Robert Lougheed: A Brilliant Life in Art, Nedra Matteucci Galleries, 1075 Paseo de Peralta, 505-982-4631; opening reception 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14; exhibition runs through December

“Most of the time we were solitary adventurers in a great land as fresh and new as a spring morning, and we were free and full of the zest of darers.” When Texas rancher Charles Goodnight uttered these words, probably in the early part of the 20th century, he spoke not only to a cattleman’s love for open spaces, but also to anyone who’s ever been dazzled by the romance and majesty of the American West. Certainly, his words would have rung true for an artist like Robert Lougheed. Among historic Western painters, Lougheed occupies a unique niche. Rather than depict cowboy-and-Indian skirmishes or rambunctious cattle trains, Lougheed’s sensibility is subtle, manifested in compositions that champion brilliant light and lush brushstrokes. For the most part his palette is restrained and bright, and although he was lauded by organizations like the Cowboy Artists of America and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Lougheed mustn’t be thought of as strictly a “cowboy artist,” as his artistic output contains far more grace than grit.

Lougheed was born in 1910 in Massey, Ontario, a rural community near the U.S.-Canadian border. Growing up on a farm, he was surrounded by countryside and keenly attuned to the subtleties of his natural surroundings. At eleven, Lougheed received his first paid job as an artist, to design an ad for chicken feed for a poultry merchant. By the time Lougheed entered his teenage years, he attracted the attention of the Toronto Star, whom he worked for as an illustrator. Lougheed was employed by the newspaper for several years before pursuing training at the venerable Art Students League in New York City in 1935. While in New York, Lougheed studied under artist Frank DuMond, whose emphasis on plein-air painting would greatly influence Lougheed’s predilection for onsite draftsmanship. Soon, Lougheed was leading a successful career as a freelance commercial artist, painting cover art for magazines like Reader’s Digest and National Geographic, and designing logos like the famous red Pegasus for Mobil Oil Company; throughout his career, he illustrated a number of children’s books.

Nedra Matteucci Galleries’ comprehensive exhibition Robert Lougheed: A Brilliant Life in Art acts very much like a historical survey, comprising more than 80 original works that span the artist’s career. Regally framed oil paintings are joined by a number of works on paper, including Untitled (Riding Navajo), a pen-and-ink drawing of a horse-mounted man in profile. Lougheed’s abilities as a draftsman are made apparent in the modestly scaled work, whose subject is confidently conveyed with easy black strokes that manage to depict even minute details with seeming effortlessness. The horseman’s Concho belt, for example, is convincingly portrayed with just a row of linked circles.

In 1973’s Antelope Pasture, almost two-thirds of the oil-on-Masonite composition is of golden grasses, their pale tones achieved with vertical, delicately rendered brushstrokes. Only the upper portion of the work features a cluster of the piece’s titular antelope, and the animals foreground a distant, verdant mesa dotted with sagebrush and piñon. The perspective is markedly more dramatic in Untitled (Back Lit Snow Scene), which dangles the viewer high above a snow-covered homestead. Long shadows cast a steely blue light on the ground, emphasizing the starkness of the landscape as well as the intensity of the composition’s dizzying overhead cant. 

Many of Lougheed’s works employ a more traditional, straight-on perspective, with centrally aligned subjects that draw the eye to the middle of the composition. In Waiting by the Saint Croix Mill, a pair of golden brown horses face away from us, their muzzles almost touching at the approximate center of the painting; just beyond this point is the center of a mill. Thickly painted shoots of bright yellow and green grass cover the lower half of the canvas, and the top portion features a cerulean sky dotted with cottony clouds. In the distance, a jagged range of emerald mountains appears with its highest peak positioned almost smack dab in the middle of the painting, further underscoring its central alignment.

Traveling was paramount to Lougheed’s artistic identity, and he took roughly half of each year away from commercial obligations in exchange for fine art pursuits, insisting on the importance of painting from a landscape instead of a photograph. His first jaunt to New Mexico was in 1952, eventually settling there with his wife Cordy in 1970; Lougheed died in 1982 in Santa Fe. Remembered and beloved for its refined brushstrokes, dazzling light, and celebration of traditional Western subject and style, Lougheed’s oeuvre isn’t particularly provocative, but it certainly is mesmerizing.