Ernest Blumenschein and the Indians

November 2009 | Ernest L. Blumenschein (Fig. 2) is recognized for multiple and magnificent contributions to American art and culture. Many of his most laudable accomplishments, and they were legion, seem to counterpose one another-he was a virtuoso violinist and a skilled shortstop; his Beaux-Arts training as a painter sustained his allegiance to representational academic art, yet he championed modernism throughout his career; and he lived and thrived in New York and Paris while persistently longing for and ultimately becoming a full-time resident of the tiny village of Taos in northern New Mexico. Yet there was one dimension of his world that was enduringly unambiguous, and that was his own philosophical take on the favorite subject in his art, the American Indian.

Blumenschein was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Because of his promising talents as a violinist, he earned a scholarship to attend the Cincinnati College of Music in 1892. Once there, however, he branched out, enrolling in drawing classes at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. A course in illustration taught by Fernand Lungren (1857-1932), an established New York illustrator of the period, was especially exciting for Blumenschein. It promised, in his words, "a chance to exercise my imagination," and it launched his career as a pictorial artist.1 Lungren had just visited the West and had found success with frontier themes, including American Indian subjects, and this regional focus would help shape Blumenschein's future as well.

Blumenschein moved to New York and attended classes at the Art Students League, studying under such worthies as Kenyon Cox (1856-1919), John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902), and J. Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917). But it was not until 1892, when he moved to Paris and began classes at the Académie Julian, that American Indians entered into the vocabulary of his art. One of his instructors, Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (1845-1902), was especially interested in the exotic Arab cultures of North Africa, and surmised that Blumenschein might find similar inspiration in the Native American population. When Constant learned about a fascination Blumenschein had with James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, he urged him to explore the West for his own exotic motifs. In addition, Blumenschein befriended the naturalist illustrator and sculptor Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), who had been a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the Art Students League, and the Académie Julian and maintained a studio in Paris. Seton shared an abiding interest in American Indian people and hosted parties at which the entertainment featured mock Indian dances, which Blumenschein enthusiastically attended.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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