A prime example of Victor Higgins's continual veneration of the New Mexico Indian, Canyon Drive, Santa Fe depicts a lone anonymous figure walking humbly yet with dignity through an empty Santa Fe street. The artist described his subjects as "a people living in an absolutely natural state, entirely independent of all the world. If the rest of humanity were wiped from the earth, they would go ahead just as they are today, self-supporting, self-reliant, simple and competent. They have dignity in spite of their lack of riches and nobility in spite of their humble mode of living. Their architecture is the only naturally American architecture in the nation today. All other styles were borrowed from Europe. Being so completely the product of their surroundings, they give the painter a host of fresh and original ideas." (as quoted in L.M. Bickerstaff, Pioneer Artists of Taos, Denver, Colorado, 1983, pp. 180-81)
Born on an Indiana farm in 1884, Higgins moved to Chicago at the young age of fifteen to study at the Art Institute followed by study in New York under the famed artist and teacher, Robert Henri. Higgins immediately learned from Henri the importance of form and composition and developed an ability to personally identify with his subjects. "Higgins knew and had studied with Henri before the elder artist visited Taos in 1916. It is not surprising that Higgins would be drawn to the fifty-one-year-old artist who had already established himself as an important American painter...Both artists used broad, vigorous brushstrokes, and dramatic lighting, allowing the sitter to emerge from a neutral background. Henri's brushstroke, however, was more slashing in character, while Higgins's brush emphasized control in its circular, calculated movements. Henri seemed more interested in the psychological essence of his sitters; Higgins was more concerned with composition, and the quality of pigment on the canvas." (D.A. Porter, Victor Higgins: An American Master, exhibition catalogue, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1991, p. 57) In Canyon Drive, Santa Fe, the artist's concern for composition, mature handling of form and capturing the light and mood of the village street are fully realized.
"From his earliest days in New Mexico, the town of Taos, the Pueblo, and the paths, unpaved streets and courtyards that bordered the two communities, proved to be attractive to the artist...The mood of the empty streets and the seemingly uninhabited adobes is akin to Edward Hopper's Early Sunday Morning (1930, Whitney Museum of Art, New York, fig. 1)." (Victor Higgins: An American Master, p. 68) Of Hopper's famous work, Lloyd Goodrich notes, "the monotony and loneliness of the city have seldom been so intensely conveyed. Yet the final emotion is affirmative: clear morning sunlight, stillness, and a sense of solitude that is poignant yet serene." (Edward Hopper, New York, 1967, p. 104) In Canyon Drive, Santa Fe, the unification of figure and landscape similarly emphasizes a feeling of isolation for his American Indian subject trying to exist in a rapidly changing environment. In this and similar scenes, Higgins offers a modern sense of ambiguity and complexity while transforming the familiar and routine to almost magical effect.
Perhaps more than any other artist in his circle of the Taos Society, Victor Higgins' depictions of the landscape and people of the Southwest demonstrate an un-rivaled knowledge and practice of the most current trends in American and European modernism. As it did with so many young artists, the 1913 Armory Show had a profound impact on Higgins, and prompted him to push his painting to a more modern aesthetic. In Canyon Drive, Santa Fe, he has limited his palette to emphasize the structural forms of the composition, underscoring the varied textures and fragmented planes. In 1914, Higgins was commissioned by the wealthy patron and collector, Carter Harrison, to travel to New Mexico. The color and geography of the Southwest would prove to be the inspirational imperative for the remainder of the artist's career. "He developed the so-called Munich style, characterized by its bravura technique. Painting alla prima (literally 'all at once,' not with multiple layers of paint as in studio work), the bold and vigorous handling of the brush, the use of subdued greys, browns and ochres to form color relationships of the greatest refinement and subtlety, are but a few of the prevailing stylistic characteristics associated with the Munich School and with Higgins' early painting style." (Pioneer Artists of Taos, p. 178) In Canyon Drive, Santa Fe, Higgins has begun to navigate the intricacies of post-impressionism, fauvism, symbolism, and expressionism, all still in the service of the artist's fascination and reverence for the Southwest.
In a letter to the owner of the present work, Dean Porter, Victor Higgins scholar, writes: "Now that I have had the opportunity to study the painting, I am convinced that it is one of, if not the earliest, surviving pictures painted in New Mexico. Higgins spent his first weeks, and Thanksgiving Day, in Santa Fe in the home of Sheldon Parsons. The picture is certainly reminiscent of Parsons' work. It is very possible that Higgins, attempting to come to grips with New Mexico, was influenced by Parsons, and perhaps only fleetingly. At any rate, it is a terribly important picture, and I am delighted that you made it available to the book and exhibition." (D.A. Porter to Arthur John Stegall, Jr., June 27, 1991)