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Along the Greasewood Trail

Along the Greasewood Trail
signed 'E. Martin/Hennings.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
30 x 30 in. (76.2 x 76.2 cm.)
Josephine Headley, Springfield, Missouri.
Sotheby's, New York, 20 April 1979, lot 155.
(Probably) J.N. Bartfield Galleries, New York.
(Probably) Acquired by the present owner from the above.

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Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

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Lot Essay

Throughout his career, Ernest Martin Hennings sought to capture his reverence for the compelling natural environs of New Mexico, as well as for the fortitude of his Native American neighbors amidst a rapidly changing cultural environment. “He portrayed them as introspective, dignified individuals, regal in demeanor and bearing, with a suggestion of stoicism and sadness as they faced an uncertain future. He often chose as his subject groups of blanketed Indians passing through the woods on horseback. These lines of riders suggest the eternal procession of life in New Mexico—a procession in which Taos Indians have participated for centuries.” (P.J. Broder, Taos: A Painter's Dream, Boston, Massachusetts, 1980, p. 253) Through the Greasewood Trail captures this iconic motif of Hennings’ oeuvre, evoking the grandeur of the Southwestern landscape—from its vast fields of greasewood to its looming Taos Mountain ridges and dramatic skies—and how the Taos Indians are both integrally part of and overshadowed by the passage of time within this awesome landscape.

Hennings received early training at the Art Institute of Chicago, and then travelled abroad to enroll in the Royal Academy in Munich, where he became re-acquainted with fellow Chicago natives Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins. The style of painting imparted to these artists during their time in Germany would become a signature of the Taos artists. Julie Schimmel describes, “The resultant Munich style was characterized by a direct and spontaneous reaction to a subject, with no preliminary drawing, fluid brushwork, and rich paint surfaces—hallmarks conveying immediate contact with the physical world.” (Art in New Mexico, 1900-1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe, New York, 1986, p. 49) The outbreak of World War I called Hennings back to Chicago in 1917, where he became acquainted with several prominent businessmen who supported his first trip to New Mexico that year. He returned to New Mexico in 1921 to settle permanently in Taos and became an elected member of the Taos Society of Artists in 1924.

As an artist, Hennings was meticulous and precise. Patricia Janis Broder recounts, “His method of working on a painting that included both landscape and figures was to paint the background first. He worked outdoors, returning to his studio only to complete the final details. He then went back outdoors and made a series of small pencil sketches in which he placed the figures at different positions against the landscape. From these he selected his most successful compositions for his finished canvas.” (Taos: A Painter's Dream, p. 260) Along the Greasewood Trail would likely have been inspired by a vantage point near Taos Pueblo, which Hennings designed into a composition divided down a central horizontal axis; the lower half of yellow-green vegetation sharply contrasts the cool blue tones of the Taos mountain range and sky. His figures are strategically placed along this juxtaposition point—the bright red accents of the Indians’ accessories immediately drawing attention along the axis.

In addition to his bold use of color and design in Along the Greasewood Trail, Hennings also differentiates the sky and earth through variation in brushwork. In the foreground, confident linear application intersected by more curvaceous branches creates an immersive pattern. By contrast, the mountainous forms are executed as a bolder color field, and the clouds painted with more sweeping brushstrokes. Indeed, Peter Hassrick has highlighted Hennings’ brushwork as a key differentiator for the artist as compared to his Taos Society contemporaries, explaining, “The dry, heightened palette and bold massing of form suggest some of Higgins’s abstracted landscapes of the period, and the clarity and realism are akin to Ufer’s treatments of similar scenes. The bravura brushwork, though, comes directly from Hennings’s Munich experience.” (“Taos and the Art of E. Martin Hennings,” A Place in the Sun: The Southwest Paintings of Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings, Norman, Oklahoma, 2016, pp. 97, 99)

With this textural element added to his strong compositional design, Hennings’ paintings have been described as “glowing tapestries that celebrate the pageantry and beauty of the people and landscape of northern New Mexico. In them the land itself—the canyons, mountains, streams, and forests—suggests the color and romance of a Renaissance weaving.” (Taos: A Painter's Dream, p. 253) Hassrick furthers the connection between Hennings’ formal considerations to art historical tradition, writing, “His modernism remained faithful to the tenets of art nouveau, whose grace and elegance he found resplendent in the Taos landscape and flora, and in the Indian blankets and pottery.” (“Taos and the Art of E. Martin Hennings,” p. 112)

Hennings’ daughter Helen has reflected, “His work illustrates his calmness of spirit, his oneness with nature. The Taos Indians he painted had similar qualities and this sameness attracted and inspired him.” (as quoted in “Taos and the Art of E. Martin Hennings,” p. 121) Along the Greasewood Trail evokes this spirit, delighting in the interconnection between sky and earth, man and nature, color and form—a brilliant balance that inspired Hennings’ best paintings of Taos throughout his career.

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