School, with additional tutoring in languages and music; studied at La Palette in Paris; married William Zorach (a sculptor and lithographer), in 1912; children: son Tessim (b. 1915); daughter Dahlov Ipcar (b. 1917, a writer and illustrator).

Selected works:

Luxembourg Gardens (1908); Judea Hill in Palestine (1911); Man Among the Redwoods (1912); Provincetown (1916); Sunrise-Moonset Provincetown (1916); Sailing Wind and Sea (1919); Maine Island (tapestry, with husband William Zorach, 1919).

Born in 1887 in Santa Rosa, California, Marguerite Thompson Zorach grew up in Fresno, California. Her parents were descendants of New England seafarers and Pennsylvania Quakers. Zorach's mother and father, a lawyer for the Napa vineyards, were able to give Marguerite and her sister extra tutoring in French and German, as well as piano lessons. By age three, though, Marguerite was already displaying artistic talent, apparent in a drawing of two seagulls. By six, she was filling notebooks with her drawings. An exceptional student, Zorach graduated from Fresno High School with four years of Latin, and was one of the few women accepted at Stanford University in 1908.

Marguerite's family expected her to attend school, marry, and lead a traditional life; they did not foresee her life as an artist. It was her Aunt Addie, Harriet Adelaide Harris , who, recognizing Marguerite's early talent, invited her to join her in Paris, where she could study art, and enclosed the fare for the journey. On her first day in the city, Zorach attended the famous Salon D'Automne of 1908 and was introduced to the works of Matisse, André Derain, Anne Rice , and others. They were called the Fauves (wild beasts) because of their bold colors and shocking distortions. Zorach was impressed and began to paint in this style. Luxembourg Gardens (1908), which exemplifies her work from this period, was painted with brilliant colors, loose brush work, and heavy black outlines. During this time, Zorach supported herself by writing about her life in France for a Fresno newspaper.

Aunt Addie introduced Marguerite to Gertrude Stein , a childhood friend. She also met Pablo Picasso and the modern sculptor

Ossip Zadkine at Stein's salon on the Rue de Fleurus. Zorach studied with the conservative painter Aubertin and spent a short time at the École de la Grande Chaumière. Finally, she enrolled in La Palette, an avant-garde school run by John Duncan Fergusson, a Scottish Fauve painter. There she met William Zorach, then a commercial lithographer from Cleveland, Ohio, who had saved enough money to study in Paris. William was initially shocked by her "mad pictures," as he called them in his autobiography Art is My Life (1967), but he admired their boldness. Finding that they had much in common, they began to plan a life together. Aunt Addie, however, in an attempt to break up the budding romance, decided to take her niece on a world tour, which would eventually influence Marguerite's art. During this trip, she painted one of her strongest early works, Judea Hill in Palestine (1911).

Once she was back in Fresno, Marguerite's family, embarrassed by her unorthodox painting style, tried unsuccessfully to dissuade her from her art. While waiting for William to establish himself financially so that they could get married, she went on a camping trip with her family during the summer of 1912. Staying near Shaver Lake in the High Sierras, Marguerite produced an impressive series of paintings and ink drawings. Man Among the Redwoods (1912) is noted for its vivid blue, green, and orange colors, against the whitish sky and mountains in the distance. She featured huge fuchsia trees, outlined in dark purple, which dwarfed the small figures represented by a few economical lines. Critics began to notice Zorach when she exhibited her paintings at the Royar Galleries in Los Angeles in 1912.

William finally sent for Marguerite to join him in New York. Before leaving California, she threw out a large amount of her work, saving only a few select paintings, which would remain rolled up for 50 years until her son Tessim had them restored and framed in 1968. Married in 1912, the Zorachs lived an exhilarating life on 10th Street in Greenwich Village and had among their friends Max Weber, Abraham Walkowitz, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, and Marianne Moore . They created pioneering works of art and in 1913 exhibited their works in the Armory Show where William's art was ignored and Marguerite's received scorching criticism. The Zorachs summered in Provincetown in 1916, where they designed expressionistic sets for Eugene O'Neill's new plays and socialized with other avant-garde artists and literary figures. There, Marguerite was exposed to Cubism and immediately incorporated it into her paintings Provincetown (1916) and Sunrise-Moonset Provincetown (1916).

Zorach's last major exhibit from this period in her development occurred at the landmark Forum Show at the Anderson Galleries in 1916. After that, William's career began to overshadow hers. William was uncomfortable with these circumstances; he had always been supportive of Marguerite's work and felt that she was an important artist. The birth of their son Tessim in 1915 and daughter Dahlov (Ipcar) in 1917 occupied much of her time. Artistically, Zorach turned to the design and embroidery of tapestries. She loved the vivid colors of the silk thread and was able to incorporate both her Fauvist and Cubist ideas in them. Indeed, embroidery became a new form of painting for Zorach; the use of threads instead of paints allowed her to transfer quickly between household duties and art, but it also allowed her ideas to shape more gradually as she slowly developed them on the canvas. These pieces began to sell for very high prices to prominent New York families and helped to support the Zorachs during the lean years until William was regarded as a leading American sculptor. The artistic worthiness of her tapestries, however, was not always appreciated. The Museum of Modern Art was offered one of her tapestries as a gift but refused it because needlework was considered a craft, not an art. This firm distinction between crafts and arts has since broken down, and many typically women's arts such as needlework, quilts, soft sculpture, and weaving have received recognition as high art forms in the creative tradition. Zorach's embroidery has likewise been recognized for its artistic merit.

In 1925, Marguerite founded and became the first president of the New York Society of Women Artists, the avant-garde wing of women painters. In the late 1920s and 1930s, she returned to painting, but her work was still considered too radical. She painted two large murals for the Fresno post office and court house and was paid for them through the federal art program, but they were never hung. By 1966, Fresno officials had decided the murals were indeed worthy of their public buildings, but were unable to locate them.

Zorach continued to paint and do needlework throughout her life. According to Tessim, many of William's scuptures were inspired by her embroidery, paintings, and drawings. Marguerite Thompson Zorach's impact on the art world was lost to history until 1973, when Roberta Tarbell , an art historian researching William Zorach, happened to see some early canvases from 1911 to 1912, which Marguerite had given to her son Tessim before her death. Only after her death did the art world realize the singularity of her paintings and the fine artistry of her tapestries. Her work is now housed by numerous museums throughout the United States, and in June 2000, one of her paintings sold at auction for more than $76,000.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists: From Early Indian Times to the Present. NY: Avon, 1982.

Dorothy L. Wood , M.A., Warren, Michigan