Sunday, April 01, 2018

Biography of Victor Higgins

Just found this brief  biography of Victor Higgins in the January 1978 edition of American Artist.  The author is an artist herself.  It's primarily an encomium - and no mention is made of the artist's membership in the Palette and Chisel - but there are some interesting tidbits -like the fact that, unlike most of the Palette and Chiselers of that time, Higgins never worked as an illustrator.

How did this farm boy manage to live in Chicago when he was fifteen, and then have the resources to spend four years in Paris ten years later? (1910-1914).  It would be hard to find a more exciting time and place in the history of modern art.

I have highlighted his quote about the difference between the "romantic" and the "modern" artist.


A Biography of Victor Higgins -- by Mary Carroll Nelson

OF THE FIRST eight Taos artists it was Victor Higgins who led the field in creativity. Less content than the others with the dicta of academic painting, Higgins was open to the currents of change in art. He was born into a large farm family of Irish extraction in Shelbyville, Indiana, on June 28, 1884. An itinerant sign painter introduced him to the wonders of paint and filled his head with "art talk" when Higgins was nine. Farming didn't interest Higgins. At 15 he went to Chicago and remained there, studying and later teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In 1910 he went to Europe and studied for four years: in Paris, at the Academie de Ia Grande Chaumier under Rene Menard and Lucien Simon; and in Munich under Hans Von Hevck. When he returned, his style was urbane, though monotonous in color. His touch was sure in pastoral landscapes and museum copies. Victor Higgins did not seek out the experimental leaders of Parisian art circles when he was in Europe, and he seemed to miss entirely the Post-Impressionist ferment of Cezanne's analytical composition and Matisse's emotional color. While in Paris Higgins met Walter Ufer, a rough, blunt man who also had lived in Chicago. Higgins was a shy, retiring person; Ufer was an aggressive extrovert; but they got along well, Attracted perhaps by their different natures. They shared a mutual antagonism for academic subject matter. /\!though they had sought academic instruction, they regretted the lack of international recognition for American art and agreed that their country needed an identifiable art of its own. In 1914, back in Chicago, Victor Higgins was offered a commission by Carter H. Harrison, a wealthy buyer of his work who had been a long time mayor of the city, to do a landscape of Taos. Carter paid Higgins's way to Taos for the painting trip and underwrote his expenses. He did the same for Walter Ufer. Higgins went first to Santa Fe, where he met Sheldon Parsons, unofficial greeter of visiting artists to New Mexico. He stayed a brief time and was entertained by the widower Parsons and his teenage daughter, Sara, who was his hostess. Shortly afterwards Higgins continued his trip to Taos and in 1915 was invited to join the Taos Society of Artists. Ernest Blumenschein described Higgins: "! gathered from his good breeding, soft-spoken voice , and gentle manner that his boyhood was uneventful. He was not a strong, virile character like Ufer, but one of hesitating sensitive nature. "Higgins felt out his compositions with a broad, sweeping style and masses of color en rapport. He had a painter 's style." Blumenschein refers to Higgins as "the dreamer" as opposed to the realist. The original six Taos artists were well known in Chicago, and Higgins had been anxious to see the village for himself. When he arrived, 16 years after Phillips and Blumenschein's arrival, Taos had become a recognized, if distant, art center. In 1916, two years after Higgins moved to Taos, the clouds of war drove Mabel Dodge from her salon in Paris back to America. She and her husband Maurice Sterne traveled to Taos in search of a remote, romantic environment. Though Maurice Sterne stayed only two years, it was he who invited Andrew Dasburg to Taos. Dasburg brought with him an enthusiasm for and understanding of Cubism. Mabel Dodge divorced Sterne, married Taos Indian Tony Luhan, and remained as a magnet to the talented. She was a stimulator of events and a generous sponsor who aided others. The other artists of Taos were less affected by this dramatic woman than Victor Higgins, but he at times was a part of her circle, and. he took pleasure in a contemporary exploration of aesthetics. At first, however, his paintings continued to be set pieces. Elegant and increasingly spare, they featured Indian figures in repose. He made an effort lo vary the focus of his paintings. It is noteworthy that Higgins was never an illustrator but always an "easel painter." He dispensed with detail that is characteristic of illustration and concentrated on composition. Taos, with its fresh pictorial possibilities, deeply satisfied him. He once flamboyantly wrote, "The West is composite, and it fascinates me. In the West are forests as luxurious as the forests of Fontainebleau or Lebanon , desert lands as alluring as the Sahara, and mountains most mysterious. Caflons and mesa that reveal the construction of the earth, with walls just as fantastic as facades of Dravidian Temples. An architecture, also fast disappearing, as homogeneous as the structures of Palestine and the northern coast of Africa ; and people as old as the peoples of history, with customs and costumes as ancient as their traditions. And all this is not the shifting of " playhouse scenes but the erosion and growth of thousands of years, furrowed for centuries by Western rains, dried by Western winds, and baked by Western suns. Nearly all that the world has, the West has in nature, fused with its own eternal self." In 1919 Victor Higgins married Sara Parsons. He was 35, she was 18. Their first home was one provided by Mabel Dodge Luhan (later they rented a house on Ledoux Street, right across from the Blumenschein house). It was a long series of rooms attached together in the adobe style with primitive facilities. Other aspects of life were of a high order-particularly conversation. Victor Higgins was a favored raconteur with an Irish gift for storytelling. Sara Higgins found the social side of her shared life enjoyable and was especially fond of Mabel Dodge Luhan, who was a good friend to her. However, in private Victor Higgins was a single-minded artist, not given lo small talk. He also had strong opinions about the role of woman as helpmate to the husband. The marriage was one of incompatibles, for Sara Parsons Higgins was a spirited, talented, athletic young woman who required outlets for her prodigious abilities and had always enjoyed an adult, stimulating life with her father. The marriage ended in 1924, much to Higgins'sorrow. He loved his beautiful, red-haired wife and cherished their daughter, Joan, born in 1922. Their relationship became that of dear friends , without rancor, and extended to include Robert Mack, Sara's second husband of over 40 years. The influence of Sara's powerfully discerning eye during their brief marriage was important in the career of Victor Higgins, for she steered him toward a more stark style, away from a tendency to theatrics and decoration. Higgins was a handsome man, gray eyed, brown-haired, of medium build, who always had a trim mustache and neatly barbered head. In his studio or on location he painted while dressed formally in a white shirt and tie. His so-called "Little Gems," which were painted outdoors in all weather, were sometimes produced by Higgins wearing hat, suit , and coat. To Higgins there was no apparent incongruity in the professional formality of his attire and the usual messiness of a painter's gear, for he was fastidious in his handling of paint. He gave concise, useful critiques as a teacher and helped many young artists. At a party he was an asset. But he kept the world at bay from his intimate feelings and beliefs. Though Higgins lived as a bachelor most of his life, he was no recluse. His biographer, Dean Porter, traces a second Taos period in Higgins's work that began around 1920. He selects the one abstract statement Higgins ever painted, Circumferences, as a breakthrough and a talisman of the mystic nature of the artist. It could not have been painted by any of the other artists in the Taos Society of Artists, and it's atypical of Higgins, but it does show a capacity in the artist to step away from subject matter as such and to become ever more purely a creator of a painting. However one analyzes it, there's a change in brushwork, color, and subject matter that •enlivens Higgins's work after 1920, separating it still farther from that of other TSA artists. Brushwork in the earlier Higgins was free and juicy, but in later work it takes on a more graphic quality. He searched for the basic form of the nearby mountain and decided it was a series of diagonal slabs. Clouds became flat strata of varying lengths receding in space. The valley became a series of stripes or a rickrack of color. The essentials of form gradually took precedence over accidents of appearance. Meeting John Marin in 1929 and painting on fishing trips with him came at a perfectly timed moment in Higgins's life. He was already moving toward simplification, and he enjoyed watercolor as much as oil. There is a pronounced kinship between Higgins's watercolors and those Marin did in New Mexico in their reduction and calligraphic symbolism. One would be at a loss, however, to separate the influence and determine whose was more powerful, for Higgins was in his own habitat and had a staccato style before he met Marin. Of the early Taos artists, Higgins alone excelled in watercolors. He made many contributions to American art that were varied and commanding, but none were more so than his watercolors, which add greatly to the American history of the medium and yet have received less than 'their rightful recognition. The older Higgins grew, the more he was able to do with the least means. He developed private schema for pine trees, clouds, earth, and adobes that rank him with Charles Burchfield in creative expression in watercolor. Winter Funeral is perhaps Higgins's best known oil. Below the greenish gray Taos mountains on the snow covered mesa, the funeral is made to seem pathetically unimportant and small when compared to the large scale of the setting. It is a lonely, harsh , and haunting scene-a complete statement that stands as one of the finest paintings in the history of American landscape. It also marks, for Higgins, an end to the figure in landscape and the beginning of landscape for its own sake, something• the other artists in Taos did not paint with the same concentration. In addition to his landscapes, Higgins shared two other interests with the work of Cezanne. One was the introductiori of still lifes, especially flowers on slightly tilted tabletops, and the other was figure studies, done in the studio, whose power rests on design and abstraction. Victor Higgins had a distinguished career. In 1921 he was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design after winning many major prizes in Chicago and New York. He was one of the Taos artists asked to paint murals for the State Capitol of Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1935 he was elected to full membership in the National Academy. His sales were not so steady as some of the other artists in Taos, but he aligned himself with a shrewd Chicago dealer who once had his work placed in some new homes and made a major sale, for which Higgins received a check for over $10,000. He participated less in exhibitions in his later years. Although he did not achieve the popular success accorded to Couse, Sharp, Blumenschein, and Ufer, he did enjoy esteem from the art community. In the last five years of Victor Higgins 's life, from the mid to the late '40s, he did a series of fresh , small landscapes that synthesized his proficiency with the brush and his intensified vision: These are called his " Little Gems" and were noted by Ernest Blumenschein in the introduction to Bickerstaff's book: "His last group of pictures I shall never forget. They were done on sketching trips around Taos Valley and in the Rio Grande Canyon. In them was the best Higgins quality, a lyrical ch arm added to his lovely color. His art had developed in [an] intellectual side through his adventure with Dynamic Symmetry and other abstract angles. Not that he used mechanical formulas. He always had, as do most good artists, an instinct that guided his form structure .... And he put all he had into this dozen of small canvases. They must have been about 18wide by ten inches high. All works of love: love of his simple subjects and of his craftsmanship. These pictures had the 'extra something' that the right artist can put into his work when he is 'on his toes.' " The "Little Gems" have become the most sought after of Higgins's work. Not just once but time after time he created paintings with economy and power, about which a viewer could truthfully say there isn 't a stroke out of place or unnecessary to the whole. While dining with his friends the Thomas Benrimoses, Higgins was stricken with a heart attack and died in Taos on August 23, 1949. As Sara Mack has stated, Victor Higgins was articulate about art. In an interview with Ina Sizer Cassidy in 1932, he made these statements that clarify his ideas and career: "The term reality is greatly misunderstood. It does not mean the ability to copy nature as most people seem to think; it means more than that, the reality of being. The difference between the modernistic and the romantic form of art, as I see it, is the architectural basis. The modern painter builds his picture, he does not merely paint it. He has his superstructure, his foundation, just as an architect has for his buildings." When he was asked why he liked to paint in Taos, Higgins spoke of color and added, "And besides this, there is a constant call here to create something.