The following essay was written by Robert A. Ewing, then Curator-in-Charge of Fine Arts for the Museum of New Mexico, for the catalogue which accompanied a November 21, 1971 through January 16, 1972 exhibition titled Victor Higgins, 1884-1949: Retrospective Exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe. The essay is rekeyed and reprinted, without illustrations, with permission of the Museum of Fine Arts.
A review of the catalogue indicates that its "...essays draw a picture of the early Taos and Santa Fe art colonies, and of Higgins' personality. A concise biography is provided, plus a characterization of of Higgins as an artist. The styles and principal subjects of Higgins and other members of the Taos Society of Artists are briefly described. Special attention is paid to Higgins' subjects and to his "Little Gems." Included are a chronology that lists awards, and a list of the public connections that contain his works Illustrations are in color and black and white."
If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
Victor Higgins, 1884-1949
by Robert A. Ewing
Victor Higgins' life as a painter spanned the years which saw America emerge as the major art center of the world. That he took a dedicated part in the American art world is evident in his work and in the story of his creative life.
His decision to become a painter was formed even before he reached his teens, and his determination to throw off all European influence and become a totally American painter developed during his years of study and observation in Europe. He wanted, always, to find his own country and his own American vigor. He discovered subjects and the inspiration which would best serve his ambition in Taos, New Mexico, where he spent most of his adult life.
Higgins was born in 1884 in Shelbyville, Indiana, the fifth of nine children in an industrious and successful second-generation Irish farm family who had neither familiarity with, nor interest in, the world of art. The art of good farming was the only art Victor was aware of until he was nine years old. Farming, to this devout and hard working family, meant the industry of able bodies and honest purpose. Fine pigs were raised on the Higgins farm and an orchard of superb apples rewarded the family's industry with prosperity.
"The nearest thing to art," Victor was to recall years later, "was my father's love of flowers. He loved their forms and their colors, and he tended his garden as a painter might work a canvas."
As members of the Higgins family recalled, young Victor was markedly different from his brothers and sisters and managed to escape most of the chores of the farm, preferring his own projects. He developed a mind of his own at an early age and had a rare capacity for making decisions and tenaciously seeing them to completion.
His decision to become a painter occurred at age nine when he met an aspiring young artist who was wandering the countryside earning money by painting advertisements on the sides of Indiana's big barns. This young painter told Victor of another sort of painting called art, and of places called art museums. They talked of art schools where one could learn to paint pictures which, if good enough, would hang in art museums. Particularly the painter told about the new Chicago Art Institute which had recently come into being, and the boy's ambition to study in Chicago was born.
The name of this helpful young painter is not in any available records, but there is no question that he was Higgins' first sponsor. Not only did he enrich Victor's mind, he also gave him a rudimentary set of paints and guided his first brush strokes. From that time on Victor Higgins had a passion and a purpose, and until his death he was an industrious and dedicated painter.
Not allowed to practice his painting on the outside walls of the Higgins barns, Victor painted on the inside walls. His first wife, Sara, remembers:
"When as a bride I visited the Higgins farm in 1919 these first paintings of Victor's were still there. They were truly astonishing! so many walls covered as high as a child could reach, and so obviously painted by a youngster determined to learn.. ."
Despite the oddity of this middle child, the Higgins family lovingly endured his differences. He was allowed to avoid more and more of the farm chores and was given the money to buy more paints. At age fifteen he was given permission to leave the family home to study art.
There is a touching story attached to this early leavetaking, indicative of both young Victor's determination and his family's understanding. It was the family practice that each of the nine Higgins children should learn early the proper handling of money. Instead of the small allowances usually given children to spend for fun, the Higgins children were given allowances more than ample to cover all of their practical needs. From these allowances they were required to choose and purchase their own clothing and school supplies; they were encouraged to build savings accounts under their own names in the bank and to give generously each Sunday to their church. Whether there was money left over for other things was strictly up to the children. Victor was the savingest of them all, and what he was saving for was a one-way ticket to Chicago.
His parents felt that Chicago was too far away for a fifteen year old. They granted permission for him to go no further than nearby Indianapolis, and gave him the money for his ticket. Victor's father took him to the station, and as they waited for the train asked to see the ticket. Victor produced one for Chicago. There was a moment of silence, then his father smiled and said, "All right, son, but take care of yourself." Victor did, and he never returned to the family home again except as a visitor and a nationally recognized painter.
Chicago in 1899 must have been an overwhelming experience for a farm boy from Indiana. America's second city was beginning to find its destiny as a center of commerce and culture and here Victor Higgins took his first professional training. He worked at a variety of jobs to finance study at the Chicago Art Institute and the Academy of Fine Arts. His early paintings attracted the attention of Carter H. Harrison, the ex-mayor of Chicago and a noted art lover and collector.
In the early 1900s every American painter felt that European study was essential to his development as an artist. The United States had long been troubled by a feeling of cultural inferiority, and Victor Higgins along with his peers felt it necessary to complete his studies in Europe. Carter Harrison sponsored Higgins for four years of study and travel in Europe. Higgins spent the years studying in Paris and in Munich and visiting the great museums of Europe. The experience was rich and inspiring in its way, but it was also a disappointment and a serious turning point in his career. For some reason, apparently not even known to himself, Higgins' European experience failed to bring him into contact with the dynamic new art developments then being discovered in European painting. His stay in Europe (1910-1914) even deprived him of the opportunity of seeing the famous Armory show in New York. The training he received was mainly academic, relating much more to the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century. He returned depressed by the drabness of what he had been taught and by the foreign quality of the great paintings he had seen. He wanted to return to the youthful vigor of his own country, and to find his own subjects and style of painting.
In Munich Victor had met another protege of Carter Harrison's, Walter Ufer, and the two undoubtedly talked about the need for an authentically American form of art. Probably too, they talked of the then young art colony in Taos, New Mexico, talks which were certainly prophetic of the painting future of these two men. Almost immediately after Victor's return to Chicago, Carter Harrison sent him on a painting trip to the Southwest. It was on this trip, and in Taos, that Victor Higgins found the America he wanted to paint.
In Europe he had been pressed to paint the picturesque and sentimental subject matter in vogue, the peasants and Tyrolean landscapes which were the cliches of the day. In his own country's Southwest he saw a fresh and compelling new world of subjects and color. Color! It was the color that most excited him. He had not fully used color before, perhaps had not fully experienced it. The clear blue skies and sun-filled landscapes of New Mexico inspired him as the four years in Europe had not.
When Victor Higgins settled in Taos in 1914, the little town was almost totally isolated at the end of a difficult and often impossible dirt road originating in Santa Fe. The distance which today can be traveled in an hour and a half by car then took at least twelve hours, and flash floods occasionally obliterated strips of the road, or boulders tumbled from mountainsides to add days to the journey.
This isolation was, of course, part of the town's charm and bound the inhabitants together into a great diverse and delightful family. The magnificent Indian pueblo six miles from town was an integral part of the activities of the village. There was a kinship of spirit between the Indians, Spanish and Anglos sharing the valley, and a close friendship. There were fewer Taos artists then and these few were talented and earnest men bound by a common ambition. Victor Higgins was the sixth and youngest of the famous "seven" of the Taos Art Colony to arrive. Arriving before Higgins were Joseph Sharp, and shortly after him, Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein who came in one of the old covered wagons before the turn of the century, then Oscar Berninghaus, Irving Couse, and finally Walter Ufer, who came after Higgins.
Each of the seven was distinct from his fellow painters. Each was known for his own particular viewpoint but each strove for the goal which they all desired, the creation of a truly American art form. Higgins and Blumenschein were probably the most experimental of the Taos artists and were especially responsive to the rapidly changing painting styles which were astonishing the art world. Ufer was a vigorous realist, Berninghaus a loving realist; Sharp, Couse, and Phillips faithfully documented the Taos area, each in his own skilled way. The reality and the sentiment of the life of the Taos Indians and their dramatic environment were the principle subjects of the exciting group of young painters in their newly established art colony.
Victor Higgins' subject matter was always diversified. He painted numerous still-lifes, always returning to the flowers remembered from his early days in Indiana. His search for a fresh vision led him to experiments such as painting nudes from Indian models, which must have been somewhat shocking to the Indian and Spanish townspeople. His great landscapes pay homage to the grandeur of the Taos mountains and to the dramatic moods of ever-changing skies, and he painted with devotion such lovely things as a circular track left by a wagon that has turned full 'round in the fresh snow of early winter. Whether Higgins was painting white on white or opening his palette to the full spectrum of color he showed himself a master at transposing the overwhelming subjects of the Southwest into paintings of distinction.
There was the aspect of a Golden Age in life in Taos between World War I and the Depression. The Taos artists showed their paintings together in exhibitions across the nation, which delighted art lovers and made the name of the tiny New Mexican village famous from coast to coast. The years from 1914 until 1934 were extremely successful for Victor Higgins. He won important prizes, he exhibited widely, including exhibitions at the Luxembourg in France and at the Venice Biennale. In 1921 he was elected to the National Academy.
A short marriage to Sara Parsons, daughter of Santa Fe painter Sheldon Parsons, produced his delightful daughter Joan. He later was married briefly to Marion Kooglen McNay of San Antonio. But Higgins was truly married to his work, and it more than adequately filled his life.
The Depression and World War II brought an end to the Taos art colony as it had been, and American artists had a difficult time making a living from their work. At this time when many of his fellow artists succumbed to the negative aspects of life, Victor Higgins began the most important series of paintings in his career. They are now known to collectors as "The Little Gems" and little gems they certainly are. These paintings are that rare thing, works of art which an artist creates for himself. All landscapes, most of the little gems were done on the spot and Higgins devised an ingenious painting seat in the trunk of his car with the upraised lid providing protection from sun and weather. These wonderfully vigorous paintings are a reminder that the vintage work of an artist's life often is his most youthful.
Victor Higgins was the last survivor of the first seven Taos painters. In 1949 he was stricken with a fatal heart attack while dining at the home of Taos artists Thomas and Dorothy Benrimo, and his death symbolized for many the end of the Taos art colony as it had been.
It was early for such a dedicated and still actively painting artist to die, but the Taos that had been particularly his, and of the first renowned seven, had died before him. Taos as we know it today was already manifesting itself. New generations of fine painters live and work there today, but the isolated little town at the end of that difficult road is gone forever. The paintings of the first Taos Seven are historically important today and are avidly sought by museums and collectors.
Victor Higgins' paintings belong triumphantly to a place and a time, inviting the viewer to share the magical world of New Mexico in the early decades of this century.
Editor's note: Please see an article in Resource Library Magazine on William Higgins and another on the Taos school of art.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe 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.
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