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 Ernest Martin Hennings  (1886 - 1956)

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Lived/Active: Illinois/New Mexico/New Jersey / Mexico      Known for: landscape, Indian genre and figure painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Pennsgrove, New Jersey and raised in Chicago by German immigrant parents, Ernest Hennings became a highly recognized painter of western subjects, particularly of Indians of New Mexico where he joined The Taos Society of Artists. Of his painting, it was written: "He was most successful in unifying the human figure with a sunshine-filled, happy, natural setting." (Zellman 808). The last project of the artist before his death in 1956, was a series of paintings at the Navajo Reservation in Ganado for a Santa Fe Railroad calendar.

When he was young, his family moved to Chicago, and for five years, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from which he graduated with honors.  After working six years as a commercial artist, he enrolled in 1912 at the Munich Academy in Germany where he learned to paint in the style of academic realism. Walter Thor, a portrait artist, was one of his highly influential teachers, and he emphasized the need of the artist to enter the soul of their subjects.  Hennings also studied with Franz von Stuck, a proponent of classical theories of beauty, patterning, craftsmanship and drafting.

At that time pre-war Munich was one of the most exciting cultural centers in Europe, and the battles between classical academy art and "Jugendstil," a German Art Nouveau movement were in full swing.  Hennings remained somewhat open to the latter theories, thinking it best to be open to a variety of influences and then settling on one's own style.  In Munich, he also became friends with artists Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins.

In 1915, at the beginning of World War I, he returned to Chicago as a commercial artist and muralist who tended to paint with thick, broad brush strokes and darkened palette of the Munich School.  But he also reflected the waving, sinuous lines of "Jugendstil" painters.

In 1917, Carter Harrison, a wealthy patron and former Mayor of Chicago, and Oscar Mayer, Harrison's partner in an art-buying ventures, sponsored Hennings on a trip to Taos, New Mexico, a life-changing venture for Hennings.  Three years earlier Harrison had done the same for several other artists including Ufer and Higgins.  In 1921, Hennings became a full time resident of Taos, having had a successful one-man exhibition in Chicago at Marshall Field and Company. At that event, Hennings met his future wife, Helen Otte, and upon marrying the coupled traveled in Europe for sixteen months.

In 1924, Hennings joined his friends Ufer and Higgins as a member of The Taos Society of Artists, whose purpose was to generate sales of their art work.  Ufer and Higgins had been members for several years.

For the remainder of his career, Hennings was devoted to painting the West including commissioned portraits of Navajo Indians for the Santa Fe Railroad.  However, his primary subjects were the New Mexico Indians, which he portrayed as dignified heroic people.  His technique was to paint the background first and then put figures in various positions to determine which was the most successful composition. He worked on several canvasses at once and disavowed modernist avant-garde movements.  The bright colors of his paintings have remained intact because he applied his oil paints thinly and allowed long periods of drying before applying varnish.  This method has prevented yellowing and cracking.

Few of his paintings are dated.  His wife, Helen Otte Hennings, kept a meticulous record, but when she moved from Taos to Chicago in 1979, it was lost, and no copy has ever been found.

Source:
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Dean Porter, Taos Artists and Their Patrons
Robert R. White, New Mexico scholar and writer about Taos artists, Information sent to AskART
Docent Files, Phoenix Art Museum

Written by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Biography from The Owings Gallery:
E. Martin Hennings was born to German immigrant parents in 1886 in Pennsgrove, New Jersey. The Hennings family relocated to Chicago when Martin was two years old and he spent much of his youth there, eventually studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1912, Franz Von Stuck, an esteemed teacher and painter in Munich accepted Hennings as his student at the Royal Academy. Hennings studied at the Academy for over two years before the onset of World War I, at which time he was forced to return home.

Upon returning to the U.S., Hennings maintained two studios in Chicago, one a commercial studio where he worked on his mural commissions and some commercial ventures, and his private studio where he showed his paintings to interested patrons. His work soon came to the attention of Carter H. Harrison Jr., a prominent figure in Chicago and a great patron of the arts. Carter along with Oscar Mayer, the meatpacking czar, were partners in an art-buying syndicate, and earlier had sponsored Higgins and Ufer in their initial visits to Taos.

In 1917, Harrison approached Hennings with a similar proposal, offering to sponsor Hennings in Taos in exchange for a number of his paintings. Hennings eagerly accepted and made his first visit to New Mexico that same year. In Taos, Hennings found himself freed from the restraints of the obligations associated with commercial art. He now had the time to concentrate fully upon his painting.

The influence of Taos can easily be discerned in Hennings’ work. Not only did his palette brighten in response to the intense New Mexico sunlight, but he gave up the thick, broad brushstrokes that appear in his early paintings. Instead, he adopted a thinner paint laid on with a softer brush which allowed him to apply paint, with little impasto, in distinct areas of color and tone. Finally, and most obviously the subjects Hennings represented speak wholly of the region, namely the Taos Pueblo Indians.

Hennings considered himself to be foremost a figure painter, however he could not remain immune to the beauty of the New Mexico landscape. As Hennings himself expressed, “New Mexico has almost made a landscape painter out of me, although I believe my strongest work is in figures.” (El Palacio, August 1946). It was when the artist began to combine the elements of figure painting with those of the New Mexico landscape that he discovered his own unique style and distinguished himself from the other Taos artists. The results were peaceful scenes of the quiet interlude between man and nature.

Van Deren Coke notes that “Hennings’ most pleasant pictures are those which intertwine nature with Indians in a subtle tapestrylike manner to suggest the unification of man and his landscape.” The figures are often depicted riding on horseback amongst the foliage of nature which serves as both background and foreground, creating intricate patterns within the contrast of the brilliant light and deep shadow so evident in the forests of New Mexico.

Hennings moved to Taos permanently in 1921, and in 1924 he was elected into membership of the Taos Society of Artists. To Hennings, election into the TSA was both a symbol of recognition and a sign of acceptability as an artist. Indeed Blumenschein considered Hennings to be the finest artist in Taos, both in and out of the TSA.During the 30’s and 40’s when many artists were struggling financially, Hennings spent part of his year in Houston, Texas where he painted commissioned portraits.

The artist’s reputation as a painter with a gift for capturing the spirit of his subjects spread in that part of the country and provided Hennings with a steady income. Martin Hennings worked steadily until the time of his death in 1956. His final project was a commission from the Santa Fe Railway for which he completed a group of paintings on the Navajo Reservation.

Biography from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery Santa FeTucson:
Ernest Martin Hennings was born in Pennsgrove, New Jersey to German immigrant parents. Early in his childhood, the family moved to Chicago. In Chicago, Ernest became intensely interested in painting, studying at the Art Institute of Chicago for five years before graduating with honors and receiving the Clyde M. Carr Memorial Prize, the Martin B. Cahn Prize and the "American Traveling Scholarship," which he declined in favor of beginning a career in commercial art immediately.

By 1912, six years after his graduation, Hennings had become tired of commercial art and was considering his next move. He entered a piece in the Prix de Rome and took second place and, emboldened by his success, traveled to Munich to study at the Royal Academy under Franz Von Stuck. He also joined the American Artists club, where he met Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins. His style, which had until this point been classical realism, was altered slightly by the avant-garde work of the modernists working in pre-war Munich. With the dawn of the First World War, Hennings was forced to return to the United States, where he resettled in Chicago, taking two studios- one for commercial work and one as a fine art showcase for interested patrons.

He picked up two such patrons quickly, both of them quite influential. One was the former Mayor of Chicago and leader of an art-buying venture, Carter Harrison. With Harrison came Oscar Mayer, the meat packing czar of the city and one of the largest benefactors of several members of the Taos society, including Ufer and Higgins. Harrison and Mayer sent Hennings to Taos to paint in 1917, and the opportunity proved a pivotal moment in his career.

When Hennings returned from Taos his style had changed. Gone were the broad, indefinite brushstrokes and somber palette of the Munich artists. Instead, a more colorful and precise style using very thin layers of paint, left to dry for long periods of time and varnished much later emerged. The result was a series of bright paintings featuring riders and Indians in the birch forests of New Mexico. Hennings would render the background first and then consider where the figures in the piece would go after seeing the result. After the figures were placed, any foliage that might obscure them was added on top of that. Because of the lengthy periods required to let pieces dry, he would work on multiple canvases at a time, finishing a stage and then setting the piece aside.

In 1921 Hennings moved to Taos permanently and, in 1924, he was invited to join the Taos Society of Artists and accepted. This put him in good company, as such noted painters as Sharp, Ufer, Higgins, Sloan, Henri, Baumann, Nordfeldt, B.J.O., Philips, Couse, Berninghaus and Blumenschein, who believed Hennings to be the most talented painter of the group. Hennings produced both commercial work and consumer pieces in Taos, and painted primarily New Mexico scenes even when in his studios in Chicago and Houston. His final project before he died in 1956 was a commission from the Santa Fe Railway for a series of paintings to be hung on the Navajo Reservation.

Biography from Thomas Nygard Gallery:
ERNEST MARTIN HENNINGS (1886-1956)

Provenance:
® Private collection, Bloomington, Illinois
® Thomas Nygard Gallery, Bozeman, Montana
® Private collection, Hayden Lake, Idaho

Ernest Martin Hennings demonstrated artistic promise at an early age, and was encouraged by his teachers and his mother. He graduated with honors from the Art Institute of Chicago in June 1904. He was awarded an "American Traveling Scholarship" in June 1906 "as a prize for excellence in drawing, painting, and composition," but this he declined as he wanted to begin a career as a commercial artist.

By 1912 he was becoming somewhat bored with commercial art and began thinking about devoting himself to more serious original work. He entered the Prix de Rome for that year, coming in a close second to Eugene Savage. Immediately after this Hennings began preparations to travel to Munich to study at the Royal Academy with Walter Thor, Angelo Jank, and Franz von Stuck.

It was at the American Artists Club where he met Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins, with whom he would remain lifelong friends. Hennings' work eventually came to the attention of Carter H. Harrison, the former mayor of Chicago. Harrison, a patron of the arts and a sportsman, had hunted in the Taos area and consequently was acquainted with the land and the young art colony. Harrison brought Hennings to the attention of a Chicago group that encouraged promising young artists. They suggested he move to Taos and after showing Hennings pictures of New Mexico, they apparently had little difficulty convincing the artist to make the journey. Hennings set up his studio in Taos and began painting some of his most successful canvases. During this time he was awarded many major prizes and won national recognition.

Those who knew E. Martin Hennings say that his works are a reflection of his life and personality . . . calm, peaceful, and well ordered. His paintings are a visual presentation of the mystique of northern New Mexico . . . of Taos, it's diversity of peoples, and the fascinating history of the early days of the art colony. In many of his paintings, Hennings has made time stand still for us, and enabled us to see and understand what inspired and motivated him more than fifty years ago.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, III:
Martin Hennings was another artist who, like Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins, came to Taos from Chicago.  Hennings had studies at the Art Institute before going abroad to Munich for advanced study. The events of World War I forced Hennings to return to Chicago where he secured some lucrative mural commissions and won top prizes in local exhibitions.  His trip to Taos resulted when a group of local patrons took a strong interest in his work. Like several other artists who came to the area, Hennings remained active on the national level, visiting other areas and exhibiting widely, as well as taking some time to travel abroad.

But Taos soon became the artist’s spiritual home, and he became a permanent resident there in 1921. He was awfully at home as a landscape or figure painter, and his works typically exhibited a concern for line, contour, and pattern that had marked his earlier work in Chicago. “In every picture I expect the Fundamentals to be observed, which I term—draftsmanship, design, form, rhythm, color,” he later was quoted as saying, “Art must of necessity be the artist’s own reaction to nature and his personal style is governed by his temperament, rather than by a style modeled through the intellect.”

According to those who knew him, Hennings primarily worked outdoors since one of his most important subjects was natural light. Generally he worked on the background first, laboring over the correct placement of the various elements in a landscape. Hennings once wrote that he views a painting as a great adventure, a consummation of all the knowledge that a painter’s lifetime and experience could bring to bear. As Mabel Dodge Luhan, a friend of the artist, aptly commented, “Hennings give us a remembrance of the true life beneath the apparent turmoil of our own life.” What she meant by those words was the artist, with his ability to organize vision, was able to reveal the lasting beauty of the Taos landscape beneath the confusing overlay of everyday existence.

Sources include: The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier, Dr. Rick Stewart, Hawthorne Publishing Company, 1986

Biography from Nedra Matteucci Galleries:
E. MARTIN HENNINGS (1886-1956)

E. Martin Hennings was born in Pennsgrove, New Jersey, the son of a skilled craftsman. His family moved to Chicago where he enrolled at the Art Institute, graduating with honors after five years. He then travelled to Munich to study with leading teachers Franz von Stuck and Angelo Junk and remained in Germany until the outbreak of World War I.

Hennings returned to Chicago and was soon commissioned by noted art patron Carter Harrison to paint at Taos. Hennings then spent two more years as a commercial illustrator in Chicago before deciding to pursue a career in fine art. Though he maintained a part-time studio in Chicago until the Depression, Hennings made Taos and its many attractions the subject of his life's work, settling there permanently in 1921.

By 1922 Hennings was gaining recognition and winning many prestigious awards, including the Art Institute of Chicago's Clyde M. Carr Memorial Prize and the Martin B. Cahn Prize. The National Academy of Design awarded him the Ranger Fund Purchase Prize in 1926. A one-person show at Marshall Field & Co. in 1925 led to his meeting of and subsequent marriage to Helen Otte. After a sixteen-month honeymoon in Europe, the couple returned to Taos, where Hennings enjoyed a successful career until his death.

Hennings was an incomparable draftsman which enabled him to create his lyrical compositions. He is most noted for his paintings of Indians placed against the incredible background of the high desert landscape. Often infused with dappled sunlight, his paintings are like tapestries; their rich colors and stylized forms create peaceful and luminous images of life in Taos.

Biography from Addison Rowe Fine Art:
Born in New Jersey in 1886, died in Taos, NM in 1956. Early Taos painter of Indian genre subjects and Western landscapes. Member of the Taos Society in 1921. Hennings studied at the Art Institute in Chicago where he was brought up. He worked with Walter Thor at Munich Academy in Germany, where he learned the style of academic realism. When WWI broke out, he returned to Chicago to work as a commercial artist and muralist. In 1917 he visited Taos and became a resident in 1921. He painted for a year in Europe, then spent his summers in Taos. Description of Henning's work is bright with technically sophisticated compositions.

Information from "Samuel's Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West".

Hennings childhood ties with Chicago continued through his attendance at the Art Institute of Chicago (1901-1904) and the start of his career as commercial artist. He became disillusioned with pure illustration and studied in Munich from 1912-1914 under Franz Von Stuck, the developer of Jegendstil, the German equivalent of art nouveau. The outbreak of WWI forced Hennings to return to Chicago, at a time when Oscar Mayer and Chicago's Mayor, Carter Harrison Jr., had begun to sponsor trips to New Mexico via the Santa Fe Railway. He visited Taos in 1917 and in 1924 became a member of the Taos Society of Artists. Hennings admiration for the Taos Indians and his love of southwestern landscape are evident in his work. He often painted figures on horseback amid a strong composition of trees and foliage.

"Artists of 20th Century New Mexico" Museum of Santa Fe

Biography from The Caldwell Gallery - I:
Ernest Hennings, born in 1886, studied for five years at the Art Institute of Chicago and also at the Munich Royal Academy. He returned to Chicago after his studies in Germany at the outbreak of WWI. Hennings became a muralist and commercial artist and was sent by his patron, Charles Harrison, to Taos in 1921. Hennings then became known for is portrayal of American Indians.

Hennings was considered a classicist, blending academic style with decorative line of Art Noveau. He was quite successful in unifying the human figure with a natural setting. To give the illusion of sunshine and outdoor atmosphere, Henning applied the oil pain thinly in sheer layering strokes and allowed it to dry for long periods before varnishing. Hennings was commissioned by the Santa Fe Railroad to complete a series at the Navajo Reservation and died soon after in 1956. These paintings were later used for calendars.


Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art - Carmel:
E. Martin Hennings was born in Pennsgrove, New Jersey, in 1886, and raised in Chicago. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before enrolling in the Munich Academy in 1912, where he first began to abandon his classical realist training.

With the onset of WW I, Hennings returned to Chicago. In 1917 he was sponsored to travel to the Southwest. It was on this trip that Hennings first discovered Taos, where he’d move permanently in 1921, joining friends from Munich, Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins and the Taos Society of Artists. The remainder of his life was devoted to rich painterly works that often venerated Native American subjects.

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Ernest Hennings is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Taos Pre 1940
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