Ernest Blumenschein and the Indians

After he and his new wife, the artist Mary Shepard Greene (1869-1958), returned from Paris and settled in New York in 1909, Blumenschein began to frequent New Mexico on his own every summer. He went there to paint rather than find subjects for illustrations, and he made a special effort to focus on painting the Pueblo people. His goals in this were multiple. First, he wanted to explore New Mexico's indigenous people using lessons he had recently learned in Paris about effecting tonal harmonies with color and recounting a poetic vision of the world around him. The results may be seen in his glowing pictorial tribute Evening at Pueblo of Taos (Fig. 1), which was commissioned by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1913 for promotional purposes. Containing some details from his illustration of San Geronimo Day, this evocation of Pueblo life, suffused with elegance and quietude, acknowledges the theories of his latest French mentor, Émile René Ménard (1862-1930), who had taught him the use of a warm harmonious palette. It also reflects his patron's desire to make Taos and the Southwest a place of promise for tourists, a place that is fleeting, exotic, inviting, accessible, and safe.The artist also wanted to explore, beyond the influences of the Académie Julian, some of the striking post-impressionist color theories to which he had been exposed in Paris. He had been especially impressed with the brilliant hues in paintings by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) that he had seen at the apartment of Leo Stein (1872-1947) and his sister Gertrude (1874-1946) in 1907. Now he applied that brilliance to the western scene in another painting for the railroad, Taos Indian Holding a Water Jar (Fig. 6). While the theme of this work suggests an artistic commoditization of native people and their crafts, in spirit it exalts them.

Large exhibition works that resulted from Blumenschein's summers in Taos, such as The Peacemaker of 1913 (Fig. 7), suggest that he wanted his audience to respond to formal elements as much as to his narrative messages. Here he idealized the American Indian, posing the central figure as the Greek god Apollo and employing a muted palette that would conform to a classical mode. He also strove to achieve a pure, decorative effect, and art critics soon recognized that with such paintings he had found an aesthetic "field rich in possibilities."8 The painting is also laden with symbolism, reflecting everything from tribal resistance to United States government Indian policy, to the imminent war in Europe.

By 1915 Blumenschein's and Phillips's seventeen-year-old dream of establishing an artist colony in Taos had come true, and a formal organization, the Taos Society of Artists, was formed. The group, including Joseph Henry Sharp, William Herbert Dunton, Oscar E. Berninghaus, and Eanger Irving Couse, prepared traveling exhibitions of paintings by member artists that promoted the Southwest around the country. About 1918, even though World War I was interfering with much of their enterprise, Blumenschein painted one of his most beautiful and compelling works, Portrait of Albedia (Fig. 8). It is not simply an arresting study of character, but also an exquisite interplay of line and mass with a rich saturated palette. Though more tightly handled, it was confused by critics at the time with similar American Indian portraits by Robert Henri (1865-1929).

After the war, in 1920 the Blumenschein family-Ernest, Mary, and their daughter Helen (1909-1975)-moved from Brooklyn to Taos full time. It was, the artist said, "the great decision of our lives."9 He later wrote that the American Indian was his prime impetus for transporting "our Paris furniture, my frontier-fearing wife and one small daughter to this new life so far removed from all the comforts and attractions of great cities."10 Taos would not have plumbing and electrical service until 1930.

Thanks to an inheritance Mary had received, Blumenschein embarked on what he called "the principal stage of my ambition." At this point, he said, he

refused all commercial work and took a chance on painting the kind of pictures it was in me to do. The general public did not care for my interpretation of Taos. The people of New Mexico, too, wanted something more sentimental and picturesque; but the critics and artists back in Chicago and New York were kind to my efforts and...that was the audience I was playing for.11

is masterpiece of 1920, Star Road and White Sun (Fig. 9), was exemplary of his awakened aspiration. It was as much a paean to cultural preservation and aesthetic invention as it was a powerful portrait of his Pueblo model Star Road, who was also his friend and his family's handyman. Many of Blumenschein's fellow Taos artists had continued to idealize the Indians, creating stereotypes of poetic, timeless people who lived in special harmony with nature. In Blumenschein's rendition, Star Road has his own identity, proudly proclaiming his emergence as a representative of a new generation of Indian people.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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