In looking for a new subject for a “Historic Painting” post I went searching for post-World War I German expressionism, and got instantly sidetracked by this American picture which is of an entirely different character. Star Road and White Sun, painted in 1920 by Ernest L. Blumenschein, is instantly recognizable as the Taos school of late 19th/early 20th century American Western art, but it also has a sort of timeless quality. The faces of the Native Americans are the centerpiece of the picture, but I also like how the pine trees–ubiquitous in northern New Mexico–look like they’re made of velvet, and the “flatness” of the scene is unusual. Indeed this is a fascinating foreshadowing of the flat-looking art, very distinctive, of American painters of the 1930s in the style that is sometimes called “WPA.” This was painted a decade before the Depression, but you can see a similarity.
The founding of the Taos school–technically the Taos Society of Artists–is interesting. Blumenschein was born in Pittsburgh and trained in music. In the 1890s some of his intelligentsia friends interested him in traveling to New Mexico, which was then an exotic destination. He and Bert Phillips traveled there in 1898 and were waylaid near Taos by a broken wagon wheel. While waiting for it to be fixed, the two fell in love with the locale and decided to stay for a while. This was the spark of an inspiration that would last for the rest of his career. Blumenschein began summering in Taos beginning in 1910. He and the other Taos Society artists chose as their subjects Native Americans, especially Pueblo and Navajo peoples, and related scenes surrounding the American Southwest. When the rest of America discovered Taos after World War II, it was the art of the Taos Society that set the tone for how people saw this part of the country and its people.
Blumenschein eventually resigned from the Society after a tiff with several of its members. He died in Albuquerque in 1960. I lived in Albuquerque and Santa Fe about three decades later, and I’m certain I saw plenty of Blumenschein originals in the various galleries there, though at the time I didn’t know what I was looking at.