Enduring Inspiration

New Mexico: A landscape that inspires

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Nearly a hundred years after the vanguard of Taos and Santa Fe artists first discovered New Mexico, the land remains a powerful source of inspiration. In 1898 Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips set out from Denver in search of picturesque and romantic painting subjects equivalent to those found by European artists in Italy and Spain. In an oft-told tale, their wagon wheel broke in northern New Mexico, and Blumenschein rode into Taos for assistance. What he found was a village and landscape to rival anything Europe had to offer. Remembering the experience later he wrote: "The beautiful Sangre de Cristo range to my left was quite different in character from the Colorado mountains. Stretching away from the foot of the range was a vast plateau cut by the Rio Grande and by lesser gorges in which were located small villages of flat-roofed adobe houses built around a church and plaza, all fitting into the color scheme of the tawny surroundings. The sky was a clear, clean blue with sharp moving clouds. The color, the effective character of the landscape, the drama of the vast spaces, the superb beauty and serenity of the hills, stirred me deeply. I realized I was getting my own impressions from nature, seeing it for the first time with my own eyes, uninfluenced by the art of any man." (Bickerstaff, Pioneer Artists of Taos, 1955, pp 30-31)

In the early years of this century, a steady stream of artists came to live and work in New Mexico. The Taos Society of Artists, along with the artists of Santa Fe, were considered one "art colony," and their work was exhibited and collected throughout the United States. They were especially known for their landscapes, and New Mexico provided an unending supply of dramatic vistas to be transformed into works of art. The Santa Fe Railroad was an important patron for the early artists, encouraging them to produce works which could be used to promote travel to "the Land of Enchantment."

Parsons: Santa Fe Mountains in October

Sheldon Parsons
"Santa Fe Mountains
in October"
Oil on plywood
Permanent Collection
Museum of Fine Arts remote
Santa Fe

Holt: Sangre de Cristo

Image: © 1995 Lindsay Holt II
"Sangre de Cristo"
Oil on canvas

Although the early artists had distinctive individual approaches, they painted in somewhat similar realistic styles, using the traditional oil on canvas and watercolor. As a group they were well trained and had mastered their craft before choosing to live in what was then a remote and challenging part of the country. They were well aware, however, of what was happening in the larger world, as "modern" art, with its attendant proliferation of painting styles developed and dominated the art of this extraordinary century. In retrospect, the early years in Taos and Santa Fe seem like a bucolic moment before the contemporary revolution which would change art forever.


John Marin, probably the most important American artist to work in watercolor, came to Taos for a brief time and left his mark on artists such as Victor Higgins. In Santa Fe, Robert Henri and John Sloan were important influences on the art colony, Henri for just two years, and Sloan for almost thirty summers. Undoubtedly, the single most important artist to move to New Mexico was Georgia O'Keeffe whose magnificent paintings of New Mexico stand as one of the most significant achievements in American Art.

Historically, landscape is one of the three great subjects in art, the others being still-life, and representations of human beings. For many centuries landscape played a minor role in European painting, appearing primarily as a background in portraits and religious works. In oriental art, landscape was an important subject much earlier than in the West. It is only in the last few centuries that landscape has come into its own in countries such as England, with the painting of Gainsborough and his followers, and in France with the Barbizon painters who shocked their peers by going into the country to paint on site. Landscape painting has never had greater emphasis than in the work of the Impressionists who reveled in the land and attempted to catch the atmospheric effects of weather and light as had no other painters before them.

It is important to recognize that all artists are influenced and inspired by the works of those who come before them, but the great ones find their own unique style, often blending or borrowing from the work of artists they admire. Metaphorically, it has been said that art is not a hundred-yard dash, but rather a relay in which one accepts the baton from behind, carries it forward, and passes it to the next generation.

The quality of work currently being produced in New Mexico is extremely high. It is immediately apparent that the major styles of our century have influenced painters in New Mexico and have been adapted by them to create unique ways of recording the landscape. Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, Art Deco, Abstract Expressionism, to name a few, have all been part of the vocabulary of artists working in New Mexico. An analogy might be to consider the popular music of this century, which has been unendingly innovative, often shocking, but ever creative.

In New Mexico, the land remains as challenging and inspirational as it was a hundred years ago, and I would hope that a hundred years from now artists will still be creating paintings to celebrate their love for this incredible corner of planet Earth. Writing of his first impressions of New Mexico, D. H. Lawrence said: "The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend. . . In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new." (D. H. Lawrence, "New Mexico," in Survey Graphics, May, 1931, reprinted in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, pp 141–47)

By Robert A. Ewing, Former Director, Fine Arts Museum of the Museum of New Mexico.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 10

Related Pages

Early American Modernism article
Modernism in New Mexico article

Romantic Modernism article
Southwestern Landscapes: New Mexico Artists article

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