The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Summer 1994, Volume 40, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor
Margaret (Margot) King Rocle (ROW-k’l)
born: Watkins Glen, New York, March 6, 1893
died: Poway, California, November 9, 1981
Margot Rocle entered this world as Margaret King, the child of Dr. James King, a physician and heart specialist, and May Warner, daughter of Union general and U.S. senator from Alabama, Willard Warner. As a young woman, she traveled with her parents to exotic places such as Egypt and North Africa.
After her initial schooling, Rocle divided her time between studying art and dance. She took her first instruction in art at the Pennsylvania Academy during the school year of 1910-11. Her instructors at that time would have been Thomas Anshutz, Hugh Breckenridge, and Daniel Garber. Later in New York, while taking dance lessons, she studied painting at night in the school of William Merritt Chase, and at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art under Robert Henri, Sloane Bredin, Howard Giles, and Irving Wiles. Her career, however, started as a barefoot Greek dancer in the tradition of Isadora Duncan. Once when her class was dancing at the Plaza Hotel in New York, she was spotted by a professional who asked her to be a solo dancer in the Keith circuit of Vaudeville. She performed from Philadelphia to Chicago, and was photographed by such famous photographers as Arnold Genthe and Edward Steichen.
After only five months on the stage, World War I broke out. Rocle’s father had died so she and her mother enlisted as war nurses. They served at Dr. Fitch’s hospital at St. Valery in Normandy. Rocle soon realized that she was not suited to nursing and switched to canteen work. She served for three years in France. While quartered at a hotel in Paris, she met Marius Romain Rocle, who had a room at the same hotel. They soon fell in love and were married on October 1, 1918, just a few weeks before the signing of the armistice. Sometime after their marriage she dropped the name Margaret and began using Margot, although she still occasionally exhibited as Margaret King Rocle.
After the war the Rocles returned to the U.S. Their first child, James, was born in Tennessee in 1919. The growing Rocle clan returned to France where Marius became the representative of a U.S. machinery firm. They soon discovered that things had changed considerably after the war, and necessities were scarce and expensive. This did not seem like a good environment in which to raise a baby. They returned to New York where their second son Marius Antoine (Tony) was born on June 10, 1921.
In 1922 the Rocles moved to California, living briefly in Los Angeles and Coronado before purchasing a lemon ranch in Chula Vista. Marius became a “gentleman rancher,” eventually turning the operation over to an agricultural company so all he had to do was irrigate the trees. Margot loved the outdoors. For several years she won all the womens’ honors at the Chula Vista golf course which abutted their property. The lemon ranch gave them the financial freedom to pursue other interests.
Margot began to return her attention to art in the late 1920s. She had been instructing her husband in art and both Rocles had pieces accepted for the Exhibition of Southern California Art in 1928, their San Diego debut. Sadly, tragedy also struck that year when their eldest son James died of a mastoid infection on July 3.
In April and May of 1929, the Rocles had a joint exhibition at the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery. Margot included Aviator (back cover) in this show. It recreates Marius Rocle’s days as a World War I flying ace. Marius enlisted with the French Foreign Legion in September 1914 and remained with them until June 1916, receiving the Croix de Guerre. He transferred to aviation and was always the only American member of his unit. In February 1918 he received a commission as Second Lieutenant, and stayed with the corps until the signing of the Armistice. Margot depicted her husband as the dashing young aviator in uniform and cap standing in front of his airplane. It is a very striking image. In the San Diego Union(May 5, 1929) Reginald Poland wrote “It is clearly the most fascinating and effective picture in the show. Its carefully planned silhouettes, violet, pearl and green tones, and its relationship of lights and darks stamp it as an exceptionally fine picture.”
In June 1929, the Rocles departed for an extended stay in Europe. They were gone for about a year, and when they returned Margot exhibited six of her European watercolors at the annual exhibition of the San Diego Art Guild in November 1930. This trip also provided the inspiration for several fine paintings including Market Day at Concarneau, Marie, and the award winning Peasants Threshing. Market Day at Concarneau is a fascinating composition of bold dark shapes contrasted with the white headdresses of the women. It brings to mind the Brittany paintings of Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard. In Marie, Rocle was obviously intrigued by the indigenous costume, with its interesting lace headdress and shawl. In an unidentified clipping in the Rocle scrapbook, Katharine Morrison Kahle (McClinton) wrote “A restrained handling of grays and pale yellows, together, with black, is particularly notable in this picture.”
Peasants Threshing is a significant departure from Rocle’s previous work. The figures and cattle have been almost completely abstracted. The composition is strong and the eye is allowed to meander through the figures at their various occupations. Initially shown at the Exhibition of Southern California Art, it won first Honorable Mention. It received Second Prize at the Santa Cruz Art Association in 1932.
In 1932, the Rocles added two more members to their family. In the fall of 1931, Margot took a trip to Mexico with her friend Katharine Kahle. She began to get ill, but attributed it to altitude sickness. When she returned home, Margot discovered that she was pregnant with twins. Two daughters, Judy and Peggy, were born in San Diego on April 14, 1932.
Margot Rocle’s painting technique was unusual. In an article in the San Diego Sun (undated, Rocle scrapbook), Katharine Kahle wrote “I accompanied her on a trip to Mexico several years ago, and was surprised to find that she took no paints or sketching materials. She made a few pencil notes, and months after we returned, she did several in watercolors, but it was more than a year before she attempted any large Mexican canvasses. This method gives her pictures a lasting quality.”
One aspect of Rocle’s painting that always received favorable comment was her use of color. In the San Diego Union (February 7, 1931), Reginald Poland noted “She has an understanding of color and a clean, clear way of using it.” Katharine Kahle wrote in the San Diego Sun (February 7, 1931), “Her color combinations are unusual and daring, but in each instance she has chosen the characteristic color and used it with real feeling.” When the Rocles exhibited together at the Galerie Beaux Arts in San Francisco, Ada Hanifin writing in the Examiner (January 1, 1933) claimed, “She has a God-given sense of color.”
In January 1933, Marius and Margot Rocle had a joint exhibition at the Galerie Beaux Arts in San Francisco. A reviewer in the San Francisco Wasp (January 14, 1933) discussing Peasants Threshing wrote, “The latter canvas is superb painting, a positive pasticcio of golds and blues and greys, the peasants woven into the rich skein of a bravely earthlike pattern.” The Christian Science Monitor (January 21, 1933) wrote,
Mrs. Rocle’s work evidences a decorative use of her palette, which is especially noticeable in her painting, ‘Concarneau Market,’ which depicts a group of peasant women, in their black frocks topped by glistening white coiffes, amid stands of brilliant orange carrots and other equally colorful vegetables and fruits.
Finding no outlet for their progressive work, a group of local artists banded together in 1932 to form the San Diego Moderns. The members were Dorr Bothwell, Everett Jackson, Donal Hord, Ivan Messenger, Marius and Margot Rocle, Katharine Kahle, Ruth Ortlieb, Ruth Townsend Whitaker, and Foster Jewell. They had their first exhibition at the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery in February 1933. Margot Rocle exhibited Manuela. The group seems not to have been long lived, probably because of the Depression.
In 1933, Rocle completed one of her largest and most important paintings. Discussing Celery, an unidentified reviewer (Rocle scrapbook) stated that Rocle “…had cleverly painted an epic of the familiar fields about her home in a modernistic treatment of celery pickers.” The composition is anchored by the two figures in the foreground and then follows the row of celery up through the center of the painting. The perspective of the receding rows creates a feeling of great depth. Celery won Honorable Mention at the Exhibition of Southern California Art in the spring of 1933. Rocle later donated it to the Public Works of Art Project of the Civil Works Administration (November 1933 to June 1934), an early precursor of the W.P.A.
Despite having two young daughters to raise, Rocle maintained a remarkable exhibition record between 1932 and 1934. She sent paintings to Oakland, Santa Barbara, Pasadena, Santa Cruz, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Apparently though, she was becoming frustrated with her art. Ivan Messenger writing for the San Diego Sun (May 19, 1934) reported,
Margot Rocle says she is going to give up painting for golf and horseback riding. We know that her painting is too good to be given up, but we appreciate the fact that a good smack with the driver and a cantering jaunt on a caballo are splendid and refreshing ways of getting our minds off the mystery of art juries.
In January 1934, the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery had a loan exhibition of modern paintings from local collections. The Rocles lent two pieces to this exhibition. One by Spanish artist Ramón de Zaubiaure and another by French artist Jean Charlot. According to the Rocle daughters, their parents art collection included work by French artist Suzanne Valadon, Mexican artists Diego Rivera and José Clemento Orozco, and Americans Otto Schneider, Elliot Torrey and Emil Ganso.
The Rocles socialized in a close circle of friends that included Everett and Eileen Jackson, Richard and Katharine Kahle, and Ivan and Evelyn Messenger. In 1935, Kahle married Harold Leigh McClinton, an official of the Ford Company who was in charge of their exhibit at the 1935 exposition. After the fair, McClinton and her husband moved to New York where she became a popular writer of books and articles about antiques, interior design, and art. With her departure, Rocle lost one of her closest friends. McClinton continued to visit friends in San Diego, but she never cared much for Marius (letter to the author, undated, June 1992) so she didn’t visit Margot until after Marius’ death in 1967. By this time, Margot had become a collector of antiques and Katharine wrote an article about her milk glass collection.
In addition to her portraits and depictions of everyday life, Rocle could also create a painting of striking social commentary. At the Progressive Painters of Southern California exhibition at the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery, Rocle included Gangster’s Moll, one of her most unforgettable images. It received high praise. In the October 7, 1934, San Diego Union, Reginald Poland wrote, “Although the scene makes us shudder, Margot Rocle’s ‘Gangster’s Moll’ is a beautiful piece of painting: in composition, in its correlation of grays, in its decorative and emotionally used color, and in the general mood of the theme.” Arthur Millier in the Los Angeles Times (November 25, 1934) felt that it was “painted with the sharp drama of a short-short story in Liberty.” In the San Diego Sun (October 13, 1934), Katharine Kahle wrote, “Margaret King Rocle in ‘Gangster’s Moll’ produces a strong bit of painting and a well organized picture. Composition, color and tone all combine to work on the theme and mood of violent despair.”
Rocle continued to exhibit in the mid-1930s. Her Dark Madonna was included in the official art exhibition for the 1935 exposition. She also began to experiment with lithography. In December 1937 and January 1938 the Spanish Village hosted a joint exhibition of paintings by Everett Jackson, and Marius and Margot Rocle. Marg Loring in the San Diego Sun (December 26, 1937) called the artists “San Diego’s three foremost moderns.” In the San Diego Union (January 9, 1938), Sherman Trease, president of the Spanish Village, wrote of the Rocles,
These two fine artists are practically recluses, and usually indifferent to showing their work here. They paint wholly for the love of it, and having received a much more appreciative reception elsewhere than in San Diego, usually do not bother to send anything to local exhibitions.
One of the paintings in the Spanish Village show is also one of Rocle’s most charming works. In Pop-Up Book, the artist depicts her five-year-old daughters, Peggy (on the left) and Judy, reading Pinocchio. The novelty of painting twins in identical outfits with braided hair pieces and a background of fairytale characters helps create an image that is both delightful and slightly mysterious.
The Rocle’s were devastated by a second tragedy in November 1938. Their seventeen-year-old son Tony, who had been attending Stanford University, returned home to spend Thanksgiving with his family. On the following Sunday (November 27, 1938), his body was found in a field near Evergreen and Lytton on Point Loma, but it was not identified until the next day. Apparently despondent over ill health, Tony died from a self-inflicted head wound (San Diego Union November 29, 1938). The Rocles became so distraught over their son’s suicide that Everett and Eileen Jackson, worried about what they might do, took the Rocles to their house to stay for a few days. Perhaps to help ease her pain, Margot painted the touching double portrait My Husband and My Son. While Marius stares out directly at the viewer, a questioning look on his face, the handsome young Tony is expressionless as he gazes off to the left. If one did not know the story behind the painting it would be easy to assume that it was just a father and son portrait. Margot included it in the 1938 Exhibition of Southern California Art and the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939, but did not show it again. According to the Rocle sisters, their parents never discussed Tony’s death.
In September 1939, Rocle was invited to be one of Five Women Painters at the Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery, Santa Barbara Public Library. The other four women were Carolyn Bradley, Eunice MacLennon, Ruth Peabody, and Evelyn Richmond. This was quite an honor for Rocle and indicates that her talent was recognized far outside San Diego. She showed ten paintings including Squabs in the Nest, Callas, and Red Iris. Squabs in the Nest is very unusual in Rocle’s work. Known as a colorist, this painting is almost completely without color. In fact, it is very reminiscent of the paintings that Everett Jackson was producing at this time which made practically no use of color.
Also in September 1939, the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery held an exhibition of portraits which included Rocles strange but compelling portrait of Eileen Jackson. Hazel Braun thought it captured the sitter’s “…serious mood as Margot Rocle saw her.” Julia G. Andrews wrote,
In an exhibition of paintings which presents as wide a range of time and style as is the case here, there should be satisfaction for many tastes, whether the preference be for realism…or for fantasy as we see it in Margot Rocle’s haunting portrait of Mrs. Everett Jackson, who seems to have stepped out of the story world of some medieval Book of Hours.
Rocle probably painted the portrait as a thank you to the Jacksons for all their help after Tony’s death. About this same time, Everett Jackson painted a portrait of Marius Rocle which Jackson always considered to be his finest portrait.
In 1941, the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery invited Rocle to have a solo exhibition. She selected twelve paintings including Eileen, The Firebrand (portrait of Marius Rocle), Callas, Red Iris, Old Ranch House, and Squabs in the Nest. Oddly enough, after thirteen years of actively exhibiting all over the country, Margot Rocle never exhibited again. Perhaps she was frustrated by what she felt was lack of recognition for her work.
About 1950, the Rocles purchased a ranch in Ramona, eventually building a house there. Moving to Ramona in 1955, they pursued their interest in raising saddlebred and Arabian horses until Marius’ death in 1967. Margot filled their house with antiques.
After Margot Rocle died in November 1981, Judy and Peggy discovered that all of their parent’s artwork was missing. It is known that sometime before her death, Rocle shipped her antique furniture and other items to relatives in Newark, Ohio, but attempts to locate the paintings there have not been successful. Margot joined her husband and two sons in the King family mausoleum at the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Newark, Ohio. It can only be hoped that some day the missing Rocle paintings will turn up so that the true importance of these two fine artists will be revealed.
1931 – Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego; First Honorable Mention for “Peasants Threshing”
1932 – Santa Cruz Art Association; 2nd Prize for “Peasants Threshing”
1933 – Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego; Honorable Mention for “Celery”
1939 – San Diego Art Guild Annual; Leisser-Farnham Prize for “Anna in the Mirror”
1928 – Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego; Prospector Mac (oil); The New Gun (non oil)
1929 – Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego; Stella (painting)
1929 – Marius and Margot joint exhibition, San Diego Fine Arts Gallery
– Prospector Mac
– Portrait of a Young Girl
1930 – San Diego Art Guild Annual; Old Mentone (non-oil); Women Washing, Vannes (non-oil); Fishing Boats, Ile-aux-Moines (non-oil); Rue de la Colle, Bastia (non-oil); Perigord Country-side (non-oil); Spring in Tuscany (non-oil)
1931 – Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego; Peasants Threshing (oil); Marie (oil)
1931 – San Diego Art Guild Annual; Girl of Tepozotlan (oil); New York Hills (non-oil); Sleeping Woman (sculpture)
1931 – Painters and Sculptors of Southern California, Los Angeles; The Aviator (oil)
1931 – Exhibition of American Art, Cincinnati; Old Mentone (painting)
1931 – Exhibition of Works by Western Artists, Oakland; Flower Market; Young Girl of Ile-aux-Moines; Old Mentone; Moonlight, Ile-aux-Moines; Street in Old Mentone
1932 – San Diego Art Guild Annual; Siesta (oil); Paris in the Rain (non-oil); The Flower Market (non-oil)
1932 – Painters and Sculptors of Southern California, Los Angeles; Peasants Threshing (oil)
1932 – Exhibition of Works by Western Artists, Oakland; Peasants Threshing
1932 – Works by San Diego Artists, Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery, Santa Barbara; Peasants Threshing (oil); Marie (oil)
1932 – Exhibition by California Artists, Pasadena; Notre Dame de Paris
1932 – Santa Cruz Art Association; Peasants Threshing (oil)
1932 – Exhibition by Young Painters, College Art Association, Ferargil Galleries, New York; Dark Madonna (oil)
1932 – Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Annual, Philadelphia; Marie (oil)
1932 – San Diego Moderns, Fine Arts Gallery; Manuela
1933 – Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego; Celery (oil)
1933 – San Diego Art Guild Annual; Beatrice (oil)
1933 – Progressive Painters of Southern California, San Diego; Serape Makers
1933 – San Diego Moderns; Portrait of Katharine Morrison Kahle
1933 – Progressive Painters of Southern California, San Francisco; Serape Makers
1933 – Exhibition of Paintings by Marius Rocle and Margaret King Rocle, Galarie Beaux Arts., San Francisco
– Peasants Threshing
– Corte Morning
– Market Day at Concarneau
1933 – Painters and Sculptors of Southern California, Los Angeles; Marie
1934 – Progressive Painters of Southern California, San Diego; Gangster’s Moll
1934 – Modern Lithograph Exhibition, San Diego; Homesteader’s Family
1934 – Progressive Painters of Southern California, Los Angeles; Peasants Threshing; Serape Makers; Home Brew; The Sweetwater Woman’s Club of Bonita
1934 – International Print Makers Exhibition, Los Angeles; Siesta (lithograph)
1935 – California-Pacific International Exposition, San Diego; Dark Madonna (oil)
1935 – Painters and Sculptors of Southern California, Los Angeles; Serape Makers
1935 – Fifth International Exhibition, Chicago; lithograph
1935 – San Francisco Art Association Graphic Arts Exhibition; Horseplay (lithograph)
1935 – San Francisco Art Association; Serape Makers
1936 – International Exhibition of Lithography and Wood Engraving, Chicago; Horse Play (lithograph)
1937 – San Francisco Art Association; Karin and Sven (oil)
1937 – Everett Jackson, Margot Rocle, Marius Rocle exhibition, Spanish Village Art Center, San Diego
– May Warner
– The Shampoo
– Dark Madonna
– Serape Makers
– The Pop-Up Book
– Night Arrest
1938 – Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego; My Husband and My Son (oil)
1938 – San Diego Art Guild Annual; Portia (oil)
1938 – Spanish Village Art Center Fiesta, San Diego; Portrait of Margaret Miller (Mrs. Max Miller)
1938 – San Francisco Art Association Exhibition of Drawings and Prints; Karin and Sven (lithograph)
1939 – Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego; Aviator (oil)
1939 – San Diego Art Guild Annual; Anna in the Mirror (oil)
1939 – Exhibition of Portraits, San Diego; Eileen (oil)
1939 – San Diego Art Guild Modern Art Exhibition; Suzanne
1939 – Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego; Aviator
1939 – California State Fair, Sacramento; The Golden Colt
1939 – Five Women Painters, Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery, Santa Barbara; Anna in the Mirror; Squabs in the Nest; Karin and Sven; Callas; Margaret and Minna; The Blue Shawl; Portia; Red Iris; Suzanne Dressing; The Fairy Princesses
1939 – Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco; Marius and Anthony
1940 – San Francisco Art Association; Aviator
1940 – Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego; The Twins’ Bath (oil)
1940 – San Francisco Art Association; Firebrand
1940 – Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco; The Blue Rebosso (oil)
1940 – Foundation of Western Art, Los Angeles; Anna in the Mirror
1940 – San Francisco Art Association; Red Iris
1941 – San Francisco Art Association; Nestlings
1941 – Margot Rocle Exhibition, San Diego Fine Arts Gallery ; Eileen; The Firebrand; Callas; Red Iris; Old Paris; Old Ranch House; Nestlings (Squabs in the Nest); The Blue Rebosso; Margaret (Mrs. Max Miller); The Gardener; The Housekeeper; Anna in the Mirror