Meet Nellie Gail Moulton

Nellie Gail Moulton - circa 1910 (2018.02.02)

Getting To Know Nellie Gail Moulton

Nellie Gail Moulton was one of the primary leading pioneers that formed the Moulton legacy we all know and appreciate today. Join us as we take a glimpse into her life to better understand her true motivation and passion for art, education, and giving back to her community.

Nellie Maud Gail

Nellie Maud Gail was born on December 8, 1878 in Irving, Kansas to John Lockwood Gail (1848-1926) and Prudence Adelia Stoneman Gail (1853-1894). In 1894, Nellie Gail traveled by horse and buggy as she moved to California at sixteen years old to attend Citrus [Union] High School, located in what is now known as the city of Glendora. Citrus [Union] High School was the first high school built in the San Gabriel Valley, between Covina, Glendora, and Azusa.

Two years later, Nellie graduated from high school as valedictorian in Hebron, Nebraska in 1896. Before her graduation, she visited Coronado Hotel which inspired her to title her valedictorian essay, “A Visit to the Coronado Hotel in San Diego, California.” As she planned for life post-graduation, Nellie desired to attend University of Lincoln, but enrolled in Seminary for a year for additional credits.

Early Adulthood

Seven years later, Nellie was a young school teacher in Seattle who loved to paint and travel in her spare time. In 1903, Nellie traveled from Seattle to California to visit her father, John Lockwood Gail. As postmaster of the El Toro Post Office, John Lockwood Gail also owned the El Toro Mercantile Store, later the El Toro Country Store, that was located on the north side of El Toro Road near the intersection of the railroad tracks.

At this time, El Toro (now known as Lake Forest) was a small town consisting of a church, schoolhouse, blacksmith’s workshop, town hall, a few warehouses, and cattle pens. Lewis Moulton, the owner of these warehouses and cattle pens, also owned and operated Niguel Ranch, a 22,000-acre farm that is now Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, and Aliso Viejo.

Meeting Lewis Fenno Moulton

Lewis Fenno Moulton was a 49-year-old eligible bachelor from Boston. In 1874, Lewis moved from Boston to California to pursue a new life and eventually became a successful sheep herder and rancher. Each week, he would ride over to the El Toro general store to pick up his mail. In 1903, during one of these mail runs, Nellie was casually introduced to Lewis by her father.

Over the next five years, Lewis and Nellie engaged in a courtship. On November 28, 1908, then 54-year-old Lewis Fenno Moulton and 29-year-old Nellie Gail were married. Two years later, Nellie and Lewis welcomed their first child, Charlotte Gail Moulton, on January 21, 1910 at Clara Barton Hospital in Los Angeles. Four years later, their second child, Louise Marie Moulton, was born on December 30, 1914 in El Toro at the Moulton Ranch.

To learn more about Lewis Moulton and Nellie Gail’s relationship, read A Moulton Love Story.

Carrying On the Moulton Legacy

Nellie Gail Moulton and Lewis Fenno Moulton established a strong presence in Orange County with sheep and cattle ranching. They also leased land to tenant farmers, positioning themselves as valued members in the community.

On December 3, 1938, Lewis passed away at his home at the age of 84. After his passing, Nellie successfully managed the Moulton Ranch until 1950. Throughout those years after her husband’s death, Nellie continued to share her pioneer spirit with the ranching and arts community. Her lifelong love for painting paved the way to great partnerships with various local artists and organizations. 

Her en plein air techniques were acquired from Southern California notable artists such as William Wendt, Anna Hills, Frank Cuprien, and Edgar Payne. They inspired her impressionist scenes of nature, beach landscapes, Sierra mountains, Japanese fishing villages, and Grand Canyon majestic vistas. Her sketchbooks contained preliminary drawings of evocative and nuanced oil paintings. As an avid traveler, Nellie Gail viewed the world through her international voyages and captured these moments in her artwork.

Nellie's Professional Timeline

Nellie Gail Moulton was ahead of her time—a true visionary. She captured and preserved pristine nature in real time, en plein air. Nellie belonged to a larger movement of female artists who have recently gained more recognition for their commitment to the arts. As depicted in the timeline below, Nellie achieved many great accomplishments as an artist and valued member of Orange County society.

1920

Nellie attends the State Federation of Club Conference at Yosemite National Park as a a member of the Ebell Club. 

1920

1934

Nellie Gail Moulton donates to the Laguna Beach Art Association (Laguna Art Museum) fundraising campaign. Her name is inscribed into the lower gallery floor along with other founding members. 

1934

1938

Nellie exhibits her paintings at the Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach, and hosted a Laguna Beach Art Association tea in the galleries. 

1938

1941

Nellie chaired an exhibition that featured eighteen pieces by Orange County artists, including her own Grand Canyon piece. She also exhibited in a traveling show for the Women’s Club. 

1941

1949

Nellie is named president of the Laguna Beach Art Association, later to become the Laguna Art Museum. She was a Life Member of LBAA and her name is inscribed in the basement flooring of the current facility along with her mentors Anna Hills and William Wendt. She donated funds for Moulton Hall, which became Moulton Gallery.

1949

1953

Nellie Gail Moulton becomes a member of the Assistance League of Santa Ana. 

1953

1961

Nellie helps establish the Laguna Beach School of Art, later to become the Laguna College of Art + Design (LCAD). 

1961

1962

Nellie becomes an Honorary Festival of Opera Chairwoman in Laguna Beach. The Laguna Opera now honors her memory.

1962

1968

The Laguna Beach Art Association (LBAA) held a Nellie Gail Moulton Retrospective Exhibition in the Moulton Gallery. Nellie helped fundraise for this gallery as the LBAA President.

1968

1969

The Moulton Theatre opens at the Laguna Playhouse. Nellie worked with Pereira to design this building. 

1969

Recent Exhibits of Nellie Gail Moulton

Nellie Gail Moulton passed away in August 1972 at 93 years old.  In 1975, Chapman College (University) completed building Moulton Hall, made possible by the generous donation and land gift made by Nellie Gail and the Moulton family. This lithograph with hand-painted elements is in the Dean’s office along with the coastline painting. 

Nellie’s commitment to the arts continues to be honored and recognized by many organizations to this day. Her work was recently featured at the Pasadena Museum of History in the Something Revealed; California Women Artists Emerge, 1860-1960 show curated by Maurine St. Gaudens Studios. Her philanthropy as a founding member of the Laguna College of Art & Design in 1961, the 1969 building of the Moulton Theatre for the Laguna Playhouse, and her generous endowment donation to Chapman University (which was then Chapman College), in 1973 bears fruit to this day.

Nellie’s artwork has been on display at Casa Romantica, LCAD Gallery, Nellie’s Gallery at the Muckenthaler. It is currently on exhibit at Soka University.

Moulton Museum is proud to collect and preserve the original works of Nellie Gail Moulton as a representation of the power of the pioneer spirit and the impact the Moulton Family has played in Orange County history

The Pioneer Spirit mural is featured within the Moulton Museum. The mural was created by Luis Barajas Ochoa, LCAD 2022 graduate with honors. He designed each section based on Nellie Gail Moulton’s extraordinary life. Luis created this vision from personal conversations with Jared Mathis about his great-grandmother.

Moulton Museum hopes to inspire visitors with The Pioneer Spirit to live amazing lives based on our matriarch’s incredible accomplishments. This mural is an app enabled experience with our partnership with Tim Pryor, LCAD Department Chair Game Design.

Do you have a Pioneer Spirit?

Visit Moulton Museum online or book a tour to learn more about the Moulton Family and the rich history of Orange County.