Witness to the American West

BY Arts Desk  March 25, 2009 at 4:33 PM EDT

Like most great figures of the American West, there is a touch of legend in the tale of how Ernest L. Blumenschein made it to New Mexico. As the story goes, Blumenschein set out with fellow artist Bert Geer Phillips on a drawing expedition from Denver to Mexico in 1897, but the two never made it across the border. A wheel on their horse-drawn wagon broke outside the town of Taos.

Blumenschein left Phillips and the wagon to find help. The classically trained painter and successful illustrator (then living in New York) was struck by the rugged shapes and vibrant colors of the Taos landscape. “Everywhere I looked, I saw paintings perfectly organized and ready to paint,” he wrote after that first visit.

Blumenschein was born in Pittsburgh in 1874 and raised in Dayton, Ohio, where his father, a classical musician and composer, worked as a conductor for the Dayton Philharmonic. Ernest was a talented violinist himself, but despite pressure from his father, he abandoned a career in music to formally study painting. Blumenschein received his training at two of the world’s leading art schools at the time: New York’s Art Students League and the Academie Julian in Paris. He built a lucrative career as an illustrator for major magazines like McClure’s.

[Listen to a narrated slide show of Blumenschein’s work by Jerry Smith, associate curator of American art at the Phoenix Art Museum, a co-organizer of ‘In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein.’]

While his friend Bert Geer Phillips settled in Taos right after they got stranded on their trip, Blumenschein returned to life in the East and in Europe, though frequently went back for visits. Eventually, in 1919, Blumenschein and his family settled in New Mexico permanently. The two founded the Taos Society of Artists, one of the most recognized artist collectives in the West.

In addition to the landscape, Blumenschein took inspiration from the Pueblo people native to the area. His successful career as an illustrator, as well as the inheritance left by his father-in-law, allowed Blumenschein the freedom to explore the subject matters that interested him most in later life. Blumenschein’s classical training clearly comes through in his landscapes and portraits, but he drew upon modern approaches to color and shape pioneered by the likes of Matisse and Cezanne.

Today, a major exhibition of his work is on view at the Phoenix Art Museum (and previously on show at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History and the Denver Art Museum.) Prior to “In Contemporary Rhythm,” there had not been a major exhibition of his work in 30 years.