Three Generations of Asturian-American Painters


About Emilio Fernández Alvarez (1894 - 1964)

The Childhood and Education of an Artist

Emilio grew up in Avilés, a port city in Asturias. Asturias is a province of Spain on the north coast between Galicia and Cantabria. The family lived in Sabugo, an old mariners' neighborhood of Avilés. Their home was on the Calle Carreño Miranda, a street named after a 17th century artist from Avilés who was a painter for the Spanish court of King Carlos II.

Arcaded buildings of the old neighborhoods of Avilés, Asturias

Soportales (arcaded walkways) in an older
section of the city of
Asturias, 1984

Emilio's father's family were seafarers. His father, José Fernández González, was a sailor and his paternal grandfather father, Anselmo Fernández, was the port master of Avilés.

There may have been a tradition of artistic careers in the family of Emilio's mother, Genera Alvarez Vuilla. Emilio's maternal grandfather, Adriano Alvarez, was a painter, as was Adriano, one of Emilio's younger brothers. Another brother, Anselmo, was a sculptor. When he was only nine years old, Emilio was already working on a scaffold, helping paint murals on the ceiling of a church in Avilés (or possibly the cathedral in Oviedo). One family story says that Emilio was working with an uncle, but he may have been helping his grandfather.

In Avilés Emilio was a member of la Sociedad de Albarñiles y Pintores de El Avance, Sociedad de Obreros del Ramo de Construcción, a union for painters and bricklayers.

Courtship, Marriage, and Emigration

As a young man, Emilio walked up to San Cristóbal hill from the city of Avilés to a dance hall and bar run by José Antonio Menéndez Alvarez in La Sablera, or perhaps San Cristóbal de Entreviñas . This was a farming community on a hill to the northwest of the city. We know from a painting that José Antonio played the gaita (Asturian bagpipes), so he may have provided the dance music himself. It was here that Emilio met his future bride, Aurora, one of José Antonio's daughters.

José Antonio Menéndez Alvarez, gaitero

José Antonio Menéndez Alvarez

Father of Aurora Menéndez Conde
& Emilio's father-in-law

He is holding an Asturian gaita
(bagpipe). His clothing
illustrates the traditional Asturian
montera picona (cap), vest, &
faja (the sash or belt at his waist).
San Cristóbal, Avilés, Asturias
date unknown, 1920s?

The day Emilio and Aurora Menéndez Conde got married, January 7, 1914, they also boarded a ship for Havana, Cuba. Her father, José Antonio, refused to go to the wedding or see them off at the Asturian port of Gijón, because he didn't want his daughter to leave. Aurora's mother, Maria Conde Alonso, was more understanding.

Maria Conde, mother of Aurora, Aviles, Asturias

Maria Conde Alonso

Mother of Aurora
& Emilio's mother-in-law

Her dark dress illustrates one
typical style for Asturian women's clothing.
San Cristóbal, Avilés, Asturias
date unknown, 1920s?

Emilio, like many of his era, emigrated to avoid the Spanish military draft. After three years in Havana, on April 24, 1917, Emilio, Aurora, and their two young daughters, Maria Louisa and Concepción, left aboard The Mexico, bound for the United States. Five days later they arrived at Ellis Island.

Aurora Menéndez Conde & Emilio Fernández Alvarez with Maria Louisa, Havana, Cuba, c 1916

Aurora Menéndez Conde &
Emilio Fernández Alvarez
with daughter Maria Louisa
Havana, Cuba, c 1916

Although they eventually settled in Anmoore (also known as Grasselli), they may have moved first to Spelter (also known as Zeising). Harrison County, West Virginia already had sizable Asturian immigrant community living in and around the towns of Anmoore, Spelter, and North View. Many of these Asturians had been recruited to work in the zinc smelting industry because they held similar jobs in Asturias. There were zinc factories in many locations in the United States, including at least four in West Virginia: first in Anmoore and later in Spelter, North View, and Moundsville.

Asturian emigration was a common phenomena in this era. Emilio had three brothers in the new world, César, Anselmo, and Adriano. Only Emilio and César stayed for the rest of their lives. Anselmo and Adriano returned to Asturias before the Spanish Civil War. Both were killed in the war. Two of Aurora's brothers also moved to Cuba, where they ran a store. They later returned to Asturias as "Indianos," people who moved for a few years to the New World to earn a better income and then returned to Spain with their new "wealth." Aurora's sister, Lola (Manuela), lived close by in Anmoore for a few years, but returned to Asturias to be closer to the rest of her family.

Lola Menéndez Conde & Juaco Martinez with son José Antonio

José Antonio was one of Emilio's
favorite nephews

Lola Menéndez Conde (sister of
Aurora) & her husband Juaco
Martínez (a sailor) with their
first son José Antonio. They
lived in Anmoore, West Virginia
a few years before returning to Avilés in 1920.
Clarksburg, WV, 1916

A Deaf Lover of Languages and Books

His daughter, Dora said "in the first bad flu epidemic of 1918 Pop got the flu and came down with pneumonia. He must have been about 22 years old. He was in the old Catholic hospital (St. Mary's) in Clarksburg, and they worked hard to save him. A lot of people died then. That's when he lost his hearing, I think."

"He would go to NY to get a new hearing aid every year. He'd pack a suitcase full of books and head off; he never packed any clothes. He'd buy clothes in NY and then when he was ready to return to WV he'd ship his new clothes home. I think he just loved to read that much. He kept his books in a cabinet he kept locked, probably so we kids couldn't read his books. Many of them were falling apart, he had read them so much. There were books on anatomy, foreign languages, art. If he wasn't working, he was reading. I remember often seeing him with a book in his hand."

"Pop learned to speak about seven languages, partly from studying them by reading books. He spoke Spanish, Hungarian, Polish, Italian, and Yiddish. He learned them so he could speak with his customers. He only painted [as an interior decorator] for those who had the money to pay him, and he must have figured it made sense to be able to communicate with them!"

El Pintor

Among the Spanish community in West Virginia, Emilio was known as "El Pintor." His mother, Genera Alvarez Vuilla, wrote letters to him addressed to "Emilio Fernández, 'Pintor', Box 126, Anmoore, W.Va." He is also written about as "El Pintor" in Gavin Gonzalez' memoir about the Asturian-American immigrant experience, Pinnick Kinnick Hill. (Gonzalez changed the names of the people; Emilio is written about as "Augustin Pelaez.")

Emilio was best known as a painter of religious works for churches in New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Avilés (Asturias, Spain). His business card for Bayonne said "Emil Fernandez, Painter, Artistical Decorating, Churches and Theaters, Signs Painted." Especially in WV, though, much of his income came from interior decoration and painting for the businesses and well-to-do of Clarksburg and Bridgeport.

Art Zoller Wagner and Honnie Wagner restoring a painting by Emilio Fernández, Christ Knocking at Heart's Door, 1993

Art Zoller Wagner &
Honnie Wagner restoring
a painting by Emilio
Fernández, "Christ
Knocking at Heart's
Door," Trinity United
Methodist Church,
Brushy Fork,
West Virginia, 1993

His son, Chris Fernandez, enjoyed retelling this story: "Once I was helping him on a job. I used to go along to hold one end of the chalk-line. Sometimes he'd even let me snap it, but not often. Pop was painting a baptismal scene. He did a lot of them. One or two men came in the back and watched briefly while he was painting. I overheard one say that (somebody) was going to be upset when he saw that Jesus was being sprinkled by John the Baptist rather than immersed. When they left I told Pop, 'Wrong method, Pop.' He had it changed when they returned with the other man in 45 minutes. I heard the new man say, 'That looks okay to me, same method we use!' Probably made the first guys feel silly! Pop just kept working, didn't pay attention to them."

As Chris' story illustrates, Emilio painted very quickly and suggestively, rather than bothering with painstaking detail. This is clearly the case with the image below, a simple Venetian night scene. This may have been a study Emilio painted in preparation for a dramatic set. We know that he often painted sets for the Bridgeport High School plays. The date and the Bayonne frame shop label on the back of the frame suggest that he may have painted set backgrounds while living in Bayonne, NJ, too.

Venetian Night Scene, oil painting on paper by Emilio Fernández, 1929?

Venetian Night Scene
Emilio Fernández Alvarez
oil on paper, 1929?

A Pre-Modernist Artist

Emilio did not think about art in the way his more famous contemporaries (consider, for example, John Stewart Curry, Paul Delvaux, Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, or Paul Klee--all of whom were also born in 1897). Perhaps because of his childhood experience in traditional religious art or because his art was supporting a large family, Emilio did not seem concerned about being "original." Instead, his practices were much closer to those of pre-modern artists who created for the church: he repeated many of the same images, and he freely borrowed imagery from other artists. He collected and reinterpreted images of both lowbrow and highbrow art.

For example, Emilio reinterpreted the well-known 1877 painting of "Doña Juana la Loca" by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz (1848-1921). Pradilla's original is now located in El Prado, Madrid, Spain. Given the extremely similar composition and details, Emilio undoubtedly had a black and white print of it; only the colors are markedly different. The colors in the original present a much more somber mood than Emilio's version.

Doña Juana la Loca, oil painting on canvas by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz, 1877, El Prado

Francisco Pradilla Ortiz
Doña Juana la Loca
oil on canvas
1877, El Prado

Emilio's original source

Doña Juana la Loca, oil painting on canvas, Emilio Fernández, 1939?

Emilio Fernández
Doña Juana la Loca
oil on canvas

Emilio's copy &

According to Emilio's son, Chris, "Pop painted eight to ten paintings of a doctor seated in a chair, his chin on his hands, looking at a sick child. He'd change the heads to look like a doctor he wanted to give the painting to. He sold a few of them, one to a mortuary in Bayonne, NJ, but most he gave away."

Chris recalled that "Sunday mornings [Emilio would] get up early and go painting in the country. We kids could usually tell where he'd been by just looking at the 3 or 4 sketches or paintings he'd bring home."

Emilio did experiment with Impressionism, particularly with his landscapes, but much of his work is more traditional. The closest he came to participating in an art movement of his contemporaries was when he created paintings of the town of Anmoore, WV, and port in Bayonne, NJ. These paintings could easily have been works by the Ash Can School, which was begun by Robert Henri around the turn of the Twentieth Century. Many of the Ash Can School painters were originally illustrators; in a sense Emilio's training was as a religious art illustrator. Like Emilio, they tended to paint quickly, leaving obvious brushstrokes. Their subject matter was urban scenes of the poor and disenfranchised, similar to Emilio's drab small town and port scenes.

Choosing Populism Over Fame

Emilio wasn't concerned about achieving fame with his art, but he did share his art with the community in creative ways. Concha said that her father painted a realistic scene with flowers on the wall of the house at the front porch. People would walk or drive by to enjoy the illusion.

Similarly, Chris recalled how his father "would put a light over a painting that had something to do with the season, like a scene of the crucifixion, so it could be seen from outside through the front window. Pop just loved painting. He didn't want to be bothered with showing or selling his works. He gave most of them away. Once some women in Clarksburg tried to arrange a show of his works, but he didn't want to get involved. I tried to convince him to work with the women in the art club, but he thought they just wanted to learn his painting secrets from him. He wouldn't have anything to do with them, didn't want to share his knowledge."

The Last Supper, oil painting on canvas by Emilio Fernández

The Last Supper
Emilio Fernández Alvarez
oil on canvas

One of the religious
paintings Emilio displayed
in his home.

After his children left home, he may have changed his mind, because at least one of his paintings still has a tag on the back, indicating that he exhibited it with the Clarksburg group.

His daughter, Concha, also remembered that townspeople would knock on the door and ask to see the paintings El Pintor had hanging in his house. Once some nuns from Anmoore's Catholic church had heard about the paintings, so they visited and asked to see them. Emilio's wife, Aurora, showed them around. The nuns asked why one of the paintings was covered by a cloth. Aurora told them they could raise the cloth and see for themselves. Reportedly, Emilio enjoyed hearing about the nuns' surprise when they uncovered a nude.

Moving to Bayonne to Find Work

Emilio moved to Bayonne, New Jersey, on many occasions because of the better opportunities for work there. His oldest child, Maria Louisa, remembered that he went there many winters to find work. A letter from Maria Louisa, written after she and Concha had moved to New Jersey, says that they had lined up some painting jobs for their father.

Emilio painted with a group called "The Three Stars"

Emilio (seated at easel)
worked with several other
men in a decorating business
called "The Three Stars" in
Bayonne, NJ. This photo may
show "Kamesky" (front) &
the two policemen (standing).

The longest stay in Bayonne was 1929(?)-31(?), when the entire family moved there. The children still remember Bayonne fondly, having enjoyed the vibrant Spanish community and the city parks. Emilio continued his painting and decorating work there. Maria Louisa remembered that he worked with a man named "Kamesky." Concha remembers that her dad created a business, "The Three Stars," with two police officers. Aurora took care of their books and office work. His business card indicates that he also worked on his own decorating churches and theaters, and painting signs.

The family left Bayonne for Anmoore because a friend in Anmoore warned them that their house, which had been rented to another family, was being used by bootleggers to store moonshine. Three of the children later returned to New Jersey permanently.

Emilio's business card for Bayonne, NJ

Emilio's business card for Bayonne, NJ

Later Life

His daughter, Dora remembered that "Pop worked long hours. He'd get up at 4 or 5 am at daylight, work, come home for lunch, then go back to work until midnight some days. There were a few slow periods, but not many, and he worked hard most of his life. He stopped working only when his heart made stopping necessary. He died of congestive heart failure, and I wonder if that wasn't caused by overexertion as a young man when he played soccer." He and two of his brothers were known in the Spanish community as exceptional soccer players.

Dora also recalled that "after we had all left home, Pop had a car wreck in which he injured his right arm. I remember seeing him hold his right arm with his left arm so he could paint. He went to physical therapy for years to try to regain use of that arm, but it didn't seem to help."

Emilio Fernández on the porch of his  home shortly before moving to California, 1962

Emilio Fernández
standing on the porch
of his home in Anmoore,
West Virginia before
retiring to California.
October 21, 1962

In these later years he often visited his children, especially those living near New York City. He loved visiting the museums and taking long walks in the city. Emilio continued living in Anmoore until he could no longer work. When he then left to live with his sons in California, many of his paintings disappeared from his home and are still missing.

Next    >>    View paintings by Emilio Fernández Alvarez



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