DescriptionVICTOR HIGGINS (American, 1884-1949)
The White Gate, 1919
Oil on canvas
18-1/8 x 20-1/4 inches (46.0 x 51.4 cm)
Signed lower right: Victor Higgins
PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF JUDSON C. AND NANCY SUE BALL
Owings-Dewey Fine Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Through the patronage of Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, Victor Higgins traveled to Taos in 1914 and was instantly transfixed by the city's distinctive sense of place - its public square, unpaved streets, courtyards, adobe houses, and famous Pueblo. To his Taos townscapes of 1914-19, Higgins brought the distinctive "Munich style" of painting he had practiced as a founding member, along with E. Martin Hennings and Walter Ufer, of the Club of American Artists in Munich: bold, gestural brushwork, wet-on-wet paint, and earth-toned pigments with black or white accents. These early Taos works, emphasizing flattened, overlapping, and geometric shapes, also show the influence of modernist artists he had studied at the 1913 Armory Show, particularly Paul Cézanne and Marsden Hartley. Higgins' newfound interest in Pueblo Indian subjects led him to join the Taos Society of Artists in 1917 -- a commercial cooperative organized by Oscar Berninghaus, Ernest Blumenschein, Irving Couse, W. Herbert Dunton, Bert Phillips, and Joseph Henry Sharp -- yet his introverted personality and more radical experimentation with modernism kept him on the fringes of the group.
Many of Higgins' early Taos paintings, including The White Gate, feature the landmark Pueblo as a backdrop for scenes of everyday Indian life. Built between 1000-1450 as a multistory adobe residential complex and fortress, the Taos Pueblo was one of the most painted and photographed North American sites during the twentieth century. On the west side of the Pueblo stood the "new" 1850 mission church, San Geronimo, with its single bell tower and entry gate with distinctive scalloped edges.
Higgins rendered the Pueblo compound from various viewpoints, foregrounding mysterious female figures shrouded in shawls or thick blankets. For example, in Baking Bread (1915, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art, Indianapolis), a woman obscured in shadows pushes bread into a clay oven in the courtyard of the Pueblo, its tiered upper levels rising high into the bright sky. Or in Pueblo of Taos (1915, private collection) and Shadow Street (1916-17, present location unknown), Higgins uses dramatic light and shadow to offset a group of three blanketed women walking dreamily before the adobe Pueblo walls.
The present work, The White Gate, closely resembles The White Gateway (1919, Amarillo Public Library). In both compositions, the scalloped gate of San Geronimo stretches the length of the mid-ground; in the foreground, women wrapped in native blankets huddle together, while in the background, figures stand on different levels of the Pueblo before the soaring, verdant Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Both paintings display Higgins' virtuoso brushwork: broad, impastoed slashes of paint in the white gate and in the flesh-toned adobe courtyard. More interested in design elements than sociological accuracy, Higgins here depicts the women as flattened stripes of apricot, black, green and plum, their featureless faces mere circles atop their bell-shaped bodies. Indeed, the entire composition of The White Gate is a series of two-dimensional geometric shapes -- physical forms as well as shadows -- superimposed on one another like a collage. This nod to Cézanne's Mt. Saint-Victoire series, in addition to the lighter palette of turquoises, whites, and peaches, signals Higgins' move toward the modernist landscape style that he would soon develop during the 1920s.
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