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Cities and pueblos: the search for an authentic America

E. Martin Hennings' painting "Rabbit Hunt" showcases the beauty of color and light, rather than the hunt itself. The painting reflects the cultural exchange and daily life in Taos, New Mexico, where artists sought authentic American subjects. The painting's modern look offers a unique glimpse into the American southwest.

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Video transcript

(upbeat music) - We're here in the History Colorado Center looking at a painting from the collection of The Denver Art Museum by an artist named E. Martin Hennings called "Rabbit Hunt" from about 1925. And although it's called "Rabbit Hunt" we're not actually looking at a rabbit hunt. - We're looking at the successful results of a rabbit hunt. It almost seems as if Hennings is less concerned with the outcome of the Rabbit Hunt and more concerned with the participants. The mounted figure has a commanding presence, formally in terms of the amount of space he takes up. But further, his gaze downwards towards the rabbit is in fact, one of the few clues we have that there is a dead rabbit in this painting, since it is so heavily shadowed. - In some ways, the subject doesn't seem to be the rabbit at all but rather color and light. - Light is certainly one of the primary reasons why a group of largely Euro-American artists moved from Chicago and New York after training in Munich and Paris to the very small outpost of Taos, New Mexico. Taos is located at about 70,000 feet above sea level on a high desert plateau surrounded by stunning mountains. One of the first artists to go to Taos was Sharp in 1893. But it wasn't until 1915 that the Taos Society of Artists was formed there. Also the tourism industry which exploded in the early 20th century thanks to the growth of railroads and marketing materials many of which were produced by artists such as these. There was heavy draw to the American west and southwest for the purposes of recreation and pleasure. - And there still is. So these artists were looking for something that felt quintessentially American. - These were academically trained artists who were looking for subjects they considered particularly fresh and particularly American. And these were the landscapes but also the cultures there that Taos Pueblo Indians and also the Hispanic people who lived in the area, and had for many years. - Often when I think about western paintings, I think about paintings of cowboys and Indians the show a tension between those groups. - Western American art is often pigeon holed as being documentary when in fact, these are flights of artistic imagination. Hennings is not interested in dressing up his figures in outdated clothing or traditional garb, but rather, he is interested in the day to day. So we see the mounted figure in a tennis sweater and khakis. But he wears his hair long, braided, and wrapped with cloth and his moccasins are actually Cheyenne moccasins. We know this because of the design elements. And these would have been regularly traded between tribes. The Cheyenne were known for their moccasins. And so you see instead of tension between cultures, this is long past the Indian Wars now, a wonderful commentary of cultural exchange as immortalized by attire. - And it's so nice to not see an image that is stereotyped in terms of the clothing. There is still something romanticized in here but at the same time they're located in the modern world. They're not transported to a distant, exotic past. - They're rooted in that particular climate of that particular season and in the activities of their daily life wearing the attire of their daily life which does include more traditional blankets such as you see in the figure in the foreground. - When artists came from Chicago, they were looking for something that was authentically American. - Mm-hmm. - Something more tied to the land than the kind of rapid urban development that was happening at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. - The authentic American was being defined in contrast to the urban industrial. And this is partly why this work could be considered romanticized. - I feel like it would be remiss not to think about the history of the Pueblo people. The history of a US government that was actively involved in military campaigns against Native Americans for centuries. - The people of the Taos Pueblo did seem to be less touched by modern society because they had maintained residence in their traditional Pueblo for centuries. And in fact it was the Spanish who enacted the most grief upon the Taos Pueblo Indians centuries before. And so their colonial history is really one that was rooted much deeper. The Indian Wars that we know were those that were fought in Comanche territory in Texas and then northward up towards the Canadian border. So this region while not untouched, did have a slightly different expression of that history. Because these people were not forced onto reservations in the same ways that others were. - Let's go back to the painting itself. - This painting at first strikes us because of its beautiful formal qualities. The color of the robe, the flattening of the background because of the thunderstorm which results in the brilliant light in the foreground. And these wonderful shadows which Hennings had treated with purples and greens. - And we can see that Hennings has obscured the front legs of the horse, so he's not very readable. The bottom part of the hind legs has disappeared into the brush. And I even noticed the way that he's cut off the snout by the overlapping of the figure in the foreground. So this idea of capturing a moment that includes the incompleteness of a form in the way that we might actually see something if we were passing by. - He very much considered himself academically trained but here we see that his personal expression is certainly influenced by the artwork that he is seeing in Europe. The work feels and looks very modern. And I think in that way, provides an insight for people who have not been able to visit the American southwest into one artist's experience of that space. (upbeat music)