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In Elsie Palmer Payne’s unforgettable oil painting “Bus Stop” (1949), a Black woman waits for the bus on a postwar Los Angeles street. Several white passersby, including a couple and a woman holding the hand of her young daughter, glance at her warily.
The woman directs her gaze out of the frame towards you — the viewer — in a way that suggests both vulnerability and quiet despair. Her look also begs a question: “Can you see me and all I stand for?” Painted in tones of black, umber, and grey, her graceful figure, print blouse, and carefully coiffed hair help emphasize her regal singularity. The identity of the model who posed for Payne is unknown.
Like the canvas itself, which has been hidden away for years in a private collection, the painted woman is ready to be studied and re-evaluated. So is the artist who painted her with such great empathy and emotional force: Elsie Palmer Payne (1884–1971). When she painted “Bus Stop,” Payne was a recently widowed artist who had been married to a leading artist of this time. Her late husband, Edgar Payne (1883–1947), had been a muralist and painter of western landscapes whose artistic career had overshadowed Elsie’s.
When they first met in San Francisco in 1909, Elsie, who was classically trained, was a highly successful commercial artist. She was attracted to Edgar, but confided to friends that she found the colors in his paintings “dull,” according to their daughter and art historian Rena Neumann Coen’s book The Paynes, Elsie and Edgar: American Artists (1988). Edgar’s work was luminous and carefully observed, while her work tended to be bright, bold, and slightly stylized. She excelled in painting figures, which he generally minimized or avoided. Edgar was attracted to monumental subjects, while Elsie was attracted to familiar ones.
As detailed in Coen’s book, after Elsie and Edgar married in November of 1912, Elsie made a decision to do what wives at that time commonly did: to put her husband’s career first. “Come hell or high water,” she wrote to a friend, “I would never stand in the way of this very talented man’s art.” Elsie stayed true to that aim for the next two decades, painting in gouache (so that Edgar would be the only oil painter in the family) and serving as her husband’s assistant for numerous mural commissions. Elsie was also a devoted mother to their daughter Evelyn, born in 1914. The Paynes owned a home in Laguna for just three years, then sold it and traveled constantly, so that Edgar could paint on location in Europe and the American west. As a result, Elsie devoted a great deal of her time to packing and unpacking her husband’s painting gear and the family’s luggage.
During the 1920s Elsie began to frequently exhibit her own work, especially at the Laguna Beach Art Association, which the Paynes had co-founded, and at regional art associations and women’s clubs. As stated in Coen’s book, many of the works she showed had been created on their painting trips to Europe, where Elsie was careful to keep her subjects distinct from Edgar’s: “I painted the villages and the quaint houses and left the boats from Edgar.” When Elsie and Edgar exhibited together, newspapers tended to label her as Edgar’s wife, as in this 1931 announcement for a show in Ogden, Utah: “Elsie Palmer Payne, wife of Edgar A. Payne, painter of international reputation, will be the honored guest at a reception given in the hotel Bigelow tonight,” as printed in the May 3, 1931 issue of The Salt Lake City Tribune.
Although there was real devotion and tenderness in their relationship, Elsie increasingly found herself worn down by the demands of a husband who could be “domineering.” The Paynes eventually separated in 1932 after an argument involving their daughter. Following the separation, Elsie worked to make a new life for herself. A psychologist aided Elsie in sorting out her inner life and also introduced her to other artists as part of her therapy.
Elsie, who did not have a driver’s license, began to support herself by opening a small art school on Wilshire Blvd in Los Angeles, where she taught both children and adults. Like the woman portrayed in “Bus Stop,” Elsie got to her place of work by taking the bus. During the war years Elsie donated her time to the USO and American Legion, where she drew and gave away pastel portraits of young servicemen. Her works, including portraits, genre scenes, and floral still lifes, won awards in a number of shows. Her watercolor of a Breton woman carrying a tiny coffin on her head, “A Decent Burial” (1942) won first prize in the Women Artists of the West exhibition of 1942, according to Coen’s book.
Following the war, Elsie returned to Edgar’s side to care for him after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. On the final day of his life — April 8, 1947 — Edgar told Elsie that “he was sorry he had been so selfish and that everything had been for his art,” as Evelyn Payne Hatcher writes in the Plein Air magazine article “Elsie Palmer Payne.” With Edgar gone, Elsie devoted herself to two major concerns: promoting her late husband’s work and developing her own art.
Postwar American art was dominated by Abstract Expressionism, a field that was dominated by male artists working on a grand scale. In contrast, Elsie’s paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s were often carefully observed representational paintings that told stories about the lives of the people around her. Among them were scenes of daily life in Los Angeles neighborhoods, including Chinatown and Boyle Heights. Her ability to connect with the emotions of her subjects was becoming apparent, as in a striking 1942 portrait of a woman who lived in her apartment building: “My Troubled Neighbor” (1942).
Elsie also painted three genre portraits of African-Americans, one of which is “Bus Stop.” The same model who posed for “Bus Stop” also appears in an earlier painting, “The Blues in the Night,” (1941) now in the collection of the Oakland Museum of California Art. One anecdote suggests that the woman may have been Elsie’s cleaning woman. Her only oil portrait of a Black man, dated 1948, is titled “A Colored Gentleman.”
Elsie had little interest in abstract art, and it is worth noting that Edgar had been an active member of the “Society for Sanity in Art,” which had strongly rejected all forms of modernism. If Elsie’s genre portraits fall into any category, it would likely be Social Realism, a left-leaning approach that had been prominent in the 1930s. Considered out of fashion after the war, the Abstract Expressionist Arshile Gorky famously derided Social Realism as “Poor art for poor people.” During the 1950s and 1960s, Elsie continued to paint, exhibit, and speak at clubs and women’s groups. Elsie’s art, and her late husband’s art, fell out of favor as Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art took center stage. She died in 1971 after several years of declining health.
Then, when a group of Elsie’s finest paintings — including “Bus Stop” — were assembled by Coen for a 1988 retrospective, something remarkable happened. Orange County art collector Gerald Buck, who was assembling what many Californians for many years called “the best collection that nobody has seen,” bought the entire show. For this reason, “Bus Stop” has been largely out of public view for nearly three decades, but should be on view much more often in the near future. The painting recently appeared in Something Revealed: California Women Artists Emerge, 1860–1960 at the Pasadena Museum of History. Also, because the Buck Collection was donated in 2017 to UCI Irvine, “Bus Stop” will likely be on view in the future at the UCI IMCA (The UCI Institute and Museum for California Art).
Given the current surge of interest in art by and about African Americans, “Bus Stop” will hopefully be embraced as a rare and important painting that opens up meaningful discussions about California art and culture before the Civil Rights movement. If Elsie Payne were here to see the comments that Bus Stop has recently generated on Instagram, including “What a beautiful central character with such poise and tenderness,” she would hopefully feel gratified. Like so many women of her generation, she let her own career and development wait, but when her turn arrived she blossomed. Years of serving others had deepened Elsie’s attention to the lives of the people around her in a profound way.