The following essay was written by Rodger Rak as a catalogue essay for the illustrated catalogue Color, Pattern & Plane: E. Martin Hennings in Taos, which accompanied a February 5 - November 1, 1986 exhibition at the Stark Museum of Art. The essay is reprinted with permission of the Stark Museum of Art and without illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Stark Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


An Individual Reality

by Rodger Rak


Within this century the search for an American identity has been a major force in the shaping of American art, realist and non-representational alike. In many ways the experiences and career of the realist painter E. Martin Hennings are a product and a portion of the early years of this challenge. As Hennings saw it later in life, this challenge embodied within his painting was the great adventure of his life calling upon all his ability and craftsmanship. [1]

The forty-four year period between 1876 and 1920 is a unique time in the development of American art. During this period, the "American Renaissance," a total revolution in American artistic thought occurred. This period saw the development of a national "academic" tradition, separate from its European models, and out of it the explosive birth and growth of "Modern" American art since the Armory Exhibition of 1913 in New York City. From its earliest beginnings this new American art tradition continued to change and develop, first in response to dramatic changes in the Nation itself and later as a result of the challenges of Modern art. Indeed the history of the American Renaissance and its offspring is the history of the search for a distinctive, national artistic identity and the development of an American aesthetic.

Even though America had been politically independent from Europe for many years, it remained almost entirely dependent on Europe for its art. For most Americans European art was the master and their own arts and artists merely pale imitations. Thus throughout the 19th century, Americans went to Europe to study art and to adopt the latest European styles of art. The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago signalled a dramatic change in this arrangement. At this exposition, with all the World's art collected in one place, American artists and the Public realized that their art was the equal to that of Europe. For the first time the dominance of European art and its philosophies was broken.

America began to look for a truly American art which examined American themes. It was soon discovered in the art of its own art academies. This academic, realist art nurtured in the academies of New York, Boston, Chicago and a few other cities swiftly became the public art of America and remained so for much of this century. Moreover, it is this foundation upon which American realist art, even up to the present, is built. Among its adherents are such diverse artists as F. Childe Hassam and Frederick MacMonnies, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and the Taos Society of Artists. Consequently, it was from this art that a truly American art philosophy first blossomed for subsequent generations to build upon.

Any study of this time will reveal artists bombarded by changes on all sides. For during this period, the many facets of the 19th century "realist" tradition and 20th century "Modern" vanguard attempted to resolve themselves to one another. As the two philosophies were forced to respond to these pressures so were the artists. Some artists rejected all aspects of one or the other. Many adopted elements of both. Indeed, these pressures and the artists' responses to them has created the diversity of 20th century American art. Within this cauldron of influences E. Martin Hennings of Chicago and Taos received his training and began his career.


Hennings and the Art Institute of Chicago

Hennings received his early art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between 1901 and 1904. Ever since the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Chicago had been one of the premier centers of American art. Chicago along with New York and several other regional centers led the Country in the creation of its new art and architecture. Consequently, the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), founded in 1879, as the preeminent art institution in the city was a major center for the development of American art and education of artists.

Even in Hennings' day the School of the AIC was organized around the French "atelier" model. Under this arrangement the school was separated into three divisions: elementary, preparatory, and top form. In order for a student to finish the program he had to successfully complete the activities of each division from elementary through top form. Drawing, especially figure drawing, was at the core of the curriculum. Drawing was considered the only sound preparation for a career as painter, sculptor or illustrator. Each division emphasized various aspects of this philosophy with each lesson building on past exercises. The elementary division taught the basics through outline drawings, simple problems in perspective and shading exercises on pre-prepared prints.

The preparatory division emphasized drawing from plaster casts, architectural ornaments and sculpture. Also, students started oil painting in "grisaille" from the figure. The top form delved deeply into drawing and painting from life using costumed and nude figures, still-life arrangements and landscapes. Also, a great emphasis was placed on the study of human anatomy. Students used models, skeletons, illustrations, and photographs in their studies.[2]

In each division, students studied under a master who gave them basic instruction and supervised their projects. Usually, students remained with a single master throughout their time at the School. At the end of each month they demonstrated their progress in a "concours" or critique judged by the entire faculty of the department. The best work was awarded a prize. Hennings distinguished himself sixteen times in these concours. Hennings studied primarily under John H. Vanderpoel (1857-1911), though he did spend some time under Frank Phoenix (d.1924) and Louis Wilson, two other drawing and painting masters at the AIC. All three were graduates of the AIC and, no doubt, were instrumental in Hennings embracing the basic philosophy espoused by the AIC for creating art of value. This philosophy as later reiterated by him is:

"In every picture I expect the fundamentals to be observed, which I term - draftsmanship, design, form, rhythm, color. Art must of necessity be the artist's own reaction to nature and his personal style governed by his temperament..."[3]

Further, Hennings wholesale adoption of this philosophy demonstrates his propensity for the values of mainstream American art which in his day was the art of the American Renaissance.


Mural Painting, a New American Aesthetic and Hennings

Among its other contributions, the Columbian Exposition stimulated a revival in mural painting which continued well into this century. This revival renewed widespread interest in monumental painting as seen in works such as John LaFarge's (1835-1910) murals for the Trinity Church in Boston in 1878 through the many murals commissioned by the WPA in the 30's. The majority of mural painting was done for public spaces, churches, hotels, and government buildings. Consequently, mural painting was quickly adopted as America's distinctive public art form and was at the forefront of any discussion about a new aesthetic. As an American critic, Kenyon Cox stated:

''... In no field have American artists more decisively taken their own way than in this of mural painting, in none have they produced an art more their own. And perhaps that which is most characteristically American in this art is its conservatism, its discipline and moderation, its consonance with all great and hallowed traditions - in one word, its classicism."[4]

From the very beginning, mural painting was conceived of as a partner to architecture rather than as a separate art like easel painting. Mainly, mural painting was the only art capable of filling the enormous spaces of American architecture, but also the themes of mural painting were the only ones worthy of these buildings which were themselves statements of America's unlimited and virtuous powers of industry. Fortunately, this followed well with the fusion of the arts advocated by the early adherents of the American Renaissance, but more importantly the new fusion of architecture and painting seemed to speak directly to the American soul because of its novelty, monumentality, and directness. Its popularity proved propitious because the new aesthetic conceived of mural painting, first and foremost, as a means of educating the Public in national history, values, and morals in order to spur on national intellectual development.[5]

Following European antecedents, many scenes drew on biblical or classical (ancient Greek and Roman) models for their inspiration. Indeed, most theorists deemed these the only sources of inspiration worthy of this art. The subjects depicted were chosen for their ability to represent the value of high culture and the successes of Civilization. Unlike some of its European antecedents, American painting never sought to analyze or judge these themes. Instead it sought only to record these values. Consequently, scenes intimating the darker aspects of Life, poverty, unrest, and violence, were avoided.

Early on, the ideas and themes an artist could draw upon became set. As a result, mural painting became synonymous with depictions of moral behavior or personifications of the virtues of Progress, such as justice or industry. Moreover, the scenes depicted in murals became less and less representations of historical events and were more and more archetypal and eternal symbols of these themes. Additionally, within these well-defined boundaries, it became a widely espoused belief that the placement of figures and their postures, the arrangement of landscape elements and the like be such that they implied a definitive and all inclusive statement of a moral issue or virtue.[6]

It was as a mural painter that Hennings experienced the first successes of his career. Now, it seems clear that his choice of vocation was not an accident. Throughout his education and early career, he was in close proximity to mural painting and muralists. After his graduation from the AIC, he joined a studio of commercial muralists in Chicago. Also, in 1908 the AIC initiated a series of lectures, the Scammon lectures, which brought many of the leading artists and critics of the day to Chicago. Their topics were the new American aesthetic and public art in America. As the leading public art form, mural painting was a common lecture topic.

About 1909 Hennings received a major commission to paint the ceiling murals for the recently completed Florentine Ballroom of the Congress Hotel in Chicago. Between the ribs of the ballroom's barrel-vaulted ceiling Hennings painted large rectangular panels depicting antique figures in allegorically inspired scenes.[7] The Florentine Ballroom and other commissions from the period 1906-1921 reflect his adoption of academic realist art as his own. For in all these works it is easy to see the well established tenets of mural painting at work. Following these tenets most of the figures in his murals maintain a severe frontality. The figures are arranged along a foreground plane parallel to the picture plane which further emphasizes their presence. This is emphasized even more by the gaze of the figures which is often directed at the viewer. Usually, the midground and background are established with the barest of details and are clearly subservient to the foreground. Additionally, as prescribed, his figures are arranged and depicted as if they are in a timeless place located somewhere between actions completed and actions uninitiated. Often, this timeless quality in Hennings' murals spurs vague memories of antique friezes or medieval mosaics.

Hennings' final mural, The Chosen Site, (p. 8) was started in 1938, seventeen years after his move to Taos and almost as many years after his last mural commission. During this hiatus from mural painting, Hennings had used his easel painting to refine many of the elements adopted as a student (this is examined in more detail later on). For this reason, The Chosen Site represents a logical conclusion to Hennings, career as a muralist and a fine sample of many of the elements of his mature style.

The mural was completed and put in place in the new Post Office of Van Buren, Arkansas in 1940 where it still remains over the Postmaster's door. The mural was commissioned by the Federal Arts Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration. Throughout the 30's the FAP guided a controversial program of art, mainly murals, for government buildings, thereby employing otherwise unemployed artists and adorning public spaces with art depicting American history and values. The latter purpose clearly follows the tradition of art for public education previously advocated by the American Renaissance.

A contemporary newspaper account gives some insight into Hennings' working method. [8] By his own account, Hennings spent two years preparing charcoal drawings of his models and the final composition. He then spent an additional three months painting the 7 x 14 foot canvas in his Taos studio. As with almost all American mural painting, Hennings painted with oil colors onto a primed canvas tacked on the walls of his studio. With the exception of only the most monumental canvases, it was the practice of muralists to paint the mural in their studio, and upon completion to roll and ship it to the final destination.

Upon reaching its destination in Van Buren, the murals were adhered to the dry plaster wall with white lead or other adhesive. Rubber hand rollers were then used to ensure contact to the wall and to remove wrinkles and blisters. This process known as "maroflage" was carried out by three craftsmen under the artist's supervision.

Unlike his early murals, The Chosen Site represents a new step towards the marriage of American Renaissance themes with distinctly American subjects. As with previous murals, his figures maintain the frontal directness, dominant foreground, and sense of timelessness evident in earlier murals but now the figures are drawn purely from an American pantheon. Instead of classical gods blessing the endeavors of Man, we have the Pioneer, quintessential embodiment of Human endeavors. One look at the steely-eyed, square jawed pioneer man, the strong but fertile pioneer woman, and their able but untested counterparts, the pioneer children, and we realize that the genuine, archetypal ideal of the American aesthetic is at last before us.

Moreover, not only was this synthesis successful in producing an image representative of the American aesthetic but the art it produced was successful with the American public. A letter from the postmaster of Van Buren indicates his and his fellow citizens satisfaction with the choice of subject matter and the realist manner in which the mural was painted.[9] Clearly, this indicates that Hennings had achieved a union of all the influences of his past which at the same time satisfied popular American tastes.


Hennings in Germany 1912-1915

Having taken 2nd prize in the Prix de Rome, Hennings travelled to the Royal Academy in Munich in 1912. Hennings already had many connections with Germany. Many of his relatives still lived in Germany but more importantly several of the instructors at the AIC, including Louis Wilson, had studied in Munich. As a result, the course of study at the AIC bore many similarities to that at the Royal Academy. Also, German art like American art was moving towards a new aesthetic based on the principles of the international arts and crafts movement but reflecting the national character. This search seemed to possess many parallels to that of the American Renaissance. In Germany this led to the creation of the "Jugendstil" movement. Consequently, Munich, which was the center of this development, now seems to have been the logical choice for Hennings to further his education.

Hennings travelled to Munich expressly to study with the German master Franz von Stuck (1863-1928), but was not accepted at first by von Stuck as a student. Instead, Hennings studied with two of von Stuck's followers, Walter Thor and Angelo Junk, at the Academy. Eventually after seeing several examples of Hennings' work, von Stuck accepted him as a pupil.

Twenty years earlier von Stuck had led the Munich Secession (1892), establishing him as the preeminent young German artist, and beginning the decline of the old academic order. Also, his actions proved to be the first step in the wedding of German Romanticism with the arts and crafts movement. For the next ten years he continued as a leading artist and major proponent of the Jugendstil movement. Nonetheless, though his work received great popular acclaim, it had little critical success and by 1909 Vasily Kandinsky, a former pupil and the new leader of German art, and other modernists, succeeded in labeling von Stuck's work as out-of-date. Therefore, Hennings unhesitant dismissal of the modernists, and his unrestrained admiration for von Stuck undoubtedly endeared him to the besieged master. [10]

It is likely both men saw one another as kindred spirits. Hennings' later work, though, seems to indicate that he chose carefully what he took from the master. Von Stuck, like Hennings, was deeply interested in the figure. Most of his figure paintings were on a large scale and showed the whole figure. This seems to have spurred Hennings to a renewed study of the figure and anatomy as evinced by drawings from the period. Like much of the art of the American Renaissance, Von Stuck's figurative work relied heavily upon antique themes and models for its inspiration. However, it almost always possessed a blatant eroticism and frequently portrayed acts of violence, tendencies which neither Hennings nor other American Renaissance artists widely embraced. On occasion though, some of these elements did assert themselves in Hennings' later work.

In the early thirties as he moved toward his mature synthesis, he produced a series of large paintings depicting a pair of semi-nude, male Indian figures engaged in martial activities. There are at least three works in the series: The Victor, depicting a victorious Indian warrior standing over a slain enemy, and Vengeance (p. 20) and an untitled but related companion. Vengeance and its companion depict two parts of a "Cain and Abel" friendship. All three works remind one immediately of von Stuck's work. It takes little imagination to see the classical inspiration of the subject and composition. In addition, all three works provided Hennings with an opportunity to demonstrate his Chicago trained and Munich honed virtuosity in anatomy and portraiture.

Disregarding von Stuck's more decadent aspects, Hennings seized upon his use of the figure as symbol. Von Stuck's compositions, like the art of the American Renaissance, depicted the histories of various gods, goddesses or heroes, but in turn, contained broader allegorical content representative of moral themes and ideas. Obviously, von Stuck used his art as a means of expressing German character. This accounts for the greater romanticism of his work and may explain his more sordid depictions. Nonetheless, his work offered many parallels to Hennings' own experience and provided another source of inspiration for Hennings' mature synthesis.

Additionally, during his time in Munich, Hennings was fully exposed to other aspects of the Jugendstil movement. The Jugendstil artists offered Hennings an obvious platform for the development of the basic art principles he had learned at the AIC, the most important principle being the use of pattern in art. For the Jugendstil artists, pattern was not only the arrangement of systematized, repeated elements, but the inference of pattern implied by irregular, organically inspired elements as well. These patterns in turn were used to provide unity, create space and emphasize the dominant portion of the painting. [11] It is evident in Henflings' End of the Harvest (p. 17) that he learned these lessons well. In this painting Hennings arranges a row of stalks as a barrier to our vision. This creates a visible plane close within the foreground, obscuring the main subject and transforming it into something mysterious.

Many of the external conventions he adopted while in Germany were quickly forgotten after returning home. Regardless, the underlying concepts to which he had been exposed, especially those paralleling his experience of the American aesthetic, were planted deep and resurfaced in his Taos work.


Towards a New Synthesis

Upon his return from Munich, Hennings was restless for a change in his career. In Taos, he discovered a change which suited him and a challenge to last a lifetime. For the land and denizens offered him a chance to:

"Employ all the knowledge and skill that you are capable of with the thought of achieving as outstanding a "creation as you are capable of ... " [12]

Taos quickly brought change to Hennings. Like so many artist of Taos, he was amazed by the brilliant light of New Mexico. Already he had abandoned the dark, earthy palette of von Stuck for the broader range of colors favored by many American artists but Taos lightened his palette even more. As a result, he used even fewer dark earth tones. In the place of these colors he filled out his palette with blues, greens and yellows and generously added zinc white to many of his colors to brighten them even more.

Also, Hennings gave up the thick, broad brushstrokes, favored by the academies that appear in his early paintings such as Elderly Lady (p. 9). This kind of brushwork was very effective in establishing the volume of a form. Instead, he adopted a thinner paint laid on with a softer brush. This allowed him to apply paint, with little impasto, in distinct areas of color and tone. Each area of color and tone was chosen to harmonize with its neighbor to create an overall pattern. Where he earlier used planes built of strokes to model the form of an object, he now used these Jugendstil-based theories of pattern to establish form and space. This is apparent in both his portrait and landscape painting.

In his portraiture Hennings no longer used his brushstrokes to model the volume of a form. Instead, he turned to a planar approach. The various elements of the body and face, such as the planes and curves created by bones and muscles, and wrinkles, become elements of an overall pattern. Eventually, as in works like The Chosen Site, (p. 8) he emphasized the planarity of the figures and enclosed their patterning within a heavy outline making the figures appear as if they were cutouts pasted in place.

In his landscapes, such as Winter Cottonwoods, Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, Hennings used these harmonized areas of color and tone to build intricate patterns. The patterning could appear in any elements of his paintings - in the branches of a tree, the placement of figures or the arrangement of clouds. In his landscapes this patterning appeared even in the contrast of the brilliant light and deep shadow so evident in the forests of New Mexico. Most likely his use of patterning was a development of the formal rules of mural painting but also it underscores his concern for elevating his painting from mere observations of the commonplace.

Discovering this patterning all about him, Hennings felt compelled to paint the landscape even though he found it more difficult than his figure work. Few of his landscapes, though, are without figures. Drawing on the best traditions of the "plein-air" painters he took to painting out-of-doors. Painting outdoors encouraged Hennings to disregard more aspects of his academic background. The academies encouraged artists to use a systematic approach or as Hennings described it:

"A painting is a great adventure - thinking over a subject - making many sketches - designing - composing - organizing, planning its color, its lighting - shadows and interweaving contrasts .- until you are certain it has everything for a strong and effective painting - then you go to work on your canvas, with your models..."[13]

Instead Hennings combined all the steps on his canvas. Moreover, the general lack of "pentimenti" or other visible changes to his Taos paintings indicates that he painted with great confidence and surety of his abilities.

His practice when painting outdoors was to paint the landscape before him and then add figures. After bringing the landscape near completion, he made minute thumbnail sketches of the picture, placing figures in various positions and locations until he was satisfied he had uncovered the best composition. At this point he arranged his models in the landscape and finished the painting. [14] Again this was a departure from academic practices. First it was a departure in his disregard of more thorough preliminary sketches and also in his lack of advanced planning before laying the first stroke. Further, it indicates that he continued to consider figures and landscape as two allied but distinct subjects, a philosophy that is noticeably apparent in works like Juanita. This not withstanding, Hennings was, for the most part, successful with his compositions and these practices became an integral part of his style.

In Taos, Hennings discovered a unique subject, distinctly American and exotic, which was relatively unexplored. Hennings saw the Taos Indians, their lifestyle and their lands as a subject filled with dignity, ceremony and unsullied beauty. Truly, this was a subject worthy of expressing the themes of the American aesthetic previously reserved for the overportrayed gods and heroes. Immediately, he seized upon the subject and made it his own as evident in In New Mexico, 1917. In this, and later Taos works, his subjects become infused with a significance capable of transforming them into archetypal symbols. For Hennings this perfect Taos of the imagination became the stage for the construction of his mature synthesis.

Despite this discovery Hennings had not yet fully resolved his final synthesis. Throughout the 20's and into the early 30's he continued to experiment. As the Depression reached Taos he turned from his more formal Taos compositions to intimate genre scenes. In several paintings, Sheep Shearing at Los Cordovas and Depression, Slaughtering Cattle, Ranchos de Taos (p. 19), he adopted a more sympathetic manner for his subjects. In these paintings the subjects acquire an intimacy seen only in a few of his portraits. This is especially so in Depression where following the model of his landscapes Hennings combines portraiture with a genre scene. Unlike his earlier landscapes, though, this combination is allowed to form a harmonized whole. The harmony is achieved by allowing the composition to loosen. Instead of arraying figures along rigid planes, as he did in almost all his other Taos work, he creates patterns throughout the painting with groups of figures in similar postures. This establishes space and leads the eye through the painting. Additionally, he softens transitions from tone to tone and eliminates the use of color as patterning by reducing the delineation of his brushstrokes. As a result, Depression has an atmospheric quality unseen in other Hennings paintings. Sadly, the departure represented by these works was short-lived. Perhaps the realities of the Depression were too unsuited for the promise of the American aesthetic.

Fortunately, Hennings' period of experimentation was not in vain because it cleared the way for the appearance of his mature style. Hennings' new style was a combination of all the elements he had found desirable in his experiences in Chicago, Munich, and Taos. All these elements were bound together with the underlying tenet of the American aesthetic that Hennings' art be a moral art. With this in mind Hennings believed he could mold his art to "an individual and creative interpretation of reality." [15]

His synthesis is best expressed in works like Indian Hunters amongst Aspens (cover) and Reflections. The light and color of these paintings he takes from Taos itself. The intricate patterning of his landscapes and its denizens comes from the Jugendstil. From his murals he borrows frontality and planarity, resolving them into three definite planes of foreground, midground and background. Along these planes all elements of the painting are arrayed. Also, from his period of experimentation he achieves a resolution of portraiture and landscape. No longer does the figure need to be conceived as separate from the landscape. Though his figures often seem flat and sometimes isolated from the landscape, they are now wedded to the landscape by color and pattern. Also they possess a dignity worthy of his archetypal Taos.

At last, in Hennings' synthesis of color, pattern and plane the American aesthetic finds a true and admirable expression. For Taos has been transformed into an idyllic, bucolic land, an American arcadia. In this timeless land, the landscape is always beautiful and blessed; growing; sunlight and water abound; people are happy - free of hurt and evil - and age does not cripple or kill; it just adds character. Has not this always been at the soul of American art?



1. Patricia Janis Broder, Taos: A Painter's Dream (Boston: New York Graphics Society, 1980), p.264.

2. Roger Gilmore, ed., A History of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago 1866-1981 (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1982), p.71.

3. Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 1928, E. Martin Hennings Papers, ME Roll 3249, Frame 21, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

4.. Kenyon Cox, "Mural Painting in France and America," Concerning Painting (1917), p.258.

5. Edwin H. Blashfield, Mural Painting in America (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913), p.6.

6. Pauline King, American Mural Painting (Boston: Noyes, Platt & Co., 1902), p.69.

7. E. Martin Hennings Papers, ME Roll 3249, Frame 19, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

8. Newspaper Article, November 1940, E. Martin Hennings Papers, ME Rol1 3249, Frame 64, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

9. Postmaster, Van Buren, AR to Hennings, E. Martin Hennings Papers, ME Roll 3249, Frame 64, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

10. Interview with Helen Hennings, American Artist, New York, August 15, 1977, p.14.

11. H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, & Architecture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977), p.81.

12. Quoted in Robert R. White, "The Lithographs and Etchings of E. Martin Hennings," El Palacio 84 (Fall 1978).

13. Ibid.

14. Interview with Helen Hennings, p.8.

15. Quoted in White.


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Stark Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.