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 Jean Dayton-West  (1894 - 1990)

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Lived/Active: Virginia/California      Known for: portrait

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
For the past three years, Jean Dayton West has lived at the Canterbury, a retirement facility in Ranch Palos Verdes. But at 92, the award-winning portrait artist says she has never worked harder. It's evident from the portraits that fill West's portfolios and pictures in progress at her bright studio, a converted bedroom in her apartment, that her painting career is in full swing. "Painting is everything to me," said West, a refined woman with clear blue eyes. "While I have to rely on my cane and wheelchair and don't get around as much as I used to, put a paintbrush in my hand and the world is at my finger tips. My calendar is so full that I barely finish one portrait and have to start on another almost immediately."

Over the years, West has painted landscapes and still-lifes, but she says her artistic affinity is for people with "faces that can tell all sorts of fascinating stories." These days, most of the portraitist's clients are Peninsula residents, many of whom are long-time friends she painted in the studio of her Palos Verdes Estates home where she lived for 32 years with her late husband, Dr. Leonard West. Others are referrals who admire the artist's work in her favorite media- oils and pastels. Combining her steady hand and color sensitivity, West usually takes two or three sittings to complete a portrait. "The first meeting is almost always the most revealing," she said. "Within minutes of chatting with a person face to face, I form my first mental impressions of him. Those first notions are usually the ones which, really count in creating a portrait that will fulfill my number one goal immortalizing a person on canvas. It may be something about the eyes, a gesture or simply a feeling I can't shake after our discussion."

West said children are her favorite subjects because "there's a freshness about them. Children, unlike adults, don't try to look a certain way," she explained. "They are just the way they are and appear, for the most part, completely relaxed." Chuckling as she studied a photograph of her oil portrait of a dark haired girl, West recalled sketching the youngster who kept her right index finger extended while posing in an ornate chair. "She said she always liked to hold her finger like that, so that's how I painted her. Adults are more self-conscious," West said, " and while I always aim to depict everyone's best side, many adults want to be painted with fewer wrinkles, bigger eyes, or in other ways that make them more attractive than they really are."

After completing pencil or charcoal sketches, she prepares her walnut easel and palette, both graduation gifts from her instructors at the University of Iowa in 1916. In the same way she captures a certain look in her clients, West adapts her style to sharpen or soften the images. When doing an oil painting of Rolling Hills resident Robert Foulk, an actor best known for his role on the "Lassie" TV series, West said she chose "a rough vertical-line technique," which gave the painting an almost unfinished look. "drawing on his acting ability, Foulk was a natural to paint, West said. "The rough quality of the work combined with Foulk's calm, yet pensive expression, helps to show the power of his character."

Curved softer lines, she said, are often called for when painting children and most women. Another distinguishing technique is the detailing of the subject's head and hands in pastels or oils while outlining the rest of the undefined body form in a single color. For West, mouths ("because they are always moving") are the most difficult part of a portrait, and noses almost always take on pink tones. "Some people ask me why my (client's) noses are always pink," she said. "I tell them the natural formation of the nose makes them appear that way to me. It's one of those personal observations I've picked up along the way."

As a child growing up in Iowa City, Iowa, West often accompanied her father, an attorney, who was also a watercolorist, on painting outings. She said the talent that surfaced in her early drawings prompted her to take painting classes in high school, and earn a bachelor's degree in art in college. West and her husband, an Air force surgeon, married in 1918 and moved to New Brunswick, Canada, where he completed a medical internship. Later, the couple moved to Des Moines, Iowa, and West learned that she had polio. The disease, however, didn't stop her from winning gold medals for her paintings at the Iowa State Fair and women's art group competitions, or temporarily leaving her three young daughters to take a six week art course in New York City.

While her husband was stationed in China during WWII, West returned to her "alma-mater", where she shared an apartment with her daughter and got a master's degree in contemporary art. Accompanying the doctor on a tour of duty in Germany, West visited all the major museums, including her favorite, the Prado Museum in Madrid. "It was during that trip I realized I was destined to be a portraitist," she said. "Instead of taking pictures with a camera, I would do pen and ink drawings of the places we visited so I would remember my own impressions. But I found myself searching for people to draw." Another assignment took the couple to Langley, Virginia, where West said military wives brought themselves and their children to her for portraits. One mother asked West to paint her daughter in her first slip, so the painter positioned the teen on a bed and asked her to brush her hair while gazing into a hand-held mirror. The portrait, West said, is one of her best.

Settling in Palos Verdes, the portraitist claimed one room of the couple's small home for a studio. She said she "painted the whole neighborhood" and borrowed her portraits for shows in Los Angeles, Laguna Beach and art colonies up and down the coast. When her husband, who, for many years was the director of Harbor General Hospital, died in 1964, she remained living in their home, painting and participating in the Palos Verdes Woman's Club and other civic organizations.

Today, West continues to be active in the Paletteers and Rembrandt Crew art groups and looks back with pride at her two years as president of the Palos Verdes Community Art Association and an award she received from the Women Painters of the West.

"Painter's Passion is Portraits" by Mari Galloway Friday, July 25, 1986, Los Angeles Times
Steven Todd Miller

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