The French Connection - 7/14/2014

Today’s blog post comes from Sharifa Lookman, an undergraduate student in Art History at Wesleyan University and summer intern at the New Mexico Museum of Art.
The acclaim of New Mexico’s artistic culture derives from the work of artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, who immortalized the Abiquiu landscape in paintings, to Maria Martinez, who examined her heritage through traditional Pueblo pottery. A transformative component of New Mexico’s artistic identity that, unlike the aforementioned artists, cannot be solely attributed to one hand, is the Taos Society of Artists. The Taos Society of Artists was established by a group of explorative American painters who, upon arriving in Taos, were infatuated by its unique culture and seemingly virgin landscapes. Pioneered by Joseph Henry Sharp in 1915, a Cincinnati based artist who first visited the region in 1893, this cooperative was soon joined by Ernest Blumenschein, Bert Phillips, Oscar Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse, and W. Herbert Dunton. This was a commercial society with the mission of selling artwork through traveling exhibitions, a mission that eventually helped the modest town evolve into an international art center. Of these six artists, four traveled to Paris where they studied the Western historical tradition. Though equipped with this canonical understanding of Western art, these artists found it difficult to properly articulate the unique imagery of New Mexico. This stylistic and aesthetic struggle instigated conflict and confusion in defining both artistic style and cultural identification. As evidenced by their work’s style and imagery, these artists attempted to define realistic and romantic styles while struggling to represent the cultural differences between Europeans and indigenous New Mexicans.
                                                        Ernest Blumenschein                                                         
Mountains Near Taos, 1926-34 
Oil on canvas 
Dallas Museum of Art
Paul Cezanne
Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Bellevue, 1885
Oil on canvas
Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia
Within their work these artists all exhibit a mastery of painting techniques that can only be attributed to careful academic study. In addition to the influence of the old masters, their works recall the palette and compositional technique of their European contemporaries. One contemporary in particular, whose work each artist would undoubtedly have been exposed to in their studies, is Paul Cézanne. At roughly twenty years older than these artists’ median age, Cézanne’s transformative work was the subject of debate and analysis when these young artists engaged in their Parisian studies. This European influence is easily illustrated, both in defiance and emulation of, in Ernest Blumenschein’s Mountains Near Taos when compared to Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Bellevue. Mountains Near Taos references the light of Mont Sainte-Victoire in its sculptural quality. In both works it is the contrast between light and dark that establishes form, particularly in the mid-ground houses. Notwithstanding, however, Cézanne’s light source is quite vaguer than the directness of Blumenschein’s, though the sun does appear to be off canvas to the right in both pieces. The arrangement of Blumenschein’s composition nearly identically quotes that of Cézanne’s. Like Cézanne he depicts a land fractioned into green and brown squares, a mid-ground dotted with yellow ochre houses, and a large-scale mountain range that consumes roughly half of the composition. Despite these similarities, it is important to acknowledge the stylistic differences. Though both are representational, Cézanne’s piece is of a proto-cubist aesthetic while Blumenschein’s imagery is more inclined to realism. This divergence concisely illustrates the necessity of marrying artistic styles in an effort to properly represent the nonconformity of the New Mexican landscape.
Joseph Henry Sharp
Taos Indian Portrait, 1914
Oil on canvas
Gift of Joseph Henry Sharp, 1914
In addition to defining an artistic style capable of visually representing New Mexico, artists struggled to respectfully depict its indigenous culture. Joseph Henry Sharp, who is colloquially termed the father of the Taos art colony, had an intent interest in Native Americans. True to his training in European techniques, Sharp created portraits with acclaimed anthropological accuracy. His European sensibilities were assets in such cases, but they proved to be crutches when realistically depicting the people’s culture. Many foreigners to New Mexico perceived it as an exotic nation, though it was part of the United States, and thus imposed national and international aesthetics on a culture that they found to be raw and malleable. The artists claimed to have sympathy towards their Native American models, which they likely believed in naivety. Despite his enthusiasm for Native Americans, Sharp did not possess an extensive knowledge of their culture and would dress up his models (in indigenous garb of his own collection) that actually derived from a different tribe. In turn, his pieces were realistic, but not real. Many historians attribute the many scowling faces and sorrowful glances of Sharp’s subjects to this notion that they were angry and offended to be forced into another tribe’s attire and then painted. Though perhaps overly inferential, this interpretation is validated in Sharp’s Taos Indian Portrait where the figure’s annoyance is palpable and his grimace stern.
New Mexican art was transformed and enriched with the introduction of European artistic techniques. With them newcomers brought wisdom gained from the great European painting masters and subsequently introduced the possibility of increased skill and international acclaim to New Mexico. With them, however, they also introduced a cultural bias that manipulated the physical and emotional façade of preexisting indigenous cultures. This was a difficult transition for many, but it was through this effort of the Taos Society of Artists that, through many trials, we were able to discover a style with the necessary technique and cultural accuracy to depict the rare beauty that is unique to New Mexico’s landscape and people.


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