Rockwell Museum

Corning, NY




Rockwell Museum Acquires Ernest L. Blumenschein Masterpiece

The painting that artist Ernest L. Blumenschein believed to be his masterpiece has been acquired (December, 1997) by the Rockwell Museum, the first work by this important Western artist to be added to the Rockwell Museum's collection. Jury for Trial of a Sheepherder for Murder is a major acquisition for the Museum and joins an already fine collection of nearly three dozen works by other members of the Taos Society of Artists.

left: Ernest L. Blumenschein, Jury for Trial of a Sheepherder for Murder, 1936, oil on canvas, 46 x 30 inches, Clara S. Peck Fund Purchase.

This major addition to the permanent collection follows a thoughtful analysis by the Collections Committee of art acquisitions made during the past ten years. The Blumenschein work satisfies two major goals articulated in the Museum's collections development plan: to enhance the collection of work by American illustrators who produced work on American Western themes, and to seek masterpieces by whichever artists are under consideration. The work is also consistent with the emphasis on realistic art in the Rockwell Museum's core collection.

The Hispanic subject of the painting inaugurates efforts toward a broader educational focus at the Museum. Thanks to the inspiration of founding collector Robert F. Rockwell, Jr., the Museum's extensive western holdings are rich in images of landscapes, Native Americans, and cowboys. There are, however, few references to the vibrant Hispanic culture so integral to the history of the American West. Jury... provides such a reference, as well as the opportunity to interpret issues of multiculturalism in the Southwest during the first part of the twentieth century.

The acquisition was made possible by a generous endowment bequeathed in 1983 by the American Western art and glass collector Clara S. Peck of New York City, along with 31 works of art. Since then, income from the Peck Fund has made possible the acquisition of 105 examples of Carder Steuben glass, a half dozen antique toys and 15 works of American Western art, including the N. C. Wyeth painting I shall never forget the sight...; the Cyrus E. Dallin bronze On the Warpath, and the Frank Schoonover illustration Ojibway Indian Spearing the Maskenozha (Pike).

"The jury painting," as it is known to many, dates from 1936 and has an impressive history. David Witt, curator of the Harwood Foundation of the University of New Mexico, Taos, believes it to be one of the three most important paintings to emerge from New Mexico in the first half of this century. Its original purchase in 1938 by the Museum of Modern Art is testimony to recognition of its importance in its own time. Since 1981 it had been part of the collection of the Museum of Western Art, Denver, Colorado, which closed permanently on November 1, 1997. The painting won a National Arts Club Medal in 1938, has been widely published, and has been seen in more than 25 exhibitions.

The painting is based on an event that affected Blumenschein deeply, his eyewitness observation of the trial of a Hispanic teenager charged with murder. The young sheepherder, having spent months alone in the mountains, was surprised by a hiker, and, in a moment of confusion, killed him. Accounts of violent behavior as a consequence of extreme isolation of sheepherders were not uncommon in New Mexico, and the incident led to public sympathy for both victim and accused. The result is a powerful painting that few observers view dispassionately.

This is not an eyewitness painting in the documentary sense, for the adobe walls depicted are those of the artist's studio, not the actual courtroom. The faces of the jurors are from the artist's extensive studies of people in the Taos plaza. The painting however, revealed the tension at the trial between the traditional Hispanic way of life--represented by the coarse peasant-style clothing of the jurors--and the Anglo, more impersonal system of justice, represented by the faceless icon of George Washington on the courtroom wall.

Emest L. Blumenschein (1874 - 1960)

Blumenschein was born in Pittsburgh, and raised in Dayton, OH, the son of an accomplished professional musician. Though his early training was in music, his artistic talents led him to enroll in the Art Student's League in New York City in 1892. By 1894 he was studying at the Academie Julien in Paris, France, with fellow Americans Bert Phillips, Eanger Irving Couse, and Joseph Henry Sharp, who were to be his friends and colleagues for life.

In 1896 he began a very successful career in New York City as a periodical and book illustrator. His first trip to the Southwest was made in 1897, and a year later he and Bert Phillips spent the summer in Taos, New Mexico, the only professional painters working there at the time. Phillips settled in Taos; Blumenschein returned to New York. Blumenschein resumed studies in Paris in 1899, and lived there until 1909.

In Paris he met and married American artist Mary Shepherd Greene. Upon their return to New York, both taught at the Pratt Institute and he also joined the faculty of the Art Students League. By 1910 he had been elected an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design, and was devoting nine months of the year to commercial art in New York and three months to his own work in Taos. In 1912 he helped form the Taos Society of Artists. When he and Mary settled permanently in Taos in 1919, he broke all ties to his commercial career.

Blumenschein won almost every major honor awarded artists in the United States. He was elected a full member of the National Academy of Design in 1927, he was honored in 1948 with the first retrospective exhibition ever held at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, and his work continued to be exhibited and acclaimed in the United States, Europe, and South America.

The Taos Society of Artists

Late in the nineteenth century, the tiny New Mexican community of Taos became a mecca for American artists who sought to develop a uniquely American type of art. They believed that their inspiration was to be found in the West, a region they considered uniquely American. For them, as for many other artists before them, subject matter was more important than style or technique.

The artists of Taos recognized the importance of immersing themselves in their subjects. They chose to live in the West, unlike earlier artists concerned with Western themes, who merely visited the region to make sketches before returning to their eastern studios to paint.

The Society was active from 1912 through 1927, and held annual art exhibitions in Taos and other cities in the United States. Charter members of the Society included Bert G. Phillips, Victor Higgins, Joseph H. Sharp, Oscar E. Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse, Herbert Dunton and Ernest L. Blumenschein. Walter Ufer, Kenneth M. Adams, Catherine Critcher, and E. Martin Hennings joined later.

These artists did not reject the traditional academic training that many of them had received in Europe. In fact, stylistically the Taos Society blazed few new trails in the development of American art. The romantic realism of their work reveals a stronger desire to be visually informative than to be aesthetically daring.

A unique characteristic of the Taos Society of Artists was the attitude of its members toward the traditional Hispanic and Native American inhabitants of the Southwest. In their depictions of Native Americans, for example, these artists did not have a moralizing approach, and rejected both the tendencies of the earlier explorer-artists to treat them as scientific specimens, and the simplistic, adversarial role that other artists later forced on Native Americans.

Instead, in their art the viewer finds peaceful and sympathetic portrayals, occasionally idealized but never to the point of caricature. These provided interpretations of individual personalities, illustrations of complex and rich ceremony, and the steady calm of daily pursuits.

Although they had not found the last outpost of Native American and Hispanic life untouched by Anglo civilization, these artists had found and were able to form relationships with cultures that were unusually successful in preserving their traditions in the face of enormous change, and who lived accordingly. This context imbued the work of the Taos Society with a rich, subtle, and very human texture

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

This page was originally published 10/12/98 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 11/28/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.