Ernest Blumenschein and the Indians

Returning to New York in 1896, Blumenschein embarked on a career as an illustrator. He was a particular favorite of McClure's Magazine, whose editors hired him to embellish a variety of stories. Some of the assignments drew his attention westward, even when his physical presence was not required. Like many artists of his day, Blumenschein was initially exposed to the West through a visit to Madison Square Garden and Buffalo Bill's Wild West traveling show, organized by William F. Cody (1846-1917). Blumenschein wrote a story for Harper's Weekly about the experience, which he illustrated with a composite drawing that reflected the excitement of the scene and his genuine fascination with the American Indian members of the Wild West troupe (Fig. 3). He boasted rather flippantly that he knew "something of the Indian nature" before setting foot in the arena, but in fact he had little familiarity with the subject and his ephemeral exposure at the Cody extravaganza was something of a first encounter.2

His more mature and lasting take on native people came a few months later when he teamed up with the author and Indian rights advocate Hamlin Garland (1860-1940) to illustrate a historical account of "General Custer's Last Fight as Seen by Two Moons."3 Writing for McClure's, Garland related the story of the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn from the perspective of the Northern Cheyenne leader Two Moons. Garland wanted to advance the notion that Indians were as much heroes in this saga as Anglo-Americans, a slant that was uncommon at the time. Blumenschein grasped the spirit of Garland's argument, producing an illustration entitled We Circled All Round Him (Fig. 4) that elevated the valor and sacrifice of the American Indian warriors over Custer's soldiers, who fight behind an obscuring cloud of dust in the distance.

Clearly, Blumenschein's attitude toward native people had ceased to be glib and had become empathetic, respectful, and supportive, and his imagery began to earn him commissions specifically oriented toward a pro-Indian stance.4 Indeed, when in 1898 he joined forces with his former fellow Académie Julian student and then New York studio mate Bert G. Phillips (1868-1956) to spend a summer in Colorado, New Mexico, and Mexico, he went west intending to find American Indian people with whom he could establish a bond. He would later write that "I have had ever since my boyhood a great enthusiasm for Indian subjects and adventure."5Once in the impressive Taos Valley, these two passions converged serendipitously-the artists' wagon broke down on a primitive country road and they discovered the local Pueblo people. Blumenschein would never be the same. Thereafter, the West, its potential for adventure, and its Indians possessed him. Even though he would soon return to New York, and then go to Paris for further study, achieve national recognition for his portraits of friends and family, and make a prosperous living as an illustrator of a wide variety of subjects, his heart remained in Taos.

Blumenschein had been on assignment for Harper's Weekly that summer, and shortly after his return to New York in the fall he completed a composite drawing summarizing his impressions of one of the Taos Pueblo's most vibrant annual celebrations, San Geronimo Day (Fig. 5). The image was as documentary as those he had made behind the scenes at the Wild West show, but its message was more complex. In a clear pictorial record, he placed the striking mix of religious traditions, a Christian saint's day and a Pueblo fall harvest ceremony, squarely before the public. Blumenschein found the cultural complexity of this union of customs to be fascinating. As a newspaper writer in the artist's hometown of Dayton observed, he had revealed the Pueblos' "character and life, which is seldom found in pictures of the Indian, a character which has been so much studied and is yet so little understood."6Blumenschein had occasion to return to Taos from time to time in the next few years. When he was there in the fall of 1901, he wrote his editor at Century Magazine, Alexander Wilson Drake (1843-1916), that being in Taos was like being in heaven:

I am wildly enthusiastic over my surroundings. I live in a little adobe town built up by a tiny stream which cuts through the desert and loses itself in the painted canyon of the Rio Grande. Everything about me is inspiring me to work; great mountain ranges that become as dear to one as a friend, Indians that are still real and themselves...self-supporting, clean minded people who still have their old customs..., landscapes big and beautiful, colored cañons with happy vigorous streams, deserts reflecting a vast sky-and you feel yourself a part of it all, and live with it and are never alone.7

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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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