Nineteenth-century landscape artist Victor Higgins has been credited with merging modernism with realism, a great revolution in American art. Throughout the first decade of his career, Higgins had the advantage of being sponsored by one wealthy patron who funded his travels and studies in Europe and across the United States. He brought his unique work to Chicago, in which he applied abstraction to landscape; introducing Chicagoans to the vivid beauty of the American Southwest. His works were coveted by Chicago natives from the very beginning of his career.
Born in Indiana in 1884, Higgins left his farming community at the age of 15 for Chicago to pursue his dreams of being an artist. He was inspired at the early age of nine by a young artist named John Cornelius who told him of the Art Institute of Chicago and the existence of museums in general, a concept he was not familiar with. Cornelius traveled the countryside painting advertisements on barns and inspired Higgins to purchase his own paints and brushes. He was self-taught, learning to paint on his father’s barn.
With his family’s encouragement, the young Higgins saved his allowance and left to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. He supported himself by working at a sign shop and painting theater decorations. After a brief period of study at the Art Institute, Higgins’ work caught the eye of former Chicago mayor and avid art collector Carter H. Harrison. Realizing Higgins’ talent, he sponsored a four-year trip to Europe for him and another young artist by the name of Walter Ulfer. During his studies at the Academie de la Grand Chaumiere in Paris, Higgins was exposed to the work of the Modern masters of the time. While abroad, he realized that America needed its own style of art, not reproductions of the classical work he was studying in school.
Immediately after Europe, Higgins traveled to New York in 1913 where he was fortunate enough to see the Armory Show and the work of minimalist Marcel Duchamp, both of which affected him greatly. Upon is return to Chicago, Higgins was commissioned by his patron Carter H. Harrison to travel to New Mexico to paint landscapes for him.
From his very first trip to New Mexico, Higgins was greatly inspired by his surroundings. Later in his career he would go on to create his own style by combining the styles of the Modernists in Paris with that of his studies under Robert Henri. Henri taught him the importance of capturing spirit and sense of place, even in the most common everyday scenes. As an artist, he needed to go beyond just physical appearance, and learned how to translate the spirit of a subject into form and color. The American Southwest could not have provided a better subject matter for Higgins to apply his studies and artistic inspirations.
This commissioned trip to New Mexico lasted one year, during which time he helped form an art colony and founded the Taos Society of Artists in 1915, located about 12 hours from Santa Fe. During this time he would become familiar with the landscape of New Mexico and develop a personal passion for this part of the country. It was his later work in New Mexico that allowed him to develop a unique style that would be deemed a revolution in modern American art.
After his scheduled year in New Mexico was over, Higgins returned to the Midwest and taught at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art from 1917-1923. He was commissioned to paint murals for the Missouri State Capitol in 1919 and a mural at the Herington post office in 1923. By this time, Higgins had made a name for himself and his work was collected by businessmen and industrialists of Chicago. He was finally able to return to the Southwest where he would paint the works that made him the important American artist he is today.
Higgins had always been inspired by the distinct light and colors of the Southwest. By the 1920s his subject matter focused on the pueblo people of the area and the rapidly changing moods of the sky. As he progressed, the hues used in his landscapes shifted from ocher and earthy colors to brighter and richer hues which helped him capture the spirit of his surroundings. By the 1930s his brush strokes had turned from bold and broad into lighter strokes that allowed for more simplified forms.
Higgins’ work was different from the others of the Taos artistic community in that he spontaneously reacted to his subject instead of working from preliminary drawings. In the 1930s he developed geometric and cubist tendencies as he focused strictly on landscapes and nudes of Native Americans, instead of the pueblo community as a whole. He had rejected all of his formal training and eventually reduced his combination of Impressionism and cubism into almost pure cubism, producing scenes of basic shapes and, through the geometric relationships of the form and design, created a colorful visual rhythm. Higgins is also known for his experimentation with multi-point perspective and interlocking planes, thought to be inspired by Cézanne. As a cubist he also experimented with the layering of fore, middle, and backgrounds.
Though vivid depictions of the Southwest painted by Higgins’ Taos peers were wildly popular as well, Higgins stands out from the crowd by the unique lyricism of his paintings produced by vivid colors and the combination of Modern styles. He succeeding in capturing the feeling and spirit of the Southwest, not just painting what was directly in front of him. He rejected the sentimentality and romanticism that was present in the work of his peers and painted in both oil and watercolor. His work was exhibited throughout the United States and Europe where he won awards in France, Luxembourg, and Venice. Higgins passed away in 1949.
Researched and written by Alexandra Nilles.
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