William Victor Higgins (1884-1949)
William Victor Higgins (1884-1949) of Shelbyville, Ind., was only 14 when a broken wagon wheel near Taos, N.M., set in motion events that were to change his life.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the so-called "Broken-Wheel Incident," which was the start of the Taos Society of Artists. The Society - and Higgins - became a favorite of the late Indianapolis businessman and collector Harrison Eiteljorg and is a core part of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
In September 1898, artists Bert G. Phillips and Ernest L. Blumenschein were traveling by wagon, heading South from northern New Mexico. As Blumenschein told the story, after reaching the top of a steep grade on a miserable road, the wagon slid into a deep rut. One rear wheel collapsed "and there we were, balancing with our precious load at an angle of 45 degrees." The men tossed a coin to see who would carry the heavy wheel to nearby Taos, and Blumenschein lost. As he traveled with the cumbersome wheel on his back, he was deeply affected by his surroundings.
"I was receiving, under rather painful circumstances, the first great unforgettable inspiration of my life," he wrote. "My destiny was being decided." So, too, was the destiny of artists such as Higgins.
Blumenschein and Phillips were making the journey on the recommendation of fellow artist Joseph Henry Sharp, who had visited Taos for the first time in 1893. By 1912, they had been joined by artists W. Herbert Dunton, Banger Irving Couse and Oscar E. Berninghaus. These six men (later called the "Taos Six") began discussing the formation of an association of artists. Three years later, in 1915, they founded the Taos Society. The Society's first exhibition, in 1915, was greeted with huge acclaim, and the renown of the Society and its artists began to grow.
Higgins first learned of Taos while in Chicago and Munich through members of the Society, by then expanded to 10 members. He made his first trip to Taos in late 1913, sponsored by Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison and a syndicate of his friends. They agreed to support Higgins for a year in exchange for eight paintings. Higgins was able to make similar arrangements with other collectors and thus earn a living as a painter. He found Taos to be all he had heard of. He became a permanent resident within a year and was admitted to the Taos Society of Artists in 1917 and remained a member until its dissolution in 1927.
Like the other artists in the Taos Society, Higgins had his own vision and technique. He abandoned the lessons he had learned in Europe, using vibrant colors and depicting his subjects as realistically as possible. He recorded the daily activities of the Pueblo people, admiring them for their self-reliance and simple lifestyle. He wrote, "This strong primitive appeal calls out the side of art that is not derivative; it urges the painter to get his subjects, his coloring, his tone from the real life about him, not from the wisdom of the studios."
Higgins and Ufer brought New Mexico to Chicago in their works, dominating the juried exhibitions there from 1917 to 1919. Over the years, although he spent of his life in Taos, his style changed to more abstract, experimental forms. From the portraits of Pueblo Indians, he moved to landscapes, creating images unlike any other artist at Taos.
He remained open to change, often rejecting principles, styles and subjects that had brought him success. In the 1920s, he turned from Indians as his subjects and, to some degree, the Taos Society to embrace modernism. His first exhibition of watercolors, a new medium for Higgins, was in Chicago in 1931, and he emerged as an artist of national importance over the next decade.
Due to a number of factors, Higgins suffered financially in the final years of his life. To alleviate the situation, he began painting "Little Gems," intimate landscapes painted on small panels of Masonite or board, for the tourist trade. Higgins took his studio on the road for these paintings: He drove his car to the area he wished to paint, opened the trunk and sat in it, always in a shirt and tie, if not a three-piece suit, with a painter's box on his lap and a cigar nearby. He sold the "Little Gems" for about $250 each. (They now start at about $30,000.)
The painter's box, along with Higgins' easel, palette and stool, now hang in a replica of Higgins' studio inside the Eiteljorg Myseum. Higgins continued to paint until his death on Aug. 23, 1949. His works are now prized for their beauty and technique and the link they provide between conservative, traditional painters and the bold, new painters of the modernist movement. Meanwhile, Taos continues to draw artists. Intense light illuminates the entire landscape of the Taos mountain range, deepening the many colors of the land and bringing a crystal clearness to the scenery.
Although all types of artists work in Taos, realistic painters dominate sales in the more than than 75 art galleries that fill the few streets near the village plaza. The art industry lures thousands of art buyers each spring and fall. The once-quiet town now holds museums, motels, restaurants and curiosity shops.
From top to bottom: Baking Bread, Taos, oil on canvas, Gift: Courtesy of Harrison Eiteljorg; The Blue Shawl, oil on canvas, Gift: Courtesy of Harrison Eiteljorg; Talpa Landscape, oil on masonite , Gift: Courtesy of Harrison Eiteljorg; Abiquiu Country, oil on masonite , Gift: Courtesy of Harrison Eiteljorg; Victor Higgins paints a "Little Gem" from the trunk of his car. Copyright 1979 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of Laura Gilpin.
For biographical information on artists referenced above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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