Art of Ernest Blumenschein

December 28th, 2019  |  Published in *, December 2019

The Dayton Art Institute continues its celebration of its Centennial year by highlighting the career of one of Dayton’s most successful 20th century artists: Ernest Blumenschein.

This exhibition of 15 works examines his love of the spontaneous sketch, his stature as a fine oil painter and his remarkable contribution to his community in the American Southwest.

Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Dayton, Ohio, Blumenschein (1874-1960)        is noted for his work in the field of illustration and oil painting. He is also unique in his self-appointed position as contemporary commentator, evidenced early on during his years at Dayton Central High School, where he produced, edited and illustrated his own magazine: “Tomfoolery”. Hand drawn on 4 sheets, each edition serially lampooned societal and political hypocrisy, as perceived and annotated by the young teen. The exhibition includes a selection of sample pages of his ink and gouache technique which leave little doubt about his illustrational abilities and his keen sense of social satire.

His training at the Art Academy of Cincinnati (1892), the Art Students League in New York (1893-1894) and the Academie Julian in Paris (1894-1896) prepared him to be a proficient illustrator whose work in gouache and ink was in demand.  While traveling on an illustration assignment in 1898 with a studio mate, Bert Geer Philips, an unanticipated broken wagon wheel led to their eventual founding of an artists’ colony in Taos, New Mexico. His involvement in the communities there with both the artists and the native Puebloans was a vibrant relationship for the rest of his life.

His appointment as Associate Academician of the National Academy of Design in 1910 was based on his success as an illustrator. His self-portrait in oil, painted to fulfill the application requirement, speaks quietly to his ambitions to succeed as a fine art painter. The brushwork that captures his likeness in brilliant light is executed with the confident stylistic brevity characteristic of a facilitated observer. The extremely simplified composition is balanced in the lower left corner with a glimpse of the painter’s palette, stated in deep values. Blumenschein was elected to full Academician in 1927 based on his stature as an oil painter.

An example of his work in this field is “Canyon Red and Black” (1934). This colorful landscape of his beloved American Southwest is forward looking in surface work and color palette. The square canvas format is boldly split on a jagged diagonal with cool temperatures of the lower right anchored by cleaved ebony slabs rising to the midpoint of the canvas. Dramatically buttressed red cliffs march into the valley distance as minuscule Indian domiciles lend scale to this composition.

Blumenschein’s empathies with the native Pueblo Indians of New Mexico are addressed in many of his oil paintings, illustrations and writings during his career.

“Ranchos Church” is one of his paintings of the most iconic structures of northern New Mexico. The notched adobe and wood slab structure stands in golden slanting sunlight. The heavily buttressed double-spired facade towers like a fortress behind the forbidding adobe wall. Pueblo Indian families, loitering in the foreground outside the barrier walls, are a people in a shadowed land, literally and symbolically. In this sense, the painting speaks to the abyss separating competing religious doctrines of the Church and the traditions of the natives. Smoother application of paint is descriptive of the recessive spaces of the painting, the heavier paint applied to the church and foreground figures. He texturizes the adobe structure with surface scratching into the wet paint and brings a donkey, with an entire family on its back, to life with repetitive incising. This technique may be a crossover from his illustration techniques in gouache and ink.

As an artist who produces contemporary courtroom drawing, I was intrigued to see his sketch of a trial event in pencil, ink and pigments. The dutiful foreman who stands out from a jury of Pueblo Indians in his shroud-like all weather coat, is pronouncing the result of deliberations in a notorious 1927 case in which a shepherd was murdered without provocation. The scribe in the lower right corner bends over his task of recording the guilty verdict. A full color oil painting resides in the Rockwell Museum, Corning, New York.

Circling back to the Taos Art colony which he founded, there is a sketch by Blumenschein that documents the growth of this community in 1940. Approximately 5″ x 9″, the value sketch has been removed from the book and adhered to a dark grey sketchbook cover. It has been broadly scaled for transfer to a larger work surface which is the resulting oil painting at the Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas. It is titled by the artist: “Ourselves and Taos Neighbors” across the bottom.  Staged in his studio like a theater call, this study helps identify people involved in the colony at the time: Bert Phillips, co-founder, Joseph Henry Sharp, Walter Ufer, author D.H. Lawrence and socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan among others, listed in brevity on the left side of the board. In stage front and center, stands Blumenschein himself, his wife Mary Greene Blumenschein and daughter Helen.

The board bears pin holes, characteristic of reference material being pinned up in the working studio.

In the late self-portrait of 1948, the artist restates his mission of investigative illustrator and commitment to community. A stern Blumenschein gazes unflinchingly, his features  delineated sharply in an unforgiving, double light exposure against a background of native Indians in ritual formation. In the upper right corner, a celestial Puebloan symbol hovers in the sky, blending symbolism with naturalism, Blumenschein, ever the illustrator, rendering all in Indian red black and white, gouache and ink on paper.

Exhibition continues at Dayton Art Institute through February 23rd,  2020.

–Marlene Steele

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