Corning, N.Y. - The Curator’s Choice: Featured Painting of the Season for summer 2012 is titled, Along the Rio Grande, by Walter Ufer. This painting is currently displayed on the second floor of the Rockwell Museum of Western Art and is the third of the 2012 four-part series. This program is sponsored by the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel.
About the Painting
The center of the painting is, fittingly, the Rio Grande, the river along which many ancient Puebloan Indian settlements first developed. The deep, saturated, almost iridescent blue river draws the viewer into the image, leading the eye toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance. The brilliant yellow of the river bank dominates the right half of the image, offering a strong visual contrast between water and land. Fishing rod in hand, the Pueblo Indian in the center of the picture likewise connects the river to the river bank, water to land. His red shirt punctuates the picture, the blood-red color perhaps foreshadowing the fate of the fish he will soon catch and gut on the river bank.
Ufer paints the Indian model, almost certainly his good friend Jim Mirabal, in contemporary dress. As in many Ufer paintings featuring Mirabal, the artist and the model subtly challenge the idea of the Indian as an object of curiosity displayed for the amusement of tourists. Ufer once said, “The Indian is not a fantastic figure. He resents being regarded as a curiosity - as a dingle berry on a tree.” By showing Jim in contemporary dress, completing a mundane, everyday activity, Ufer reminds the viewer that Indians were not merely Romantic props for the painter’s brush or the novelist’s pen, but were in fact part of a living, vibrant community with a rich history in the desert southwest.
The bold, saturated colors, the simple, calligraphic quality of the composition, and the nearly abstract handling of paint flattens the pictorial space, denying the illusion of three-dimensionality key to traditional, academic art. In this way, Along the Rio Grande straddles the line between traditional, academic art and more modern strains of art gaining in popularity in the 1920s.
About the Artist
Walter Ufer was born in German in 1876, and moved with his family the following year to Louisville, Kentucky. In his early 20s, he traveled to Dresden, Germany to study art at the Royal Academy. Back in America, Ufer moved to Chicago and found work as an art teacher and illustrator. In 1914, Ufer was sent to Taos, New Mexico by a group of cultured Chicago businessmen. At the time, many people in the arts considered Taos a prime location for the development of new styles of art.
In 1917, Ufer was elected both president of the Palette and Chisel Club in Chicago and a member of the Taos Society of Artists. That same year, he won a top prize from the Chicago Art institute for his painting Land of Mañana. In 1918, his painting Going East won him another prestigious prize, this one from the National Academy of Design in New York City. Along the Rio Grande was painted toward the end of this period, his best and most productive. Despite considerable critical and commercial success from 1916 to 1920, during the early 1920s Ufer suffered long bouts of alcoholism and depression in which he stopped painting completely. His alcoholism progressively got worse during the later 1920s and early 1930s. Walter Ufer died in Taos in 1936.
In New Mexico, Ufer helped found the Taos Society of Artists, a group of several like-minded, academically-trained artists who descended on Taos as early as 1898. Nearly every artist who traveled to Taos painted images of local Indians from Taos Pueblo. Ufer differentiated himself artistically from his colleagues by painting Native Americans in contemporary dress toiling at everyday activities. Conversely, other artists tended to depict Native Americans as part of the past, attending “sacred” ceremonies and posed in “traditional” dress. Of his Indian paintings, Ufer explained, “I paint the Indian as he is. In the garden digging - In the field working - Riding amongst the sage - Meeting his woman in the desert - Angling for trout - In meditation.” Ufer had great sympathy for the Pueblo Indians, and so chose not to paint them as members of a noble, yet dying, race. Instead, his genre scenes attempted to honor Indians by de-mystifying them for American audiences.
Walter Ufer, Along the Rio Grande, 1920, oil on canvas. Gift of Robert R. Rockwell, Jr. 78.70
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Rockwell Museum of Western Art
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