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Brents Carlton (1903-1962)

Mother & Child


Mahogany, 41 1/2 x 9 1/4 x 10 1/2 inches (including small original tray-shaped base). Sculpture unsigned; base inscribed in black ink: "BRENTS CARLTON/2430 POLK STREET/SAN FRANCISCO---"


Art Center (San Francisco), 1934; San Francisco Museum of Art, 1935; Oakland Art Gallery, May 10, 1936; Oakland Museum, August 29, 1937; Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, Northern Arizona University Art Museum, April 7 - May 29, 2015.


Sunset Magazine, May, 1938, p. 28 (appears in a photo of Carlton's studio at 730 Montgomery Street, San Francisco; see Fig. 1 below); Enduring America (catalogue).


Helser, Carrie Carlton, Artist's biography,


Estate of the Artist; with Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts, Beverly Hills, CA (as agent), acquired from the foregoing, April 2, 2014.


Fig. 1 - Photograph of work (left of center) as it appeared in the sculptor's studio at 730 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA, in 1938 (Sunset Magazine, May, 1938, p. 28).

     Brents Carlton led a double life: a pharmacist by day, he was an award-winning sculptor at night. The ninth of eleven children, Carlton spent his formative years in the small rural community of DeQueen, Arkansas, drawing and painting with supplies financed by an after-school job in a drugstore.  By 1924, he’d moved to California, enrolling at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) while working as a pharmacist’s assistant and studying for his pharmacy license.  In 1928, he decamped to New York, spending a year at the Art Students League under the tutelage of painters Kenneth Hayes Miller and Vaclav Vytlacil and sculptor Edward McCartan, before returning to San Francisco to pursue his dual careers.  


     Originally intending to become a painter, Carlton soon discovered that his skills and artistic vision were better suited to the medium of sculpture.  Working primarily in dense exotic woods and stone, he began a productive career highlighted by awards and honors from the San Francisco Art Association and Oakland Museum; solo and group exhibitions at San Francisco’s Art Center Gallery and Amberg-Hirth Galleries, Oakland Museum, San Francisco Museum (now San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Architecture League of New York and the Whitney Museum of American Art; and major commissions including two monumental Polynesian figures and a pair of bas reliefs created for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40.  Carlton was a perennial favorite of art critic Alfred Frankenstein of the San Francisco Chronicle, who lauded Carlton’s "exquisite portraiture, his classic sensitivity, his sense of the rhythmic, the monumental, the decorative."*  


     Although it was created two years earlier, Carlton’s masterful Mother & Child is the three-dimensional counterpart to one of the cornerstone paintings of this collection, Harold Rabinovitz’s Eventide.  The sculpture presents two of the three figures appearing in Eventide, the mother and infant, rendered in the round with the same sense of strength and solidity that characterizes Rabinovitz’s corresponding subjects on canvas.** Both works employ the prevailing artistic vocabulary of the period: powerfully fashioned figures with ample hands and strong limbs. And like Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto (c. 1604-06, Sant’Agostino, Rome), both mothers appear barefoot and each securely grasps her naked infant in a determined effort to protect her child from harm.  The medium of sculpture, however, allows Carlton more freedom to liberate his subjects from time and place.  He enhances this timelessness by sculpting eyes and hair in a classical manner. Rabinovitz’s family, in contrast, is firmly rooted in the Depression era as indicated by its dated garments, the foreboding skies and the trappings of its meager existence. Yet Carlton’s unbowed, sturdily upright figures seem adequately girded for the times in which they were rendered, determined to thrive against any and all odds.


*Alfred Frankenstein, "An Art Budget," San Francisco Chronicle, June 8, 1941. Biographical material based on information provided to various sources by the sculptor's daughter, Carrie Carlton Helser.

**The roundness and solidity of the figures is reminiscent of the work of Kenneth Hayes Miller with whom Carlton studied at the Art Students League.


     It was probably sometime around 2004 when, on a visit to Los Angeles, we found time to visit the gallery of dealer Spencer Jon Helfen in Beverly Hills.  Spencer deals in mostly California art, focusing on the first half of the twentieth century, and offered a nice selection of work from the Thirties and Forties.  Finding nothing we coveted and could afford, we chatted briefly in his office before our departure.  In a corner of the office stood Brents Carlton’s Mother & Child.  My jaw dropped.  I loved the work, but the price was daunting.  I fumbled for ways to convince my wife to take the plunge, but the cost was too far beyond our comfort range.  For years thereafter, each time I visited Spencer’s website, I’d peek to see if the sculpture had continued to evade that dreaded “SOLD” designation.  


     Perhaps a decade after that first visit, as we were anticipating the exhibition of much of our collection at Northern Arizona University Art Museum the following spring, I gathered the courage to suggest to my wife that what our collection lacked was "a good piece of sculpture."  While she probably ignored the comment, I indulged myself with an email to Spencer.  He’d long ago taken Mother & Child home from the gallery, he explained, but in need of some capital, he offered to sell us the sculpture at a far more affordable price.  It had been well worth the wait.  Sometimes, persistence and patience are happily rewarded.

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