Editor's note: The following catalogue essay was published in connection with El Paso Museum of Art's exhibition Renoir to Remington: Impressionism to the American West, on view from September 21, 2014 through February 1, 2015. The essay was published October 30, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of the author and The El Paso Museum of Art. The Museum also provided other texts and images accompanying the essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or other materials, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalog, please contact The El Paso Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Impressionist Imprints in Southwest Art
by Patrick Shaw Cable
Since the birth of Impressionism in France almost a century and a half ago, the movement has become the most widely popular in the history of art. Closer in time to its origins, American Impressionists formed the most cohesive group of French Impressionist followers, not to mention that American collectors were the most enthusiastic purchasers of Impressionism when it reached an international market in the 1890s. In another realm, art of the American West -- the Southwest in particular -- has gained broader recognition in the last few decades, attracting a growing number of both private and institutional collectors. While Impressionism's popularity has prompted a spate of exhibition catalogs and other literature, the movement is typically studied either in isolation, or at most in relation to its immediate diffusion, precedents, or offshoots. Studies of Western American art follow a similarly limited framework.
Taking a novel approach, Renoir to Remington: Impressionism to the American Westbrings together Impressionist works from the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington with Western American examples from the El Paso Museum of Art (EPMA) and five other local collections. The exhibition and accompanying catalog include artists such as Frederic Remington who pictured diverse regions of the American West, but the primary focus is Southwestern artists -- for instance, four members of the Taos Society of Artists formed in 1915, and a number of El Paso area artists ranging from early to late in the twentieth century.
While space does not permit here a reading of all 102 artworks in the exhibit, the project outlines the multiple forms and degrees of Impressionist influence on Southwestern artists, as they sought and found the means to translate the distinct atmosphere and color of the Southwest region's unique landscape, life, and culture. To utilize two terms frequently (and divergently) employed within art criticism of the Impressionist epoch, numerous artists of the Southwest have adopted, adapted, or transformed features of Impressionism to boldly render both the "effect" of their Southwestern motifs and, on a more subjective level, their individual "impressions" of these striking motifs. Ultimately, Renoir to Remingtonhighlights a distinctive current within Southwest art and enriches our understanding of this art by situating it within a broader context; simultaneously, the exhibition and catalog revisit Impressionism and bring new relief to the lasting appeal and influence of this revolutionary movement.
Impressionism holds a pivotal place within art. Preceded by the nineteenth-century modern movements of Romanticism and Realism, it evolved out of Realism and that movement's attention to describing the real world. Yet, Impressionism's unprecedented formal innovations of high-valued colors and broken brushstrokes eventually led to the first modern movements of the twentieth century, such as Fauvism and Expressionism, and eventually to abstract art. On a wider if more diffuse scale, Impressionism likewise breathed new life into art as aspects of its color and facture were assimilated into traditional academic painting.
Turning to twentieth-century art of the American Southwest, which is essentially a naturalistic art form devoted to representing the region's unique subjects, its practitioners who have variously absorbed the Impressionist vision bring us back to Impressionism's origins within Realism. Some Southwestern artists embrace both the high-keyed palette and loose handling of Impressionism, while others combine a more finished technique with the brighter colors initiated by Impressionism. Still others move toward approaches that evolved from or responded to Impressionism, such as Neo-Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Borrowing words from EPMA Director Michael Tomor in a previous publication dedicated to the art of early El Paso, many Southwestern artists up to the present day have embraced or experimented with Impressionism in order to record the life of the Southwest and to express "the magic created by nature," the effect of "majestic landscapes, magenta and auburn morning lights, dusks of copper yellow and brilliant orange, or the deep cobalt nights."
Before considering the comparisons of Southwest and Impressionist art that are at the core of the exhibition, it is beneficial to briefly reexamine Impressionism by referencing the Impressionist and related works from the Tacoma Art Museum. For while Impressionist paintings are the most beloved and reproduced of all time, we sometimes ignore the complexities of the movement, whether in terms of its origins, its participants, or its evolution.
What is called "classic Impressionism" is the style that developed in France in the 1870s, and is characterized by scenes of modern life (frequently inhabited landscapes) rendered in a high-keyed palette, juxtaposing often complementary colors and loose brushstrokes, and recording momentary effects of light, atmosphere, and movement. However, Impressionism began not as a stylistic movement with a defined program but instead as a business venture between disparate artists (some less innovative than others), who banded together as the Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc.([A Group of] Artists, Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc., Inc.). In the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874 the participants were thirty -- a number that included eight artists heralded today as Impressionist leaders, such as Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (cat. nos. 5-6, 14, 20-22), as well as a few others with styles possessing affinities to Impressionism, such as Eugène Boudin and Stanislas Lépine (cat. nos. 1-3, 13). Most of the 1874 exhibitors, however, are now largely forgotten; and the basic motivation of the variegated group was to create a forum for exhibiting and selling their work independently of the hegemonic, state-sponsored Paris Salon. Moreover, although seven more exhibitions of the association took place up until 1886 (what we now call the eight "original Impressionist exhibitions"), the group was in constant flux as artists joined, departed, or rejoined based on aesthetic alliances, personal differences, or newfound success. Indeed, Pissarro was the only artist who ended up exhibiting in all eight of the original Impressionist shows.
Along with Boudin and Lépine mentioned above, two other artists from the Tacoma collection -- Camille Corot and Johan Barthold Jongkind (cat. nos. 4, 11) -- help recall another important context for the beginnings of Impressionism, namely the tradition of painting en plein air, or out-of-doors. These "pre-Impressionist" painters, together with other pre-Impressionists of the Barbizon school (whose name comes from the village of Barbizon where they often worked), provided an important precedent by favoring plein-air painting, and by substituting scenes from the French countryside for the classicizing historical landscapes promulgated by the French Academy. More directly, first Boudin and then Jongkind befriended and served as informal mentors to the young Claude Monet (1840-1926), painting by his side in Honfleur on the Normandy coast, and stressing the importance of working directly before nature. Similarly, Corot, an associate of the Barbizon artists, taught Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) in the early 1860s.
It was the Impressionists, though, who took the next step by upholding the sketchy aspect of a plein-air work as a valued quality in painting intended for public display. Whereas mentors like Corot had made use of plein-air studies such as A Laborer in the Countryside around Étretat(fig. 1) to construct finished paintings for the Salon in their studios, the Impressionists completed many of their works outdoors directly before the motif. To repeat two period descriptors introduced earlier, plein-air painting was now seen by the Impressionists not simply as a study or sketching tool, but as an unmediated vehicle for translating to the viewer the "effect" of the motif and for expressing the "impressions" of the artist. As we shall later see, these paired concepts -- 1) rendering the overall effect or atmosphere of a scene and 2) expressing one's aesthetic sensibilities and response to nature -- have inspired many artists drawn to the special landscape and life of the American Southwest.
Some final subtleties of Impressionism are signaled by the Tacoma works created by three of the major Impressionists: Degas, Pissarro, and Renoir. Degas's two sculptures in the collection remind us that he was the only Impressionist to embrace this medium, which the artist explored as early as the late 1860s and then practiced increasingly beginning in the mid-1880s (fig. 2 and pl. x).  Degas chose to exhibit a sculpture only once, the Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, whose extreme naturalism included pigmented wax and the addition of real elements such as a tutu. Degas preferred instead to utilize sculpture for his private -- indeed, almost obsessional -- study of the singular movements and forms of isolated dancers and horses, which relate of course to two principal themes of his painting: dancers performing, practicing, or resting backstage at the Paris Opéra, and jockeys and horses racing or preparing for the race at the Longchamp Racecourse. Little known to all but his closest colleagues, Degas's sculptures were discovered in his studio after his death, and therefore only cast in bronze posthumously.
In many ways this artist was an "odd man out" among his Impressionist colleagues, and his sculptures' focus on the structure and movement of human and animal anatomy underlines the strong Realist intent of his particular brand of Impressionism. More broadly for sculpture, which was traditionally an art of public monuments and thus beholden to idealization and allegory, Degas's many long-hidden sculptural studies infused the medium with a radical new sense of naturalistic observation. To jump briefly here to some of our twentieth-century Western artists, sculptors like Tom Knapp, Harry Jackson, and Grant Speed (cat. nos. 35-37, 65-66, 77-82) who have captured the dramatic action or temporary rest of cowboys and horses preserve this naturalist spirit that originated in the sculptural investigations of Degas. More specifically, in two EPMA works by the living New Mexican sculptor Knapp -- Saddle Bronc and Captain Bill McMurrey, Texas Ranger (fig. 3 and pl. x) -- the artist's desire for realistic detail prompted him to incorporate color to distinguish the riders' denim attire, a feature looking back to the example set by Degas in his Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer.
The paintings by Pissarro and Renoir in the exhibition date from late in their careers, serving to recall that all of the leading Impressionists, with the exception of Alfred Sisley, noticeably modified their individual styles following the development of classic Impressionism in the 1870s. For several of the artists the transition related to a new feeling that the sketchiness and spontaneity of their compositions might be a hindrance toward making a lasting statement in their art. After meeting the younger Neo-Impressionist painters Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and Paul Signac (1863-1935) in 1885, Pissarro began to follow their color theories and pointillist technique for several years, as he sought greater clarity and a scientific basis for his art. Ultimately dissatisfied with Neo-Impressionism as an approach that stifled his sensations before nature, Pissarro returned to a looser style, evident in his picture from Tacoma, Fishing Dock, Dieppe, Gray Morning, painted in 1902 the year before the artist's death (fig. 4).
Renoir, in contrast to the soft feathery brushwork of his 1870s paintings, developed a more linear style in the mid-1880s partly in response to his study of the Renaissance frescoes of Raphael (14831520); and subsequently, by the early 1890s he achieved a more fluid manner, which was influenced by his appreciation for eighteenth-century French Rococo art and stood as a synthesis of his two previous techniques. Renoir's picture from 1890 in the Tacoma Museum, Heads of Two Young Girls(fig. 6), provides a representative example of this last approach through its bucolic and feminine theme, overall decorative appeal, and technique of fluent, softly curving brushstrokes that follow the contours of forms and fashion an atmospheric halo of green nature around the figures.
From France to the American Southwest: Some Comparisons
As a segue to artists of the Southwest, we might analyze Pissarro's and Renoir's pictures respectively in relation to two complementary works located in the EPMA -- the first by the Texan Impressionist Julian Onderdonk, and the second by the only English artist in the exhibition, Nora Lucy Mowbray Cundell. Born in 1882 in San Antonio, where he received some artistic training as a teenager from Verner Moore White (1863-1923), Onderdonk graduated from West Texas Military Academy in 1900. At the age of nineteen, with the help of a loan from a neighbor, he left for New York to study under William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), the first major American painter to produce Impressionist works in the United States and one of the country's most important turn-of-the-century teachers. In this regard Julian was following in the footsteps of his father, Robert Jenkins Onderdonk (cat. no. 43), who had studied with Chase a quarter of a century earlier at a time before Chase himself had been exposed to Impressionism. Julian began his career in New York, but fortunately for Texas he moved back in 1909 to San Antonio, becoming famed for his bluebonnet landscapes and eventually lauded as "the father of Texas painting."
Onderdonk's 1921 Bluffs on the Guadalupe River, Seventeen Miles above Kerrville, Texas(fig. 5) provides meaningful comparison to Pissarro's picture painted almost twenty years earlier, Fishing Dock, Dieppe, Gray Morning. The straightforward yet detailed titles of the men's paintings testify to their naturalistic intentions, with Onderdonk specifying the geographical positioning of his view and Pissarro concerned to note the weather and time of day. Both artists utilize evident brushwork and a palette combining natural tones like russets and greens with mauve- and blue-tinged grays, but Onderdonk's composition features comparatively looser and more liquid strokes, while Pissarro's dabs of pigment come together to create a more matte and constructed pictorial surface. Although Onderdonk's rugged interior landscape measures only a third the size of Pissarro's inhabited coastal scene and possesses a high horizon line shutting out most of the sky, the warmth and lightness of its distant sun-washed riverscape open up the composition at upper right to suggest wide open space and atmosphere. Certainly the inherent grandeur of Onderdonk's small picture would translate well into a painting five times its size.
In order to distinguish the overall effect or mood of each work, we might have recourse to the two modern movements that preceded Impressionism: Realism, from which Impressionism grew; and Romanticism, to which Realism had reacted. In these terms, Pissarro's picturesque port scene staffed with figures and capped by lively clouds possesses a "realist" spirit, whereas Onderdonk's poetically shadowed bluffs and lit panorama express a more "romantic" vision of isolated nature. Significantly, such a comparison illustrates the nuances that exist between different aesthetic styles, as well as the range of expressive purposes that the Impressionist technique could serve by the early twentieth century.
The Englishwoman Nora Lucy Mowbray Cundell occupies a distinguished position within art of the American Southwest by virtue of her many visits to the region and her representations of its life and landscape, especially the Navajo people and the area around Arizona's Marble Canyon. Cundell's only work in the EPMA is a 1939 portrait of an anonymous Navajo woman, which entered the collection as a gift of the El Paso Art Museum Association Members' Guild in 1978 (fig. 7).
Both the palette and handling of Cundell's painting exhibit similarities and differences with Renoir's Heads of Two Young Girls. Each artist creates expressive color contrasts between complementary greens and reds, which range from pink or orange tints to deep tomato red. Another common element is the discreet use of dark bands to enliven the composition, particularly in the stripes of the Navajo woman's blanket and the streaks of the girls' hair. Cundell and Renoir also share an interest in describing the unique complexions of their subjects. A difference in coloration, however, is Cundell's use of neutral gray, purple, and blue areas to offset her warmer hues, a formal feature that complements the more serious attitude of her subject.
Similarly, though both artists utilize visible brushwork across the surface of their compositions, Cundell's technique is more varied: the background of each picture is nondescript, painterly, and atmospheric, yet Cundell has painted her background in a visibly thinner manner than her figure, whereas in the Renoir there is greater equivalence of handling between figure and ground (notice, for example, the thick creamy strokes at upper right describing both the hat and hair and the multicolored space above). In addition, Cundell favors a tighter execution for her model's face; here the individual brushstrokes are still evident, but they are smaller, and stitched together to construct the face and describe the modulation of light and shade across its surface. As a final note concerning Cundell and her career, the colorism of her canvas at the EPMA provides a noticeable contrast to many of her paintings of English figures, suggesting that the artist's Southwestern subjects directly fostered her expressive use of colors.
Prior to moving on it seems remiss not to mention one other Tacoma canvas, Natalie in a Blue Skirtby William J. Glackens, in light of the familial resemblance it shares with Renoir's and Cundell's pictures in terms of female subject, palette, and treatment (fig. 8). Active in New York City in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Glackens provides an example of the diversity of artists that could find inspiration in Impressionism. Beginning his career in Philadelphia as a newspaper illustrator, Glackens followed his mentor Robert Henri (1865-1929) to New York, where he became a core member of Henri's group the Eight, known for their dark and gritty urban realist scenes. By 1905, however, Glackens adopted a bright Impressionist style, and became increasingly interested in Renoir's use of color. The French artist's influence is clearly at play in the bright colors and feathery handling of Natalie in a Blue Skirt. Dating from 1914 and thus at the midpoint between Renoir's 1890 Heads of Two Young Girlsand Cundell's 1939 Portrait of a Navajo Indian Woman, Glackens's composition makes greater use of saturated hues, and adds bold blue to the color synergy of reds and greens seen in the other two works. In contrast to the flushed faces of Renoir's figures and the milky brown complexion of Cundell's subject, Glackens's full-length figure possesses porcelain-white skin touched up on the cheeks with rouge.
To summarize the range of methods and effects in these three similar yet dissimilar paintings, Renoir has utilized lighter tints to complement the freshness of his two young subjects absorbed in their own activity, transforming them into aesthetic symbols of youthful grace and idyllic nature. Glackens has captured his fashionable cross-legged sitter with a distracted, slightly oblique expression, rendering her in deeply glowing colors to create more dramatic visual appeal. Combining a gamut of brighter and more neutral tones, Cundell's painting possesses a more muted decorative quality. The artist's portrait also manifests her desire to leave a record of the physiognomy, presence, and individuality of her subject. Viewed head-on, her Navajo woman possesses an open stare that returns our gaze yet avoids meeting it fully.
The Taos Society & Los Cinco Pintores
Turning more squarely to the Southwest, it seems appropriate to begin with two artists' groups who, like the French Impressionists before them, came together not to espouse a uniform style but rather to provide mutual aesthetic and social support: first, the Taos Society of Artists, formed in 1915; and second, Los Cinco Pintores, a young modernist group who came together in Santa Fe in 1921. Notably, just as the majority of the artists who participated in the eight original Impressionist exhibitions shared an interest in scenes of modern French life, the principal tie binding the members of these associations was the goal of portraying life and landscape in the American Southwest. Each group was composed of artists who had relocated West from towns and cities in the East and Midwest.
To begin chronologically, the Taos Society of Artists, founded in 1915 and disbanded in 1927, helped foster the development of Taos's international reputation as an art colony, a quality it still holds today. Essentially a commercial cooperative, the Taos Society circulated traveling exhibitions of their work around the country. Initially disparaged by some critics as overly colorful and emotional, these artists' images expressed their desire to record a vanishing way of life, defined the first decades of the Taos art colony, and introduced fellow Americans to unfamiliar cultures and landscapes.
The exhibition includes nine works by three of the original six members of the Taos Society (known as the Taos Founders or Taos Six): Oscar Edward Berninghaus, Eanger Irving Couse, and Joseph Henry Sharp (cat. nos. 52-54, 57, 48-49, 74-76); and a painting by one of the six artists who joined the group later, Walter Ufer (cat. no. 85). Notably, although the Taos Society of Artists are generally known for melding their European academic training with vivid colors, the works on view reveal a greater diversity of approach, which could include expressive painterly handling in tandem with a light palette. This range is illustrated best in the works by one of the most historically significant Taos Society artists, Joseph Henry Sharp, who was considered the "Spiritual Father" of the group and is represented in the exhibition by two works from the EPMA collection and three from the local collection of Jack and Carroll Maxon.
First, however, we might consider the works of two of Sharp's colleagues, Berninghaus and Couse. In his painting The Snow-Covered Foothills(pl. x), Berninghaus opts for a mostly monochrome palette to suggest the harsh snowy atmosphere of his scene. Indeed, his painting actually reverses the typical Taos Society manner of combining academic finish with bright colors by utilizing broad expressive brushwork along with a more neutral tonalist palette. The unusual square format of Berninghaus's composition aids in focusing on the silhouette and attitude of the cold and weary horse and rider. In conjunction with the whites and grays describing the wintry land and air, Berninghaus utilizes a range of painterly strokes to express his theme: broken wisps to denote the barely visible contours of mountains; broad highlights to suggest snow on the rider's shoulder and his mount's hindquarters; energetic Impressionist handling in the middle ground to represent snow-filtered figures, structures, and declivities in the terrain; and finally the sketchy strokes on the horse's hoofs and fetlocks to render caked wet snow and evoke the trudging of the animal.
Moving to Eanger Irving Couse, his picture Indian Encampment(fig. 9) combines Impressionist handling and lightened palette, and succeeds in simultaneously expressing atmosphere, life, and poetic mood. Painted on a small masonite board, the composition must have been painted directly before the motif. The artist suggests a candid and unmediated vision by including a nondescript tree in the immediate left foreground. His ability to suggest atmosphere while describing naturalistic detail is perhaps best illustrated in the tipi to the right of center. Despite the broad handling of the tipi's form, the artist still records his knowledge of its structure and details, such as the singular covering over the opening and the stylized sun symbol painted on the side.
The motif of Couse's picture and its contrasts of pale blues and yellows bring us to the work of Joseph Henry Sharp, specifically his pastel Indian Encampment, Crow Reservation(fig. 10). Similar in size to Couse's painting, the pastel may also have been executed on the spot. In its composition and details the work displays a more documentary feel, but its colors are bolder and range from dark blues and golden yellows to light greens for the plain and soft violets and blues for the distant snow-dappled mountain range and cloud-strewn sky. The great French pastelist Degas would certainly have been moved by this work, and not only for its unfamiliar subject matter but also by the artist's evident ability to exploit the potential of the pastel medium for glowing color, freshness, and immediacy.
Sharp's other four works in the exhibition illustrate a veritable range of approaches. For example, his Portrait of an Unknown Native American(pl. x) combines broad expressive handling with large simplified areas of color, suggesting the style of the great Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh in some of his portraits of southern French peasants.
At the other end of the spectrum stands the largest and most majestic picture by Sharp, Elk Foot (Jerry), Taos(fig. 11), a loan from the Maxon collection. The work simultaneously illustrates the Taos Society's frequent melding of finished technique with vivid coloration, and portrays a figure who was a favorite model of both Sharp and Couse -- Elk Foot, or Túmenah (18701980), whose Anglicized name was Jerry Mirabal. The artist displays his technical skill in the attentive description of the body's musculature and anatomy, but he utilizes lightened colors throughout the composition to describe the pale walls of the native dwelling; the vivid hues of costume, headdress, and accoutrements; and the warm brown skin of the model's body and glowing red complexion of his face. Another notable aspect of the painting is its combination of academic finish with a natural native pose that differs from the formal postures of official academic portraits. Interestingly, this feature adds a degree of intimacy without sacrificing seriousness: viewing his subject at eye level and from the side, the artist highlights the silhouette of Elk Foot's healthy form, aquiline nose, and noble profile.
Returning us to a more painterly approach are two small lovely canvases in the EPMA, Elk Foot and Bawling Deer, Firelight and Twilightand Taos Indian Girl(figs. 12, 13), which entered the collection respectively in 1968 and 1974. The first features the seated Elk Foot and a companion, lit primarily by an unseen fire and secondarily by ambient twilight (notice that Elk Foot wears the same leggings, breechcloth, and moccasins as in the portrait discussed above). The second work focuses on a female figure sitting in the frame of a doorway and bathed by the reflected light and shade of a warm summer's day. Among all of Sharp's works in the exhibition, Taos Indian Girlstands closest to Impressionism in its light and color effects and its juxtaposition of broad dabs, splotches, and strokes of pigment. The thinner, more subtle facture of Elk Foot and Bawling Deerresides somewhere between the Impressionist handling of Taos Indian Girland the detailed naturalism of the larger painting Elk Foot (Jerry) Taos. In the EPMA pair of similarly sized vertical canvases, the painter has effectively used his liquid paint to describe on the one hand the special atmosphere, ruddy glow, and flickering shadows of an evening fire, and on the other hand the ethereal dazzle of strong sunlight on foliage and its ambient reflection into the shade of a threshold. Considering Taos Indian Girlclosely, we could say that Sharp's masterful loose handling, liquid modeling, and tonal range not only describe the play of sunlight but also evoke the sweltering heat of day versus the comparative relief found within the doorway.
Renoir to Remington includes the work of only one member of the Santa Fe circle Los Cinco Pintores, yet the individual in question -- Fremont F. Ellis -- has become the most sought-after painter of the group, and this despite the fact that his "Impressionist" landscape style was seen by his Pintores colleagues as somewhat anachronistic next to their commitment to twentieth-century modernism. We are fortunate to have on view five different paintings by Ellis; and, similar to the case of Taos painter Joseph Henry Sharp, they reveal an artist who was more versatile than is commonly described. Ellis also provides a bridge to our El Paso artists; he briefly owned an optometry shop in El Paso before devoting himself to painting, and represented El Paso scenes such as the dramatic El Paso Smelter at Night (fig. 15).
Born in 1897 in the mining town of Virginia City, Montana, Ellis was a largely self-taught painter who followed an interesting path toward his artistic career. The son of a nomadic dentist and theater operator, he began painting as a youth and had his first exhibition as a teenager in El Paso. Despite the praise the young artist received, he responded to his father's concerns for his livelihood by studying optometry in Los Angeles and then opening his practice in El Paso. Unhappy and unsuccessful as a businessman, Ellis made the decision to become a professional artist. First visiting Santa Fe in 1919, he resided there briefly without success and moved to California, where he took up photography. Soon, however, he returned to settle in Santa Fe, where he supported himself as a photographer and sign painter while pursuing his painting.
Coming together in 1921, Los Cinco Pintores were all young men under the age of thirty and relatively new to Santa Fe. While the other four members devoted themselves to the formal simplicity of twentieth-century modernism, Ellis became known as the Impressionist of the group. The society disbanded as early as 1926, but Ellis continued to paint up until his death in 1985, exhibiting widely in Santa Fe and Los Angeles and remaining committed to his individual Impressionist style. Interestingly, the artist's previous work in optometry and photography played a role in his coloristic painting: Ellis frequently made photographs of the landscape using various lenses, techniques, or filters, and then translated the effects into his paintings. The enduring appeal of Ellis's art speaks to his understanding of Impressionist ideals and his ability to marshal them to his own creative ends.
Ellis's most purely Impressionist painting in the exhibition is the small Pecos Spillway(fig. 14), whose allover energy of juxtaposed pastel tones and rapid dabs and strokes suggests a work executed on the spot, not to mention the artist's joy at being there to record the scene. The picture makes interesting comparison with the larger composition El Paso Smelter at Night(fig. 15) which also focuses upon industry in the landscape. Whereas the former picture utilizes white and incorporates the spillway into its larger vision of sunbaked nature, the latter picture joins black with sonorous colors ranging from glowing yellow to deep violet, and leaves center stage to the visual drama created by El Paso's historic smelter at night. In contrast to the freedom of execution evident in the sunlit scene, the painterly handling of El Paso Smelter at Night appears more predetermined, with parallel horizontal strokes forming the molten-lava-like foreground, and incrusted splotches and clouds of pigment describing the multicolored sky. Thus, in relation to the more squarely Impressionist quality of Pecos Spillway, the expressive mood and intensified colors of the second picture demonstrate that Ellis could likewise approach a more Post-Impressionist sensibility. Ultimately, however, both pictures recall the following description of the artist and his work by the editor of The El Paso Morning Times, who was writing in 1919, the same year Ellis executed El Paso Smelter at Night: "He delights in indulging in a riot of melting colors, all blending in exquisite harmony and glowing in subtle lights and shade, so characteristic of the far-flung reaches of the arid plain. His paintings remind me of one of Longfellow's lines, 'Torrents of light and river of air' or, as a stellar highway where the billowing clouds race in aerial sport...."
A brief look at two of Ellis's remaining pictures confirms the depth and range of his art. Representing the singular beauty of a hot and barren desert landscape, the 1917 Yuccas (fig. 16) features simplified pearly planes of sand, mountains, and sky, across which run a Neo-Impressionist mosaic of evanescent rectangular color strokes. In its delicacy, simplicity, and systematization, Ellis's composition rivals the work of Neo-Impressionist master Seurat, with the difference being that here in this desert view the straight and curving silhouettes of isolated yuccas take the place of the masts and riggings seen in Seurat's celebrated coastal scenes.
Ellis's latest picture in the exhibition, A Passing Stormor Summer Stormof 1969 (pl. x), responds to a different aspect of the desert in a correspondingly different way. Here the bold brushwork, the creamy pigment, and the contrasts between yellows and browns of rolling terrain and deep blues, grays, and whites of roiling sky recall most strongly the early landscape painting of American realist George Bellows (1882-1925) -- who, coincidentally, painted in Santa Fe in 1917 and was himself inspired by the broad handling of Impressionism.
Some El Paso Area Artists, Early and Late
Renoir to Remington includes a number of Impressionist-related pictures by El Paso artists ranging through the twentieth century, most of which are located in the EPMA. The earliest of these local painters were the landscapists Audley Dean Nicols and Elmer L. Boone, respectively born in Pittsburgh in 1875 and Joplin, Missouri, in 1883. Each man moved to El Paso in 1927 for health reasons.
Nicols's small canvas Sunland Landscapeis characteristic of the works that made him famous in El Paso (pl. x). He focused on desert scenes that were typically separated into three horizontal registers of land, mountains, and sky; he painted in a careful yet limpid and coloristic style; and in the distance he featured atmospheric, diaphanous purple or blue mountains with distinct contours. Nicols's previous training in New York under the staunch academic painter Kenyon Cox (18561919) is manifest in his methodical technique and pristine finish, which would suggest that the source of his unique pastel colors was fundamentally the artist's close attention to the unique light effects observable in the Southwestern desert.
Boone's genre painting Shepherdexpresses the artist's devotion to the Southwestern landscape through its expressive glowing sunset and pastel mountains in the background (fig. 17). While the humble rural subject and mood of the work recall the art of the pre-Impressionist Barbizon painters, the most intriguing aspect of the picture is its series of visible parallel stokes on the shepherd and sheep, which together create a weave describing the forms. Significantly, close study reveals that many of these adjacent strokes are blue, pink, or another color, suggesting the artist's interest in creating optical color mixing.
Next is a pair of desert landscapes depicting the same motif -- El Capitan, signature peak of West Texas -- and painted by Berla Ione Emeree and Jay Tipton (figs. 18-19). Born in Wichita, Kansas, Emeree moved to El Paso at the age of eight and later founded the Berla Ione Emeree School of Painting in El Paso; Jay Tipton was born in El Paso, yet little is known about him other than that he was a commercial artist, book illustrator, and member of the El Paso Art Guild. Emeree and Tipton were both active in the 1920s, and the freshness, charm, and expressive color of their pair of works make one wish that the two artists might have painted them together on the spot (though Emeree seems to have viewed her subject from a greater distance). The pale purple of Emeree's mountains recalls those of Nicols, except that Emeree's mountains are broadly brushed, with strokes following the facets of the promontory. Moving to the other picture, Tipton's lines around stones and plants possess an appealing naive quality, which may relate to his work illustration, while his deep cerulean blues and blushes of red on the rocks possess an intensity suggesting Fauvism. Likewise, in the foreground of Emeree's picture we also find Fauvist-like features, namely the vivid contrasts of crude orange and violet strokes to describe the rocks, plants, or shadows.
Our next two artists -- mother and son Fern Thurston and Eugene Thurston -- provide a bridge through the century, and both became important teachers in the El Paso area. Although Fern Thurston usually painted with bolder colors, her Ruidosocombines essentially naturalistic local color with sketchy brushwork across the surface (pl. x). At the same time, the pale opalescent tones in the sky and the painterly pastels in the mountains at upper right recall the colors of the Impressionist Berthe Morisot. More brilliant in color are the forms in Eugene Thurston's Acoma and Mesas(pl. x)
Bolder still, however, are the colors and strokes in Earline Barnes's Old Town(fig. 20). The requirements of raising a family meant that Barnes had to wait until the 1970s to study painting, but later she became an important teacher as the Thurstons had done before her. Notably, the twentieth-century modernist brand of Impressionism evident in Old Townis not only bolder in color but also in the inherent energy of the brushwork, so that we could describe it as expressionistic. Barnes is less interested in rendering the play of light on surfaces, a quality of classic French Impressionism, than she is to create a pictorial translation of the world, which possesses its own internal color and energy.
To consider one more area artist, let us end with a living example, Russell Waterhouse. Although he now lives in Lincoln, New Mexico, Waterhouse was born in El Paso and worked for many years as an advertising director for El Paso corporations. Waterhouse's Horse Round-Up(fig. 21) is a wonderful example of the continuing vitality of Impressionist features within Southwestern art, particularly through its painterly handling. Though the overall color is naturalistic, there exists a beautiful array of pastel tones under the fleecy clouds. Using a low vantage point, the artist leaves almost half the composition to the grassy terrain, which is rendered with turbulent brushwork across its entire surface. A final expressive feature is the string of galloping horses above, which are almost subsumed within the landscape. One could say that the quickly moving forms of the horses across the crest of the hill become one with the turbulent ocean of the field and with the spirited dance of the clouds.
Remington and "The Sagebrush Rembrandt"
Before concluding, there are two other important artists we should consider: Frederic Remington (cat. nos. 46, 73), whose representations of the Wild West codified the archetypal Western imagery that was later immortalized by Hollywood; and William Robinson Leigh (cat. nos. 67-71), whose use of academic technique to paint the life, colors, and landscape of the Southwest earned him the sobriquet "The Sagebrush Rembrandt." Born five years apart, both artists were successful illustrators who maintained New York studios and frequently traveled West to gather material for their favorite subjects. For Remington these were the cavalry, cowboys, and Indians of the frontier, and for Leigh they were the changing lights of the Southwestern landscape and the life of the Hopi and Navajo Indians.
Remington is represented in the exhibition by an important painting at the EPMA, which entered the collection as a gift of the El Paso Art Museum Association Members' Guild in 1969, and by a significant sculpture from the Maxon collection. The Mountain Manis worth noting as one of Remington's most daring and critically acclaimed compositions in sculpture, a medium he began to study independently in 1895 (pl. x). Representing the dramatic descent of a French-Canadian trapper and his horse down an almost vertical slope, the work returns us to the quality of intrinsic movement and naturalism we saw earlier in the sculptures of Degas and the contemporary Southwestern artist Tom Knapp. The Mountain Manis an excellent demonstration of art historian Michael Shapiro's description of Remington as "the American sculptor most concerned with depicting the action and spirit of headlong forward motion, whose mysteries the camera's eye had first revealed in the 1870s." Further highlighting Remington's naturalist intentions, research has revealed a likely source for his composition: the photograph of a European military officer and his mount descending a very steep slope, which the artist kept in one of his photograph albums.
Completed in 1909 the year of Remington's early death, The Mystery(alternately titled A Sign of Friendshipor The Sun Worshippers) (fig. 22) is critical as a representative example of the painter's late style, which has sometimes been termed "impressionistic realism." After 1900 Remington began progressively to loosen his illustrative style under the influence of Monet and three American Impressionists he knew personally, Childe Hassam (1859-1935), John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902), and Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919). The EPMA picture's general palette of pale golden yellow, blue, and russet resembles the coloration of other paintings dating from a year or two prior, but in this newer work the shadows move from blue to violet and the colors of the horses from brown to brilliant terra cotta. The handling has also become more Impressionist, so that the foreground pair of horses and riders are covered with evident flecks of pigment, and the grass below them is rendered with a beautifully abstract weave of diagonal strokes in various pastel tones. The shift toward Impressionism evident in such a work can only leave us to wonder what might have been Remington's subsequent development if he had not died prematurely from complications following an emergency appendectomy.
The last artist to be discussed, William Robinson Leigh ("The Sagebrush Rembrandt"), shares closest analogies with members of the Taos Society of Artists. Born in West Virginia, he studied for three years at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, and then at age sixteen left for Europe, where he trained for twelve years at Munich's Royal Academy. Returning to New York, Leigh established a successful career in illustration, but eventually was eager to broaden his horizons. The opportunity came in 1906 when the Santa Fe Railroad offered him passage through New Mexico and Arizona in exchange for a painting of the Grand Canyon. Henceforth, as Leigh's contemporary Remington had done before him, the artist would regularly return West.
Like the Taos Society, Leigh joined his thorough academic training with a lightened palette, a mode well represented in the genre painting Zuni Pottery Maker(pl. x); here bright and vivid colors coexist with crisp, detailed observation that extends from foreground figures and objects to more distant architectural and natural forms. Complementing this starkness, the lighting of the painting focuses upon distinct contrasts between the strong sunlight of the scene and areas of shade and shadow punctuating it. Similarly, in the landscape Grand Canyonthe artist delineates every form near and far while using a coloristic palette ranging from pastel to deeper tones (pl. x).
Notably, however, two other works in the exhibition disclose a more modernist side to this artist, recalling the variety we witnessed earlier in the case of Taos artist Joseph Henry Sharp. For instance, the shimmering, pastel-hued landscape San Francisco Peaks, Arizona (fig. 23) detail for a uniform incrustation of small strokes across much of the surface, producing a decorative and dissolving effect whose closest equivalent in art is the Haystacksseries that Monet began to paint in 1890. Moreover, The Vision Seekerof 1919 (fig. 24), which is Leigh's latest work in the exhibition, brings together a poetic title suggestive of Symbolism with simplified planes, regularized strokes of juxtaposed colors, and delicate and glowing tones that move us directly toward Neo-Impressionism.
As sketched out in the foregoing essay, the immediacy and expressiveness of the Impressionist style have inspired and continue to inspire a multitude of Southwestern artists, serving as a unique vehicle for transcribing the special beauty of the region and for translating the artists' love of it. Impressionist infusion in art of the Southwest has taken various forms, from committed Impressionists such as Fremont Ellis to painters like Frederic Remington who explored the style temporarily or tangentially.
Two significant themes that emerge from this project are
the variety of ways that twentieth-century artists of the Southwest have
investigated Impressionism alongside or in combination with other approaches,
and the especially enduring imprints the Impressionist style has left within
Southwestern art. The Taos Society of Artists, for instance, typically melded
academic technique with the lighter palette of Impressionism, yet certain
members like Eanger Irving Couse and Joseph Henry Sharp went so far as to
embrace bold Impressionist brushwork in some of their pictures. Finally,
with respect to the second theme, the wealth of artists, works, and approaches
in the exhibition and catalog suggests a level of Impressionist influence
in Southwest art that is akin to what has frequently been termed "California
Impressionism" for a similarly light-filled and naturally beautiful
region of the country. Indeed, it is hoped that Renoir to Remingtonwill
inspire both broader and more in-depth studies of "Southwest Impressionism"
for the future.
1 Recent examples of major Western American collections to enter public museums have occurred at the Denver Art Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum. In 2001 William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen donated a large collection to Denver, which prompted the establishment of an institute devoted to the theme, named in 2007 the Denver Art Museum's Petrie Institute of Western American Art. A subsequent collection gift from Henry Roath was announced by Denver in 2013; the Roath Collection is strong in works of the American Southwest and in particular members of the Taos Society of Artists. In 2012 the Tacoma Art Museum announced the gift of more than two hundred eighty works from Erivan and Helga Haub and their family, which makes the Museum the only Pacific Northwest institution to hold a major collection of Western American art; the collection will be housed in the newly constructed Haub Family Galleries, set to open in fall 2014. (Coincidentally, the timing of this expansion project at the Tacoma Art Museum helped make possible the loan of its Impressionist works to the present exhibition.)
2 Michael Tomor in the foreword to Carol Price Miller et al., Into the Desert Light: Early El Paso Art 18501960 (El Paso: El Paso Museum of Art, 2010), p. 5.
3 This translation of the group's name into today's vernacular follows the one suggested by Charles S. Moffett in the introduction to Moffett et al., The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886 (Geneva: Richard Burton SA, Publishers, 1986), p. 18.
4 The focus of this essay does not include a comprehensive treatment of the artistic and cultural contexts in which Impressionism arose, but we might note here a few other diverse phenomena significant for the appearance of the movement: the modern self-consciousness of nineteenth-century European culture as having its own new forms, pace, and rhythms in distinction to the past; the development of photography and its revelation of new ways of "framing" the world; and, on the most practical level, the invention of collapsible metal paint tubes and lighter painting equipment that made it easier to paint outdoors.
5 Degas was an exception, being chiefly a figure painter who preferred to work from the model in the studio.
6 Renoir experimented with sculpture, but only quite late in his career beginning in 1913.
7 Exhibited in the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, the audacious work shocked conservative critics by its unidealized naturalism, which in addition to the tutu included a real bodice, slippers, and wig.
8 The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, owns the largest number of the original sculptures discovered in Degas's studio, including the wax version of the Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer.
9 I borrow the phrase "odd man out" from Carol Armstrong, whose book on Degas remains one of the most engaging, evocative, and insightful monographs on the artist: Carol Armstrong, Odd Man Out: Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
10 The following recent publication sheds interesting light on Onderdonk's early years as an artist in New York, revealing that he signed many works with pseudonyms such as "Chas. Turner" and turned them over to a dealer to unload quickly at low prices, thereby easing the young artist's financial worries and allowing him to avoid the distraction of cultivating collectors: James Graham Baker, Julian Onderdonk in New York: The Lost Years -- The Lost Paintings (Denton: Texas State Historical Association, 2014). An exhibition based on the book and curated by Ron Tyler appeared at the Witte Museum in San Antonio from 8 March to 9 September 2014.
11 After dying in 1948 at her home near Windsor, Berkshire, England, Cundell had her ashes scattered in Marble Canyon; the artist also wrote and illustrated a book about her experiences in the American West: Unsentimental Journey (London: Methuen and Co., 1940). Cundell was one of ten artists represented in the recent touring exhibition Arizona's Pioneering Women Artists, organized in 2012 by the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.
12 Though space does not allow a fuller description here, the exhibition also features work by the following two members of a more recent circle, the Tucson 7, who began associating in the 1970s: the living painter Howard Terpning and his colleague Duane Bryers (cat. nos. 84 and 88-89), who died two years ago and coined the group's name in the 1990s. The principal publication on the Tucson 7 is Robert A. Yassin and Tisa Rodriguez Sherman, The Tucson 7 (Tucson: Tucson Museum of Art, 1997).
13 The exception is the Montana native Fremont F. Ellis.
14 An interesting topic for future study would be Elk Foot as a model, whose physical beauty and ideal features the artists favored. Elk Foot posed repeatedly for Couse and Sharp and became close friends with the artists, beginning to model for Couse in 1907 and Sharp in 1913. Elk Foot lived to the age of 110; his most famous portrait is the monumental picture by Couse (sometimes called Couse's masterwork) located in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC: Elk Foot of the Taos Tribe, 1909, oil on canvas, 78 1/4 x 36 3/8 in. (198.6 x 92.4 cm).
15 Ellis's works have a larger market and fetch higher prices than the
other four members of Los Cinco Pintores: Jozef Bakos (1891-1977), Walter
Mruk (1883-1942), Willard Ayer Nash (1898-1942), and Will Shuster (1893-1969).
Currently the highest sale price for one of his paintings was $95,600 in
2004, almost three times the top amount for a work by any of his colleagues;
the work in question is the 1927 Indian Summer -- Santa Fe, New
Mexico, oil on canvas, 28 x 36 in. (71.1 x 91.4 cm), lot 34 at Christie's,
Los Angeles, 17 November 2004.
16 Beginning operations in 1888, El Paso's ASARCO smelter with its smokestacks appeared as a multivalent motif in art for more than a century, until its demolition on 13 April 2013.
17 As cited in Barbara Spencer Foster with Bambi Elizabeth Ellis, Fremont F. Ellis: Last of Los Cinco Pintores of Santa Fe (Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2010), p. 39.
18 It was the comparison of these two works that allowed us to identify the subject of the Tipton, which previously had been called Franklin or Guadalupe Mountains.
19 Michael Edward Shapiro, "Remington the Sculptor," in Shapiro et al., Frederic Remington: The Masterworks (Saint Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum, 1988), p. 183.
20 The photograph is reproduced in ibid., p. 204.
21 These two alternate titles are listed in the Remington catalogue raisonné:
Peter H. Hassrick and Melissa J. Webster, Frederic Remington: A Catalogue
Raisonné of Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings (Cody, Wyoming:
Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 1996), vol. 2, no. 2911, p. 833.
About the author
Patrick Shaw Cable, Ph.D., is Senior Curator at the El Paso Museum of Art.
Resource Library editor's note
The above essay was published October 30, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of the author and El Paso Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on October 30, 2014. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Dr. Michael Tomor of El Paso Museum of Art and Jeff Romney for their help concerning publishing the essay.
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