Ernest L. Blumenschein: The Life of an American Artistby Robert W. Larson, Carole B. Larson
Few who appreciate the visual arts or the American Southwest can behold the masterpieces Sangre de Cristo Mountains or Haystack, Taos Valley, 1927 or Bend in the River, 1941 and come away without a vivid image burned into memory. The creator of these and many other depictions of the Southwest and its people was Ernest L. Blumenschein, cofounder/i>/i>/i>
Few who appreciate the visual arts or the American Southwest can behold the masterpieces Sangre de Cristo Mountains or Haystack, Taos Valley, 1927 or Bend in the River, 1941 and come away without a vivid image burned into memory. The creator of these and many other depictions of the Southwest and its people was Ernest L. Blumenschein, cofounder of the famous Taos art colony. This insightful, comprehensive biography examines the character and life experiences that made Blumenschein one of the foremost artists of the twentieth century.
Robert W. Larson and Carole B. Larson begin their life of “Blumy” with his Ohio childhood and trace his development as an artist from early study in Cincinnati, New York City, and Paris through his first career as a book and magazine illustrator. Blumenschein and artist Bert G. Phillips discovered the budding art community of Taos, New Mexico, in 1898. In 1915 the two along with Joseph Henry Sharp, E. Irving Couse, and other like-minded artists organized the Taos Society of Artists, famous for preferring American subjects over European themes popular at the time.
Leaving illustration work behind, Blumenschein sought a distinctive place in his American homeland and in fine-art painting. He moved with his family to Taos in 1919 and began his long career as a figurative and landscape painter, becoming prominent among American artists for his Pueblo Indian figures and stunning southwestern landscapes.
Robert Larson calls Blumenschein a “transformational artist,” trained classically but drawing to a limited degree on abstract representation. Placing Blumy’s life in the context of World War I, the Great Depression, and other national and world events, the authors show how an artistic genius turned a fascination with the people, light, and color of New Mexico into a body of work of lasting significance to the international art world.
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Ernest L. Blumenschein
The Life of an American Artist
By Robert W. Larson, Carole B. Larson
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
From Family and Place, 1874–1893
Ernest Blumenschein's lineage combined two distinct strands of America's historical development. On his mother's side, he traced his ancestry to the earliest English settlements on the East Coast. On his father's side, he was the first American-born son of a German immigrant. Thus, his bloodline brought together two aspects of the American experience that have given rise to some of the most powerful and enduring images shaping the nation's perception of its origins and expansion. No internalized imagery is more central to the public consciousness of American history than that of the landing of the Mayflower, followed in succeeding generations by waves of hardy, hopeful immigrants who built the nation westward as they strove to better their own lives.
Even in his temperament, Blumenschein reflected his dual heritage, exhibiting something of the moral rectitude of early New England as well as the penchant for self-discipline of Old World Germany. The link with Germany was direct and unadulterated. The family of Blumenscheins to which he belonged traced its roots to Hans Blumenschein, Jr., listed in the court records of 1653 as a resident of the small village of Brensbach, which is located near the city of Darmstadt, south of Frankfurt, in the central German state of Hesse. Over the subsequent two hundred years, numerous male members of the family were professional musicians, as shown in church and court records.
One of these professional musicians was Johann George Blumenschein, who had established a small orchestra in Darmstadt. In 1852, fearing induction into the military as it expanded in the turbulent years following the failed revolutions of 1848, Johann Blumenschein decided to emigrate to the United States. Among the family members who accompanied him was his small son, Wilhelm Leonard, who had been born in Brensbach on December 16, 1849, and who would become the father of Ernest Blumenschein. Johann Blumenschein and his family settled in the already sizable German community of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where German was spoken in many homes, including that of the Blumenscheins. Wilhelm Leonard, called Leonard from early childhood, grew up speaking English and German with equal facility.
No doubt motivated by a conviction that business offered better financial prospects than did music, the Blumenscheins urged young Leonard to become a businessman. During high school he worked at Harne's Dry Goods Store and after graduation accepted a job as cashier for the company. But music was in his blood, and no amount of trying could make him content with what he saw as the mundane practices of the world of commerce. Frustrated and unhappy, he managed to put away enough of his earnings to finance a trip abroad to study music. By 1869 he was in Leipzig, Germany, where he studied three or four years, receiving diplomas for his work. With his studies greatly facilitated by his fluent German, Leonard studied music theory, composition, conducting, piano, and violin. Leipzig had been home to many composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn. During the 1870s Richard Wagner lived in Leipzig while composing The Ring. The city was famous for its fine concert performances, many of which Leonard Blumenschein attended.
In 1872, when he was twenty-two, Leonard took time from his studies for a cruise down the Rhine on an excursion boat. During the leisurely journey through the lush river valley, Leonard met a fellow American who also was in Europe in pursuit of the arts—twenty-one-year-old Leonora Alferetta Chapin of Springfield, Massachusetts. Drawn to each other immediately, the two quickly discovered they had much in common. Leonora (or Nora to her family) was an accomplished pianist, though she was studying painting during her travels in Europe, with a female relative acting as her chaperone.
On her father's side, Leonora was a descendant of Deacon Samuel Chapin, who was born in Paignton, England; Chapin was the inspiration for Augustus Saint-Gauden's sculpture The Puritan. In 1635 he immigrated to America with his wife, five children, and father. Settling first in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Samuel Chapin relocated in 1642 to Springfield, in south Massachusetts, where he became a respected church figure. Following his death, the town honored him with a stone monument and statue. One of Samuel's descendants was Harvey Chapin, born in 1796, who married Sarah Anne Stocking, related on her mother's side to the British aristocracy as a niece of Sir Thomas Beldon. Harvey and Sarah Anne Chapin were the parents of Lorenzo B. Chapin, who was born on November 3, 1823, in Springfield. On November 1, 1846, he married Maria Louise Allen in Enfield, Connecticut.
Leonora, the only child of Lorenzo and Maria Chapin, was born on December 30, 1848, in West Springfield. Lorenzo Chapin was an alcoholic, and the couple's unhappy marriage ended in divorce a year after Leonora's birth. Both remarried, but Maria Chapin was widowed within a few years. In 1865 when Leonora was seven years old, her mother was married for the third and last time to John Hull. As a stepfather, Hull was a responsible parent but also a strict disciplinarian. The oddly self-revealing poetry he occasionally wrote, some of which is quoted in the semi-controversial Paintbrushes and Pistols, by Sherry Clayton Taggett and Ted Schwarz, illustrates his firm conviction that the only way to deal with his "charming" but willful stepdaughter was to employ forms of physical punishment; this included beatings to curb her emotional outbursts and her tendency to "run away" from home.
Leonora was bright, sensitive, and artistic. She attended several local schools, displaying a talent for both music and art. After graduating from Maplewood School, a women's seminary near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, she taught piano at her parents' home and sang in the choir at the Episcopal church attended by her family. She had high hopes for the future when she fell in love with a man whose courtship indicated that a marriage might ensue, but he ended the romance suddenly by choosing another woman, leaving Leonora devastated. Even stolid John Hull had to acknowledge the reality of his stepdaughter's emotional pain. When he suggested that a trip abroad might give her "a new perspective on life," Leonora seized the opportunity for a measure of independence and rapidly formulated a private plan to use her time in Europe to learn all she could about painting. The family's understanding was that Leonora would concentrate on music studies in Leipzig. Sharah Hatfield, an older family member, agreed to accompany Leonora.
Buoyed by her growing pleasure with painting, Leonora must have seen it as a fortuitous stroke of fate when she met Leonard, a kindred soul who loved the arts as she did. Leonard, too, was convinced that he and Leonora were well suited for each other. Returning to America, Leonard Blumenschein and Leonora Chapin were married on August 5, 1873, at the home of Leonora's parents in Springfield in a Methodist ceremony performed by the Reverend R. R. Meredith. Almost immediately after the wedding, the couple moved to Pittsburgh, where they settled down to married life in a small house on Smithfield Street.
Ernest Leonard Blumenschein, their first child, was born on May 26, 1874, in Pittsburgh. Two years later, on August 2, 1876, another son, George Sylvester, was born. By this time the city in which Leonard Blumenschein would spend his earliest years was rapidly emerging as one of the nation's leading industrial centers. All around the tightly knit German community where the Blumenscheins lived, new neighborhoods, businesses, and busy thoroughfares were springing to life, as workers poured into Pittsburgh to take thousands of jobs being created by an expanding steel manufacturing industry, much of it inspired by the Scottish American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Certainly life in the noisy, dirty, chaotic city was a far cry from the bucolic daily life of Massachusetts small towns, where Leonora had lived and gone to school.
The Blumenscheins still aspired to a life centered on cultural activities, so they welcomed an opportunity to leave Pittsburgh when Leonard was offered the position of director of the Dayton Philharmonic Society in Dayton, Ohio, a small city in western Ohio on the Miami River, about fifty miles north of Cincinnati. He accepted the offer with alacrity, even though Leonora was pregnant with their third child. No doubt hoping to reach their new home before the birth, Leonard and Leonora left Pittsburgh in mid-1878 with four-year-old Ernest and two-year-old George. They traveled west by way of the Ohio River, the great natural transportation route linking Pennsylvania to its neighboring state to the west. When they reached Portsmouth, Ohio, on the north bank of the river, about a hundred miles east of Cincinnati, on June 24, 1878, Leonora gave birth to a daughter, Florence.
Traveling with two small sons, a newborn, and all their household goods made the journey difficult for Leonard and Leonora. They reached their destination with relief and moved into a house at 514 West Fourth Street in Dayton. Within a few months of their arrival, Leonard accepted a second position in addition to his leadership of the city orchestra. He was named organist of the Third Presbyterian Church of Dayton. He also began his teaching career as a private instructor to scores of young musicians who came to his home for lessons.
By the time the Blumenscheins moved to Ohio, the state had built a thriving economy based on agriculture, mining, and manufacturing. In 1803 it was the third most populous state in the country and blessed with an abundance of natural resources. Rural in 1850, Ohio was steadily becoming industrialized by 1880. Its major urban areas were Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron, and Dayton.
Dayton itself was brimming with optimism during the 1880s. Serving city residents as well as those of outlying farm communities, Dayton's numerous merchants were increasingly prosperous. And the city's manufacturing sector was taking on greater significance. In the 1870s inventor John Ritty of Dayton designed a "mechanical money drawer," which displayed dollar amounts and rang a bell when pulled open. In 1884 businessman John Patterson arrived in Dayton, bought Ritty's rights to the invention, and established the National Cash Register Company, which experienced substantial growth through sales in the United States and abroad over many decades.
The Blumenscheins lived in an area of Dayton where the residents were primarily of German descent, many of them recent immigrants. For the most part they were Protestant or Catholic, with a few families of German Jewish ancestry residing in the neighborhood. Leonard Blumenschein had been raised as a Lutheran, but in Dayton he and his family attended the Presbyterian church where he was organist. Even so, Ernest Blumenschein was sufficiently intrigued by the possibility of Jewish descent in his family to remember distinctly in a January 1927 interview that his father had on several occasions "denied that we had any Jewish blood."
The Dayton neighborhood where Ernest Blumenschein lived throughout his childhood years had neatly kept frame houses, swept walkways, and carefully tended small gardens. The residents insisted on a strict adherence to moral values they shared, whatever their religious affiliation. Alcohol and dancing were frowned on by Catholics and Protestants alike, and Protestants permitted no sporting activities on Sundays. By every indication, Leonard Blumenschein, a man of conventional social attitudes himself, was content with the atmosphere he was providing for his children.
As for his career, he had good reason to believe he had chosen well in coming to Dayton. Within a few years of his arrival, the tall, slender, even-featured Leonard Blumenschein had become a respected figure in the community. His talents, though not distinguished enough to achieve prominence in a more competitive environment, were strong enough to ensure him an increasingly important role in the cultural life of Dayton and the surrounding region. He retained his position as philharmonic society director for thirty years. Newspaper stories about his major role in the city's orchestra usually referred to him by his full (anglicized) name, William Leonard, rather than Leonard. He conducted the Ohio Saengerfest in 1882 and 1884; the Indianapolis male chorus and orchestra's six concerts during 1883 and 1884; the Springfield Orpheus Society mixed chorus in 1885, 1886, and 1887; and the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus from 1891 to 1896.
Over the years he also composed numerous pieces, most of them performed at various times by groups he conducted. Among his compositions were fourteen anthems, fifty pieces for piano, seven secular quartets, and twenty songs. Altogether he wrote more than 150 works for choir, piano, and solo voice, according to Patricia Broder's study Taos: A Painter's Dream. By 1895, Blumenschein students, many of whom came from surrounding towns to study with him, had presented 181 recitals in Dayton.
While life was close to exhilarating for Leonard during his early Dayton years, Leonora's experiences were more sobering. Glad though she was to be married, happy for her husband in his newfound success, fulfilled by motherhood, she nevertheless still harbored hopes for personal artistic accomplishment. Her husband discouraged her desire to paint, although her pictures hung on the walls of the Blumenschein home. Leonora's major obstacles were rooted not only in Leonard's nature but also in the social mores of the times, which gave primary authority to the husband.
In William Leonard, the head of household role was reinforced by his domineering personality. He was strict and demanding in all matters pertaining to his home, his wife, and his children. He was a perfectionist who let nothing pass without his instructions and criticisms. With little room for establishing her own priorities, almost no household help, and three small children to care for, Leonora spent her days living under constraints imposed by her husband. Not only was he controlling, but his erratic schedule of rehearsals and studio lessons at home often meant he was there to oversee all matters large and small. Leonora in some part of her being must have recognized that she had exchanged the domination of a stepfather for that of a husband.
Ernest Blumenschein began to draw at an early age. He had likely observed his mother sketching or painting on occasion, and a desire to imitate her might have prompted him to take pen in hand and make his own pictures. When he was six years old, however, whatever equilibrium existed in the family structure was abruptly shattered. Finding herself expecting her fourth child within a span of seven years, Leonora became depressed, experiencing feelings of anger and despair as her sense of entrapment and lack of control over her own life deepened. Her mental and physical health declined, and by the time a doctor was called to the Blumenschein home, it was too late to help her. She lost the unborn child, and on February 15, 1881, at the age of thirty-three, Leonora Blumenschein died.
The death certificate listed the official cause of death as pneumonia. Yet the story that was passed on to family members, which became the unquestioned version, was that "Nora Blumenschein died in childbirth." If the cause of her death was in fact pneumonia, there would have been little reason to avoid stating that openly. Art historians Taggett and Schwarz have suggested in their study that Leonora's death might have been caused by a miscarriage brought about by a self-induced abortion; this act of desperation often resulted in blood-poisoning infections for which doctors had no remedies. Although self-induced abortions were not uncommon during the late nineteenth century, they were considered scandalous when they involved a "proper family," such as the one headed by William Leonard Blumenschein. But Taggett and Schwarz failed to cite specific documents to substantiate their assertions regarding Leonora's untimely death, and we never found records suggesting that an abortion was attempted. Thus, this particular conclusion is based primarily on circumstantial evidence.
Excerpted from Ernest L. Blumenschein by Robert W. Larson, Carole B. Larson. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Robert W. Larson is retired as Professor of History at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including Red Cloud: Warrior-Statesman of the Lakota Sioux. The Denver Posse of Westerners honored him in 2006 with its Fred A. Rosenstock Award for Lifetime Achievement in Western History.
The late Carole B. Larson was a journalist for the Roswell Daily Record and author of Forgotten Frontier: The Story of Southeastern New Mexico
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