Paintings, drawings, and prints by Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Robert Henri, Gustave Baumann, and many familiar names in Southwestern art can be seen in an exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Organized by independent curator Valerie Ann Leeds, Southwestern Allure: The Art of the Santa Fe Art Colony comes to Santa Fe after showing in Florida, at the Boca Raton Museum of Art and the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando. Leeds is no stranger to Santa Fe’s museum and gallery scene, having curated two exhibitions of Henri’s paintings for the Gerald Peters Gallery (in 1998 and 2011), and another on his work in Ireland, which was shown at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in 2011. As might be expected, the main subjects of the works in the present exhibition include the landscape, Native peoples and their ceremonies, and Southwestern scenes, with many images of adobe buildings. The works are executed in a variety of styles, from realism to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and other modernist formulations. The last date to the late 1930s and the rise of the Transcendental school of painting. Before you begin to wonder if there are better examples of early-20th-century Southwestern paintings in Florida collections than there are here, rest assured that the majority of works in the show actually come from New Mexico, with Gerald and Kathleen Peters the principal lenders. 

The label on one of the Baumann woodblock prints includes a quote by the artist that calls into question the exhibition’s curatorial premise: “While Santa Fe has its quota of artists, it never was a colony in the accepted sense. Its interests are too diversified, which as far as I was concerned was a lucky break.” What do you need for a colony to be a colony? Can we count any artist who passed through Santa Fe and made work here? Does the work need to conform to a certain subject matter or style? What about the Native American and Hispano artists who were already working in the Southwest before Henri and O’Keeffe were born? The label “Santa Fe Art Colony” refers to both a time frame between about 1910 and World War II and a collection of artists who were mostly trained outside of Santa Fe in traditional mediums like painting and sculpture. So Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, a Spanish colonial painter and the sculptor of the retablo in Cristo Rey Church, was not a member of the colony. Neither was Georgia O’Keeffe, although she is represented in the exhibition by a painting on loan from the Orlando Museum of Art.

The colony can be said to have begun about a century ago, when Santa Fe was experiencing a remarkable period of growth in its cultural institutions. Edgar Lee Hewett was the ringleader of Santa Fe’s cultural renaissance then, and the Palace of the Governors was the place. Within a year of moving into the Palace, Hewett began offering artists studio space in the rooms on the north side of the courtyard, as well as exhibitions of their work. The painter Warren Rollins had the first solo show in 1910. In 1915 the Palace hosted an important early exhibition of photography, as well as what was promoted as the First Annual Exhibit of Santa Fe Artists. The exhibit was repeated in 1916 and expanded in 1917 with the opening of the new Museum of Fine Arts. And all through these years, The New Mexican ran a column called “Notes From the Museum and Artists’ Colony.” Referring to the diverse output of artists who worked in or passed through Santa Fe this way was both aspirational and a marketing strategy by Hewett and other boosters of the era.

One reason the New Mexico Museum of Art was interested in Southwestern Allure was the approaching centennial of the museum, which opened (as the Museum of Fine Arts) in November 1917. Also, several of the artists whose work is included, especially Henri, Kenneth Chapman, and Carlos Vierra, played key roles in making the museum possible, The museum owes its creation as much to Hewett’s efforts to promote Santa Fe as an art colony as it does to his and his team’s participation in the Panama-California Exposition, held in San Diego in 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Hewett was tapped to organize the art and ethnology exhibitions at the fair. 

An earlier Viajes column (“Simulacrum, simulacrum on the wall,” April 27, 2012) discusses the casts Hewett’s staff made of ancient Maya monuments at Quiriguá, Guatemala, which were the most imposing displays in the anthropological and archaeological building at the San Diego fair. The exhibit, housed in what was called the California Building (now the San Diego Museum of Man), also included large-scale paintings of Maya ruins by Vierra, as well as low-relief sculptural scenes of ancient Maya life by Jean Cooke-Smith, Sally James Farnham’s sculptural panels on the history of the discovery and conquest of the Americas, and architectural models. Three other fair venues featured art displays, and all can be connected to the founding of the Museum of Fine Arts. The fair’s New Mexico Building housed exhibits on the state’s history, including paintings of Spanish colonial churches and Catholic festivals by Donald Beauregard and Gerald Cassidy. There were paintings of mission churches by Karl Fleischer and Southwestern scenes by Ernest Blumenschein, Victor Higgins, Bert Phillips, Joseph Henry Sharp, and Walter Ufer of the Taos Society of Artists. The building was designed by Rapp, Rapp, and Hendrickson in the Pueblo-Spanish Revival style, modeled after several New Mexico mission churches, especially San Estévan del Rey at Acoma Pueblo. 

As Chris Wilson has discussed in detail in The Myth of Santa Fe (1997), Isaac Rapp’s Museum of Fine Arts was essentially a reconstruction of the building at the fair, with some modifications. At the fair, the Indian Arts Building displayed some 5,000 examples of Southwestern pottery, from ancient to modern, along with paintings by Cassidy. Among all the artists who contributed work to the San Diego fair, none had the reputation of Henri, who was introduced to Hewett in 1914 by the painter’s former student Alice Klauber. Henri was one of most respected painters in the U.S. in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1908 he organized an exhibition in New York at The Macbeth Gallery of his work and that of seven colleagues, who together were called The Eight. They included, in addition to Henri, Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. The group was soon referred to as the Ashcan School for their interest in depicting the gritty realities of modern urban life. In San Diego Hewett had appointed Klauber to the Fine Arts Committee for the fair, and she enlisted Henri’s aid and influence in assembling a group of artists to show their works in the Fine Arts Building in 1915.

In an article published in 1975 in American Art Review, Jean Stern notes that Henri’s proposal for artists to show at the fair essentially involved The Eight plus a few new faces: Sloan, Prendergast, Davies, Glackens, Lawson, and Luks, as well as George Bellows, Carl Sprinchorn, Childe Hassam, and Guy Pène du Bois. Stern writes that by 1914 there was bad blood between Henri and Davies over the direction American art should take. Davies was a key figure in promoting a vision of modern art epitomized by many of the works exhibited at the famous Armory Show in 1913. The show introduced Americans to European avant-garde artists and styles for the first time. While several members of Henri’s circle exhibited at the Armory Show, he seems to have resented the implication that European art styles such as Cubism were the only voice of modernism. Although the scales of the exhibitions were quite different — 49 works in San Diego in 1915 versus more than 1,000 in New York in 1913 — Stern argues that Henri’s vision for the Panama-California exhibition was to promote a uniquely American version of modern art, as opposed to imported styles. But it is difficult to consider his final roster of painters “uniquely American,” as so many of them had studied in Paris. In the end, Davies declined Henri’s invitation, Glackens was busy, and Joseph Henry Sharp was added as a substitute. Only a few of the paintings in the San Diego exhibition had Southwestern themes, at least as far as can be discerned from the list of works in the fair’s official guidebook. Although all the paintings were for sale, Stern notes that none were sold when the fair closed at the end of 1916 and that the exhibit received scant notice in the press.

On April 12, 1916, The New Mexican reported that the Museum of New Mexico board had just met and accepted a certified check for $30,000 from Frank Springer, thus matching the funds appropriated by the state legislature for a new museum. Construction was set to begin within two weeks. Springer was an amateur scientist, an attorney for the Maxwell Land Grant, and a longtime patron of Hewett’s. If Henri introduced Hewett to leading figures in American art, Springer provided the material support that made the fine arts museum possible. In Robert Henri in Santa Fe (1998), Leeds notes that, according to articles in The New Mexican and El Palacio, Henri was instrumental in organizing the inaugural exhibition at the museum, which opened on Nov. 24, 1917. The painters in the show included many familiar names from San Diego, with notable additions from the Taos Society.

As printed in Vol. 4, No. 4 of El Palacio, the artists who exhibited were Henry Balink; George Bellows; Oscar Berninghaus; Ernest L. Blumenschein; Paul Burlin; Edgar S. Cameron; Gerald Cassidy; Kenneth Chapman; Mrs. E.E. Cheetham; E.S. Coe; E. Irving Couse; Leonard H. Davis; Katherine Dudley; Helen Dunlap; W. Herbert Dunton; Lydia Dunham Fabian; W. Penhallow Henderson; E. Martin Hennings; Robert Henri; Victor Higgins; Leo F. Hirsch; Alice Klauber; Leon Kroll; Ralph Meyers; Arthur F. Musgrave; Sheldon Parsons; Bert G. Phillips; Grace Ravelin; Julius Rolshoven; Doris Rosenthal; Joseph Henry Sharp; Eve Springer; G.C. Stanson; Walter Ufer; Mrs. Walter Ufer; Theodore Van Soelen; Carlos Vierra; and Mrs. Cordelia Wilson.

The small number of women on the list is notable, since the story of Southwestern painting during this era is often presented as a boys club. Indeed, there is just one painting by a woman in Southwestern Allure, an untitled Santa Fe scene by Olive Rush. The only works in the current show from the inaugural exhibition are Henderson’s End of Santa Fe Trail (1916), lent by Ray and Kay Harvey, and Vierra’s Zia Pueblo Mission (circa 1914-1918), from the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas. The show includes works by many artists who were not yet residents of Santa Fe in 1917 (or had not yet visited the city) or whose work did not conform to Henri’s taste. Among the works by artists who moved to the area after 1917 are Raymond Jonson’s 1927 Portrait of a Painter (Self-Portrait), in the background of which we can see his Earth Rhythms No. 9 (1926), also included in the show. Cady Wells’ ink and gouache Black Mesa (circa 1938) is a remarkable meditation on the New Mexico landscape, poised at the edge of abstraction.

Southwestern Allure is installed in royal-blue galleries that contrast in a pleasing way with the ornate gilded frames of many of the works. This is a show that must be seen in person, as many of the pieces are in pristine condition, their oil paints undimmed by time or grime. The exhibition catalog contains a short essay by Leeds, but the quality of the reproductions leaves much to be desired. Ultimately, whether or not there really was a Santa Fe Art Colony may be academic. The place, and the museum, attracted a broad spectrum of artistic talent, which we can appreciate in this exhibition. While Robert Henri’s status and Frank Springer’s money were significant factors in the museum’s creation and early success, much credit is also due Edgar Lee Hewett, whose body is entombed in the courtyard wall. ◀

“Southwestern Allure: The Art of the Santa Fe Art Colony” is on view at the New Mexico Museum of Art (107 W. Palace Ave., 505-476-5072) through July 27. Entrance to the exhibit is by museum admission.