Ernest Blumenschein is on Taos time at the Denver Art Museum

It sounds like a preposterous moment in a cheesy and sentimental Western: A couple of artists out of New York City head from Denver to Mexico by wagon, break down and start an art colony that goes on strong for the next sixty years. It really does seem made up, doesn't it? But it's true.

In 1898, Ernest Blumenschein and his New York studio neighbor, Bert Phillips, both of whom were illustrators whose work had appeared in national periodicals, decided to come to the West to hunt up subjects for their commissions. Though neither had any experience in the wilderness, they equipped themselves for outdoor life by purchasing a wagon, three horses, a dog and other supplies, including art-making materials.

The two traveled throughout southern Colorado and then south into New Mexico. Although pioneers had settled in New Mexico much earlier than in Colorado, the roads were primitive, and a wagon wheel broke. Blumenschein was elected to find the nearest blacksmith while Phillips remained with the wagon.

When Blumenschein arrived in Taos two days later, he couldn't believe his eyes. "Everywhere I looked, I saw paintings perfectly organized and ready to paint," he wrote soon after his arrival. When Blumenschein got back to Phillips, he didn't tell his friend about what he'd found, allowing his fellow artist to draw his own conclusions about Taos. When they got there, Phillips was even more impressed, and while Blumenschein stayed only a few months before returning to the East Coast, Phillips never left.

The Denver Art Museum, in collaboration with the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History and the Phoenix Art Museum, has organized a major solo of Blumenschein's oeuvre. In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein opened a week ago in the Gallagher Family Gallery in the DAM's Hamilton Building.

The exhibit was co-curated by New Mexico's Elizabeth Cunningham, who's currently working on a Blumenschein catalogue raisonné, and by Peter Hassrick, director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the DAM. Hassrick is stepping down this spring, (see Artbeat, page 39), but he began researching this show over five years ago. He's described the effort as being the most comprehensive exhibit on Blumenschein ever. It is accompanied by a superbly researched catalogue that's generously illustrated.

Blumenschein was born in Pittsburgh in 1874 and moved to Dayton, Ohio, four years later when his father, a classical musician and composer, was offered the job of conducting the Dayton Philharmonic. In high school, Blumenschein published his own magazine, Tomfoolery, and illustrated it with his drawings. His father wanted him to pursue a career in music, but Blumenschein wanted to become an illustrator. Wishing to discourage him, his father sent samples of his drawings to a national magazine for a critique. An editor at Harper's Young People wrote back and said the young artist showed talent. Unconvinced, the elder Blumenschein persuaded his son to enroll at the Cincinnati College of Music in 1891, but the following year, Ernest took classes at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Two years later, he attended New York's Art Students League, then the premier art school in America. Blumenschein sold his first illustration in 1894 to McClure's magazine, and his father finally accepted the fact that his son was going to be an artist. Later that same year, he left for the renowned Académie Julian in Paris. The experience paid off when two of his paintings were accepted to the Paris Salon of 1896 — the Venice Bienale of that time. He returned to New York and his illustration gig at McClure's. It was while he was on assignment for the magazine that he and Phillips wound up in Taos.

His career was going gangbusters, but Blumenschein wanted to become a fine artist, so he returned to France twice, living there on and off until 1909 and making his living by selling illustrations to New York magazines.

In Contemporary Rhythm starts with the artist's early work from New York and Paris. These pieces reveal that Blumenschein was influenced by the vanguard styles of the time: realism, impressionism and post-impressionism. Interestingly, this last category has a relationship to his illustration career, because the appearance of color printing changed illustration radically. As with post-impressionism, color, rather than line, was used to define form. This can be seen in "Notre Dame, Paris," from 1906, where the various elements of the picture are defined by broad swaths of strong colors.

In 1910, Blumenschein went back to Taos for a few months. In the dozen years since he'd last been there, Taos had started to become an established art colony, with Phillips having been joined by many others. For the next nine years, Blumenschein spent summer months in Taos while maintaining his principal home in New York.

The show is not arranged chronologically; work from the next phase of his career is around the corner in the next space. These paintings often take on a heroic ambitiousness and contain allegorical subjects. A good example is "The Peacemaker (The Orator)," from 1913, which depicts a quartet of figures in the foreground. Rising up the entire height of the canvas on the left are two Indians; on the right is a single Indian who likewise fills the entire vertical measure of the picture, with a small child at his feet. The three adults are looking away from one another while the child stares at the viewer. Falling behind them is the unmistakable New Mexico landscape with a canyon running up the center, underscoring the sense of alienation. The painting is marvelous, as is "The Chief Speaks," from 1917, which is much less self-consciously narrative and enigmatic. These paintings and others from this period display a spectacular palette of bright colors, while Blumenschein's New York work from the same time is dark and somber. Consequently, it doesn't look nearly as aesthetically advanced as his Taos paintings.

Blumenschein moved to Taos permanently in 1919. By this time he was a modernist, and though he was incorporating the influence of abstraction, he resisted doing abstract work, the ultimate expression of modernism. That seems like a shame when you look at a piece like "Superstition," from 1921, one of the artist's great masterpieces. The background is semi-abstract, but in the foreground is a depiction of an Indian who glowers out at the viewer. Behind him are symbols of Native American religions and of Christianity, including a crucifix. The Indian holds a "Wedding Jug," a non-traditional vessel form the Pueblo potters had taken up to cash in on the tourist trade. The painting is a pointed political work aimed at protesting the federal policy of assimilation; Blumenschein was a staunch defender of Indian rights.

Another type of painting that Blumenschein did during the '20s involved the landscape with architecture in the foreground; though he includes figures, they play only minor roles in the compositions. An example would be "Sangre de Cristo Mountains," painted in 1925, which shows a sun-lit adobe town running horizontally across the painting. With the mountains in the background, the people in the foreground are cast in shadows and recede in importance.

The 1930s was a high point in Blumenschein's career, and he produced a number of remarkable paintings of the American scene type in that decade. These include "Ourselves and Taos Neighbors," first completed in 1931 and then reworked over and over for more than fifteen years. The painting shows the people of the Taos art colony standing in Blumenschein's old adobe studio. In a sense, it's a history picture, with each character a specific portrait of an actual person, and it has a heroic scale, suggesting a WPA mural. Of much the same character is "Jury for the Trial of a Sheepherder for Murder," from 1936. This painting is considered to be one of Blumenschein's greatest accomplishments, and I agree. In an alcove in his studio, the jury of Indians and Hispanics listen to the proceedings, as a Hispanic clerk records it on paper.

In the post-war period of the '40s and early '50s, the kind of work Blumenschein had done since the beginning of the century was out of fashion, and though he became an elder statesman of the Taos group, he was no longer nationally renowned. The last paintings in the show, done in Albuquerque in the 1950s, are the views from his hotel window. He died in 1960, having given up painting the year before.

Regardless of style, Blumenschein was a true painter's painter. So even if you don't go in for Western subjects, In Contemporary Rhythm is not to be missed.