Ernest Martin Hennings (1886-1956)
By Robert White and Joel S. Dryer
“Throughout his life, the ties which bound Hennings to his beloved city [Chicago] were never completely severed, but instead, remained forever sustained and treasured.” It was his wish to be buried where he lies today, in Chicago.
Ernest Martin Hennings was born on February 5, 1886, on a small farm near Penns Grove, New Jersey, along the Delaware River. His parents, Martin and Louis Dunklau Hennings, were married in 1884. Both parents were born in Germany, his father having immigrated to the United States in 1870. Hennings had two sisters, Alice born in 1888 and Mary born in 1893. Three other children were born to his parents; two apparently died in infancy, and a son drowned in a swimming accident. The Hennings family moved around 1889 to Chicago, where Hennings’ father found work as a cement finisher, and there was a strong German speaking community. Hennings showed artistic talent as a child, and family lore tells that his teachers urged his mother to allow him to study art. One afternoon, he and a young friend came upon the Art Institute of Chicago, and as Hennings told it some years later:
“It was rather strange that I chose painting for my profession, for practically none of my family showed any artistic tendencies. It happened that when I was 12 or 13 years old, another lad and myself [sic] wandered into the Art Institute of Chicago and it was during that visit I determined to become an artist. That day I secured a pamphlet that showed me that art could be studied. That had never occurred to me.”
Hennings enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Saturday juvenile division on October 6, 1900. The following summer, he entered the regular school and studied days, evenings and summers until graduating with honors on June 17, 1904. John Henry Vanderpoel (1857-1911), was Hennings’ principal teacher. Twenty years later, Hennings would donate Indian Head, (listed in the Vandepoel inventory as Examining His Arrows, Taos, donated 1925), to the John H. Vanderpoel Art Association and when asked of the significance of his teacher he wrote:
“He exercised the greatest influence on me during the impressionable and formative period of my life. I look back with reverence to Mr. Vanderpoel for the interest, help and guidance which he rendered to me when I was just beginning the study of art.”
Somewhere between the summers of 1903 to 1905, Hennings studied outdoor painting in Saugatuck, Michigan with John Christen Johansen (1876-c.1964) who was the first to start a school there. This important exposure to landscape painting in the open air would stay with Hennings as a love of the outdoors throughout his career. Perhaps with a more practical sense in mind, he studied intensively during the next two years with Thomas Wood Stevens (1880-1942), at least one year while on scholarship, taking illustration courses and receiving numerous first, second and third place finishes in classroom competitions. During this period he also continued studio classes in academic life. Such vigorous efforts at studying post graduation were extremely uncommon and indicate Hennings had an intense desire to perfect his craft. Indeed, a review of his student drawings from 1905 show the artist had attained an exemplary degree of proficiency with the costumed human figure, a skill that would bode well for a promising career as an illustrator. He was also an active participant in the Art Students’ League of Chicago and exhibited in three annual shows from 1904 to 1906, winning first illustration prize in 1906.
In 1905 he had been accorded a significant honor when his painting A Quiet Evening (location unknown), was accepted for the Tenth annual exhibition of the Society of Western Artists. The Society’s shows generally traveled to several Midwestern cities and featured only the best artists of Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, etc. However this year it saw only St. Louis and Chicago. Acceptance was likely an influencing factor in his jury selection for the tenth Annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, which opened on January 30, 1906. It would be another ten years before he exhibited at this important annual review of current work by Chicago’s best artists; it is possible the perfectionist side of him wanted to be sure he felt he had mastered his
craft. On June 15, 1906, he was awarded the American Traveling Scholarship for “excellence in drawing, painting, and composition.” Most students would have used the prize funds to study in New York, but Hennings either turned down the prize money or accepted the $125 with the stipulation he could remain in Chicago.
From 1906 until 1912, Hennings devoted himself to commercial art including magazine illustration and interior decorating. In 1908 he completed murals in the museum restaurant at the Art Institute (destroyed), and in 1909 he worked under the direction of Edward Joseph Holslag (1870-1924) on murals in the Florentine Ballroom at the Congress Hotel (destroyed).
Upon re-entering the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1910, he listed his occupation as “Mural painter.” From October 1911 to April 1912, he studied architectural perspective and in March 1912 took a class in color theory with Harry Mills Walcott (1870-1944) and also entered the painting from life class at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in February 1912. It appeared Hennings was well on his way to a career in mural painting and interior decoration. At this time, he had been living at the Tree Studio building, a Mecca for artists, and hotbed of creative activity.
In 1912 Hennings entered the American Prix de Rome competition. The competition was open to the entire country and offered the prize of a three year scholarship. The competitors were given a “rigorous examination,” in drawing, painting, artistic anatomy and perspective. Only ten artists in the category of painting were chosen as finalists, Hennings among them. Those ten were then whittled to three through further examination which culminated in the final examination calling for the painting of a finished piece. Hennings produced his allegorical Morning (Museum of New Mexico), and finished a “close” second place to another former Art Institute student, Eugene Savage (1883-c.1978).
Despite not having the scholarship in hand, he was determined to study abroad. Hennings applied for a passport in Chicago on November 25, 1912, stating he would return from abroad within two years. The clerk recorded that he was twenty-six years old, five feet, eleven and one-half inches tall, green eyes, auburn hair, prominent nose and ordinary mouth. Hennings took a train to New York and then boarded the S. S. George Washington sailing for Bremen Germany on November 30, 1912. Upon arrival in Bremen, Hennings took the train to Munich with the intention of studying at the Royal Academy. His teachers there were Walter Thor, Angelo Jank, and Franz von Stück. Hennings had particularly wanted to study with von Stück and had to persist after the professors declinations to enroll him until presenting him with examples of his work, after which the professor deemed Hennings proficient enough to work with him. In describing the work at the academy Hennings wrote:
“The academy, quite different from our schools, is restricted to men under 30 years of age… We work, as a rule, from 8 to 12 mornings and from 2 to 4 the first three afternoons of the week. The models are posed in varied and unusual lightings, with views to pictorial arrangement, which we have to consider in our work. All other studies are by lectures, and they have a thoro [sic] and comprehensive schedule, as well as a circulating library. We have free hospital privileges, accident insurance and free admission to most exhibitions. Most advanced students are furnished with private studios and model expenses and are called ‘componier’ (composition) students. This is something we should have in Chicago.”
Hennings went on to say there was a regular flow of Americans to Munich and that Eugene Savage, who bested him the Prix de Rome competition, had recently arrived. Because Hennings did not speak German well, he relied upon another Chicago artist Louis Frederick Grell (1887-1960) to interpret for him until he could get along by himself. Hennings joined the American Club of Artists [his wording] in Munich. In a letter to Joseph Pierre Birren (1864-1933) in Chicago, who was trying to strengthen the newly formed Art Institute of Chicago Alumni Association, Hennings stated that twelve former Institute students had met to organize a branch of the association in Munich. He also spoke of how their own artist club in Munich was gaining in stature with the taking of new quarters, regular exhibitions and social events. Two other artists in the club, who with Hennings were members of the Palette and Chisel Club back home, included future Taos, New Mexico artists Walter Ufer (1876-1936) and William Victor Higgins (1884-1949). Ufer and Hennings stayed in contact even after Ufer returned to Chicago. Hennings corresponded with him occasionally and in one letter Hennings wrote of a new mustache, something which would remain part of his appearance for the remainder of his life.
During the summer of 1914, Hennings set out on a museum tour of seventeen cities. While in Frankfort during the first week of August, World War I became a certainty and he was advised to return to Munich before mobilization made travel difficult. Hennings remained in Munich until the situation became too difficult. He applied to the American legation in Bern, Switzerland for an emergency passport on July 26, 1915. That same day he was issued a six week passport for travel in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland for the purpose of returning home. He most likely sailed for the United States from Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Upon his return, Hennings re-activated his art activities almost immediately and immersed himself in numerous projects and exhibitions. The flourish he would have felt upon his return from European studies must have been strong. In 1916 he won the Gold Medal of the Palette and Chisel Club for his work in their annual exhibition. The medal, instituted in 1913 and first won by Victor Higgins, was awarded for outstanding work in the show, rather than to one particular painting. That same year he began work on murals entitled The Ascension of Christ, at the Grace Episcopal Cathedral in Topeka, Kansas, which were installed in 1916. As the twentieth annual exhibition of Chicago artists opened in February 1916 at the Art Institute, Hennings re-emerged with five canvases and garnered the fifty dollar Englewood Woman’s Club Prize awarded annually for a group of paintings. Critic Anne Ellis said his The Surprise (location unknown), “is one of the few sensational pictures at this year’s exhibition.” Critic Dr. Albrecht Montgelas said that “Walter Ufer, E. Martin Hennings, both Munich trained, and Allen L. Swisher… are the three most promising representatives of young Chicago.” He later commented on the obvious influence of Stück upon a highly talented pupil and fortold, “…from what he has shown in the present exhibition Chicago has the right to expect big things from him.”
As the exhibit at the Art Institute was closing, Hennings was preparing for a one-man exhibition at the Palette and Chisel Club’s quarters in the Athenaeum Building beginning in April. Along with Edgar Payne (1882-1947) and sculptor Maximilian Hoffman (1888-1922), each artist was accorded a gallery. As evidenced by his showing of portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Judson Titsworth, Hennings was earning money painting likenesses of patrons. While critic Lena M. McCauley noted again his “weird conceptions” were reminiscent of Stück’s influence, she felt the canvases over all were “bright with promise” and “well painted,” noting Hennings’ work was “well worth a visit.” As soon as the show closed at the end of April, the annual exhibit of the Palette and Chisel Club opened at the Art Institute and ever the champion, Dr. Montgelas stated, “That he is the best talent among the younger members and among Chicago artists in general is once more demonstrated by E. Martin Hennings.” His painting The Sister (location unknown), was awarded honorable mention in the show as was a work by Victor Higgins. His success no doubt led to the first of several acquisitions by the City of Chicago as they purchased his painting Pensive.
Later in the summer of 1916 he completed four window panels representing the seasons for the Calkins Studios. Calkins was an interior decorating and decorative designing firm in Chicago. “Mr. Hennings has designed graceful compositions fitting to the spirit of the subject, with attractive models in character.” While 1916 was a very busy year for the artist, it has been inferred in other texts this was the year Hennings began teaching at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where he had studied earlier. However, a review of almost one thousand student records from the Academy cannot confirm him as a teacher and it is only known for certain he was a teacher there a few years later. The year closed with Hennings’ work accepted for the annual winter exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York, promising a much broader audience for his works.
In the 1917 annual exhibition by Chicago artists, Hennings had six paintings accepted. One of these works, The Bridge (private collection), was reminiscent of Alson Skinner Clark (1876-1949) whose Coffee House had entered the permanent collection of the Art Institute. Both paintings showed the Adams Street Bridge in Chicago. Concurrently his work was accepted at the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and later at the St. Louis Art Museum. He had also contributed war poster illustrations for the Red Cross of Chicago that year. And, the city of Chicago made another purchase of his work adding The Pool, to their collection. By now, it was impossible not to notice his success in Chicago.
A few years earlier, Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison had formed a syndicate that first sponsored Walter Ufer to paint the Indians of Taos, New Mexico, for three years and followed that with a one year sponsorship of Victor Higgins. Harrison had become interested in the Pueblo Indians from his many visits to and from his winter home in California; on each trip he would stop in New Mexico as he found the region fascinating. He suggested that the “Indian country” would make an appropriate and interesting theme for painting and the syndicate guaranteed to purchase eight Ufer paintings, 25”x30” each, paying for them in advance. Among the members of the syndicate, comprised mostly of German-American businessmen, were the mayor’s brother William Preston Harrison, A. G. Wackenreuther, Oscar F. Mayer, John E. Owens, Emil Demme, Charles H. Hermann, Wentworth G. Field, Murray Keller and William H. Klauer of Dubuque and Joseph Winter of Negaunee, Michigan. Harrison described the syndicate and its history in a letter to the press:
“Some years ago I got up a small syndicate which sent Alfred Jansson [Chicago painter, 1863-1931] on two sketching trips into the north woods… Later on we sent Walter Ufer on three trips to the Indian country… We sent Victor Higgins on his first trip West. I had stopped off many times in the Indian country, having many friends there, and was able to give Ufer and Higgins helpful letters. It has been our plan to commission the artist to paint a certain number of canvases and to pay him for them in advance, in that way making it financially possible for him to make an extended trip… This year we have sent Martin Hennings west; he will start in at the Grand Canyon, stop off at Laguna, Santa Fe, San Juan and wind up his trip at Taos. He has commissions for ten canvases for us. The nice part of the scheme is that we get good canvases at reasonable prices and the artists have their trips financed for them.”
Harrison and his group had prescience as one critic stated:
“These men worked their good without advertising themselves. How many of the visitors to our local exhibitions realize that the man whose work they are admiring owes the opportunity for creating it to the generosity and vision of Mr. Harrison and his associates? Last season two of the proteges of the syndicate carried away the first and second prizes at the Art Institute “American” and “Chicago” shows. This Summer a young artist whose work had attracted considerable attention in local exhibits was sent to the Southwest by the syndicate…”
It was a logical step for Harrison to make a similar arrangement with Hennings, the third of three Munich trained, prominent Palette and Chisel Club men. As Ufer and Higgins had begun to price their canvases above what Harrison deemed a bargain, he threw his support to Hennings and sponsored his first trip to New Mexico during the summer 1917. Hennings later stated in a matter of fact fashion: “In 1917, Carter Harrison approached me with a guarantee of some purchases which permitted me to paint for a year in Taos.” Harrison paved the way by writing two letters of introduction, one to Paul A. F. Walter, director of the Museum of New Mexico and the other to Ufer. To Mr. Walter he wrote:
“This will be presented to you by Mr. Martin Hennings, one of the most talented of the younger group of Chicago artists, looking up suitable motives for his brush. I have suggested to him that he should try to have an exhibition of some of his works in Santa Fe before he returns home. Mr. Hennings’ work has been exhibited in many of the recent important national shows. Any assistance you may give him will be appreciated.”
The letter to Ufer must have been received with some mixed emotions as here was Harrison giving his patronage to another artist whom Ufer might have considered competitive, had it not been for their friendship established earlier in Chicago. In the initial letter to Ufer, Harrison refers to his works and those of Higgins as “beyond my reach” in cost.
As Harrison suggested in his letter to the Post, Hennings went by train to New Mexico making stops in Laguna, Santa Fe and arriving in Taos in time for the San Geronimo dances on September 30. San Geronimo day marks the end of the summer. San Geronimo was a Christian Saint who oversees the harvest festival of the Indians. The day is filled with bright clothing, foot races, festivals and much general celebration.
In 1917 Taos, horses were much more plentiful than automobiles. All the streets were dirt, there was little or no electricity and no mail delivery; about as remote as possible. The Spaniards had begun settling the valley in the sixteenth century. Their descendants kept much of the culture and architecture alive through over three hundred years. The Pueblo Indians had been in Taos for over five hundred years and their customs remained unmoved by “modern” man. Combine these cultures with broad mountain plains, native flora and trees, sweeping towering vistas and bright light, and the makings for an artist’s paradise were close to perfect.
There was already a small colony of Chicago artists in Taos that summer which included Higgins and Ufer as well as Art Institute professor Ethel Louise Coe (1878-1938), Edgar Spier Cameron (1862-1944), Augustin G. Pall (1883-?), Harriet Blackstone (1864-1939) and Grace Ravlin (1873-1956).
Hennings painted a number of canvases during his first visit, three of which were shown in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe on November 24, 1917. Probably wishing to escape a harsh winter, he left for Chicago on December 13. He had apparently enamoured himself to the locals as the Taos Valley News expressed the wish that “the time will be short until he is again in our midst.”
Once back in Chicago, Hennings again took up portrait work to supplement his income. He was recognized as one of the most important portrait painters in the city when the venerable Carson Pirie Scott & Company Gallery hosted an Exhibition by Chicago Portrait Painters, including only the thirteen finest in the city. Others included in this exhibition were Oliver Dennett Grover (1860-1927), Anna Lee Stacey (1865-1943), Pauline Palmer (1867-1938) and Arvid Frederick Nyholm (1866-1927).
“The list of exhibitors was a very choice one, embracing only the best among Chicago portrait painters… E. Martin Hennings does the dark tonal portrait to perfection with a quality about it that presages genius.”
In 1918 his work was again seen at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and in Chicago with the recently formed Independent Society of Artists, the Artists’ Guild of Chicago, both the Chicago and Vicinity and American (his Stringing the Bow, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was illustrated in the local press) annual exhibits of the Art Institute and an exhibition of Illinois artists by the Peoria Society of Allied Arts. His work also was shown again in New Mexico at the museum. The following year held more portrait work. His portrait of Kenneth M. Bradley, president of the Bush conservatory (Bush Conservatory Building as of 1920), was featured in the news and his entry in the Chicago and Vicinity show at the Art Institute caused favorable comment again from Ms. Stuart:
“The 'Portrait of a Young Lady,' by E. Martin Hennings, is notably well painted and though the colour scheme is daring it has been so cleverly carried out as to please the eye at once with its balance of brilliant hues against darker ones. The texture of the clinging silken blouse of vivid yellow and the modeling of shoulders and arm beneath its tissues are technical feats which do credit to his training.”
Hennings had been a juror for the Chicago and Vicinity show; a duty he performed the following two years as well. During the summer of 1919, family lore has it that Hennings ventured to Gloucester, Massachusetts, a favorite place for artists from the Eastern seaboard as well as Chicago. Charles Webster Hawthorne (1872-1930) had done much to create interest in the area when he was a visiting professor at the School of the Art Institute in 1917. It was 1919, that Hennings:
“took stock of myself and realized my salvation was to free myself of any commercial thought and for at least three years to paint exclusively for my own development.”
It was this “taking stock” that would lead Hennings back to Taos. In addition to his continued portrait work, Hennings must have also been busy with illustrations for commercial advertising houses. We know for a fact he was affiliated with Chicago’s Burleigh Withers Company at least by 1920 as his work was shown in the Art Institute Society of Art Directors commercial art exhibition that year. Another means of earning an income came from the sale of what was known as “thumb-box” paintings; small in size and reasonably priced, they afforded both the artist and the collector an advantageous sale. The Chicago Society of Artists arranged an exhibit for the local Hamilton Club, where Hennings was likely to sell a few works and canvas for new portrait commissions. He also earned an income by teaching at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts during the 1920-1921 season. In 1920 he had two works exhibited at the Carnegie International including Grandmother (location unknown), most likely the same work that had been exhibited at the National Academy four years earlier by the same title, and The Nun, which was probably the same painting entitled The Sister, previously illustrated in the newspaper from his 1916 show at the Palette and Chisel club.
Hennings finally decided to revisit Taos, four years after he had first seen the enchanted area. Something about the place must have remained in his heart as he had ample opportunity to travel there since his first foray in 1917. Perhaps he was determined to build a savings account and saw his time in Chicago, busy with portraits and commercial advertising, as a period with one purpose in mind. He arrived via train in the picturesque village at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on March 25, 1921, and remained throughout the summer and autumn before returning to Chicago, probably in time for the opening of the American annual at the Art Institute in early November where two of his works were on display. In December 1921, his work was accepted at the Corcoran Gallery of Art Eighth annual Oil Paintings by Contemporary American Artists. The show actually occurred on a bi-annual basis; Hennings would show there again on five other occasions.
With abundant material from his long sojourn in Taos, Hennings began to show the work of his new painting grounds and achieved instant acclaim. Five of his paintings were accepted at the 1922 Chicago and Vicinity exhibition. Beneath Clouded Skies was illustrated in the catalogue and was awarded the Clyde M. Carr Landscape Prize. Immediately following this success was the important $500 award and purchase prize of the Fine Arts Building and Chapin estate for the very same painting, which stipulated it be given to the Public School Art Society for placement in a Chicago school. This was a “public” award and Hennings was in attendance as guest of honor when the Public School Art Society gave their luncheon, replete with speaker Walter Sargent of the University of Chicago. From the exhibition he also sold Taos Indians Homeward Bound (location unknown), to the Englewood Woman’s club who had one of the finest collections of paintings in Chicago. In summary, his return to Taos proved propitious and certainly the numerous accolades had to encourage him to return to New Mexico again, where not only the land, but his brush, seemed charmed.
Marshall Field and Company on State Street was an elegant twelve story department store featuring every fine item one might want for the home. Their picture galleries were notably successful and American artists were regularly accorded one-man exhibitions. Field’s became Hennings’ first dealer in Chicago and in May 1922, shortly after the close of the Chicago and Vicinity exhibition, he held a solo show in their galleries. His Dried Stalks (location unknown), was illustrated in the local press with a caption that read in part, “The honors won by his paintings at the big exhibitions of the year have established the artist in the first rank of contemporary Americans.” Critic Lena M. McCauley on noting other painter’s works from Taos said:
“…it is gratifying to meet a new group [of paintings] which has discoveries of its own. Mr. Hennings invests the landscapes with glamour of the imagination. He perceives the fine contrasts of color, the masses of hills set off by blossoming shrubs and the strange vegetation of the arid lands.” “Martin Henning’s paintings of the Taos country at the picture gallery of Marshall Field & Co are creating a sensation. Mr. Hennings has conquered in this his adventures at Taos.”
His work was exhibited that year at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Museum) in Buffalo and again at the annual of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before he left for Taos, arriving in the first week in July. As part of the festive activities on San Geronimo Day, September 30, Hennings and the other artists opened their studios to the public. A month later Hennings accompanied Leon Gaspard (1882-1964), Higgins, Bert Greer Phillips (1868-1956) and others on a painting trip in the mountains east of Taos. By the time he returned to Chicago in the fall, Hennings had created a whole new group of canvases ready for exhibition. He continued to gain broad exposure for his work exhibiting again in at the National Academy of Design and Corcoran Gallery.
The spring of 1923 saw another exhibit at the National Academy of Design where his Through the Greasewood (location unknown), was illustrated in the catalogue. With the prior success of his one-man exhibition at Marshall Field & Company, another show opened there in April 1923. Critic Lena McCauley noted he was obviously enjoying the Taos countryside and again made note of his unique method of laying on masses of contrasting color to achieve the “dramatic and beautiful” and how he used his brush boldly, and perceived his surroundings “as no previous painter had conceived it for his canvases.” This a fairly strong statement given the number of highly respected artists then working in Taos. One of the twenty-five paintings in the show included Patriarchs of the Canyon, which had been loaned by the City of Chicago and was their third purchase of his work. It had also been shown earlier in the annual Chicago and Vicinity exhibit at the Art Institute. Carter H. Harrison’s wife, Edith Ogden Harrison, offered perhaps the best contemporary narrative of Hennings and his work at Field’s gallery:
“With his strong feeling for the decorative, with his keen sense and love of the contrast between the deep blue of the skies, or of the cloud-shadowed mountains and of the foreground bathed in a flood of golden sunshine, Mr. Hennings has painted his bit of the great west in a most individual manner. This exhibition represents in full measure the last season’s work in which his fondness for the brilliant autumn coloring of aspen and cottonwood form perhaps the outstanding note… Mr. Hennings may be depended on to climb high on the heights of art.”
McCauley repeated her comments on his original methods when his one-man summer exhibition opened at the Art Institute in July. Five other Chicago artists were exhibiting in separate galleries during the same time period. Before the opening of his Art Institute show, Hennings had already returned to Taos in June, but he stayed very fresh in the minds of the art interested public. Critic Inez Cunningham lauded his works and other Taos works as Spanish rather than English or Continental influenced, saying the Latins were “unself-conscious, unafraid of truth and laughter.” That his works were so beautiful and natural and he seemed part of the landscape she thought made them as “graceful as a bird’s flight.” Then critic Eleanor Jewett took her turn to praise his work, and In New Mexico (location unknown), was illustrated with her article. She retold a story of how upon his return from Germany his works submitted for the Chicago and Vicinity exhibit were so highly thought of that he was allowed to choose which of his works to show. This to Jewett was an “unusual privilege of great honor,” something which portended things to come.
“The west has done great things for him, and he is now repaying in kind. This exhibit at the institute is one of the best one-man shows the museum has had in a long time. Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins will have to look to their laurels. Another young Lochinvar, art for his bride, is come out of the west... A sure touch, a confidence in color, a harmony in composition, a sincerity in representation, mark every canvas. ‘The Drinking Place,’ is beyond words beautiful.”
Earlier in the spring, his work was exhibited in shows sponsored by the Chicago Society of Artists and traveled to various cities. However, when the Modern artists took control of the Society, a large battle loomed and Hennings was quick to join with the newly formed Association of Chicago Painters and Sculptors that included not only Chicago’s most noted artists, but those who practiced art more based upon realism.
In Taos, Hennings was caught in the middle of another political battle between opposing factions, some might consider modern versus traditional, of the Taos Society of Artists and it prevented him from being elected to membership that year. Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874-1960) had always pushed for and increased membership and when he and Ufer and Higgins tried to formally expand the Taos group, they were opposed by the other members. When the annual meeting was held in July, the opposing groups could not come to terms with the result that nobody was elected to membership that year. The Taos Society of artists had brought prestige to its members through joint exhibitions which as a group, held greater appeal to many venues across the country. As a by-product of this added exposure, the members were more successful in selling their works. It was one of very few missed opportunities for Hennings during his career and short lived as the next season he was elected to membership.
During the 1923 summer in Taos, Hennings met two elderly twin brothers, Jake and George Baumgartner, riding through town on a mule wagon. He hired the brothers to pose for a few weeks resulting in several important paintings; the most notable work entitled The Twins (Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art). The painting was shown at the Fiesta Exhibition at the Museum of New Mexico in September then shipped to Chicago for the American annual at the Art Institute. No doubt Hennings arrived in Chicago in time for the opening. Critic Eleanor Jewett immediately announced the painting as “another step forward in his progress as one of our leading painters,” and that it had been awarded the “Martin B. Cahn prize of $100 for the best oil painting by a Chicago artist.” The prize had been awarded annually since 1900 and was always considered a great honor bestowed among Chicago artists. His picture was illustrated in the press shortly after the opening and not only the local public, but the national audience, became aware of his prize winning piece. The following year the painting was invited to both the annual exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Carnegie International.
Hennings’ exposure widened even farther when his painting Passing By (Houston Museum of Fine Art), was shown at the International Exhibition of Modern Paintings in Venice, Italy, and Through the Greasewood at a similar exhibition in Rome. Works by fellow Taos artists Victor Higgins and Walter Ufer were also included. The extent of this broad exposure even included the popular and widely syndicated Chicago Tribune cartoon, “Gasoline Alley,” where Hennings and Gustave Baumann were featured in one strip. It appears as though, perhaps it is Carter Harrsion, who is having a discussion with a local, about “whatever happened to…” and “do you know” various people. Hennings had also widened his medium by 1924 to include lithography and etching. Between 1924 and 1925 he completed a series of eight lithographs and somewhere around the same time or slightly earlier four etching plates. The lithographs were printed at Jahn and Ollier Lithographic Company in Chicago where his brother-in-law was art director, but the etchings were never printed, for reasons unknown.
During 1924 it is somewhat difficult to track Hennings’ movements. His “return” to Chicago was announced in April, which would ordinarily have been about the time he would leave for Taos. A brief notice stated, “The artist is in the city for a prolonged stay and was at the recent dinner of the Chicago Painters and Sculptors’ society.” Of added confusion during this year is a supposed one-man exhibition at Marshall Field’s. Several texts written in the past few years mention this is where and when the artist met his future wife, however, this show never existed. A thorough review of Field’s exhibition schedule for 1924 from the Chicago Evening Post shows no Hennings show. Furthermore, there is no newspaper criticism of a show in the same paper nor in the Chicago Tribune. Given his two previous successful shows at Field’s in 1922 and 1923, there would certainly have been a good deal of coverage for a 1924 show. Add to this is the statement by Lena M. McCauley in the Chicago Evening Post, April 15, 1924: “Mr. Hennings will not hold a one-man show here this year,” and the proof is quite certain. While it is possible a painting or two of his was hanging at Field’s for sale in 1924, it would be unlikely one of them would have been In New Mexico, the painting mentioned as having brought Mr. and Mrs. Hennings together, as it was owned by Carter Harrison and not for sale.
More likely Hennings met Helen Ott in 1923, while she was working at Field’s, and saw her again on his return in 1924. Given that he was up for membership again in the Taos Society of Artists, it stands to reason he was back in Taos around the time of their annual meeting on July twelfth, and we know for a fact the two were corresponding by the end of the summer of 1924. In November 1924, he and Chicago artist Irving (Kraut) Manoir (1891-1982) took a two week driving trip from Taos circling through New Mexico and Texas with a stop in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico and then back to Taos. This trip gave him a chance to compare scenery from which he concluded Taos was really the best place and no other area compared, even Mexico, which he said was filled with the beauty of the Old Mission, adobe houses and markets as well as the natives and added it was “one of the most interesting places I have ever visited, but not conducive to work.”
The 120th annual exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened in February 1925, and Hennings’ painting Announcements, (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) was awarded the Walter Lippincott Prize for the best figure work in oil. The painting was illustrated in the catalogue and had been purchased for the Temple collection at the Academy. It had been shown earlier in September 1924 at the Fiesta Art Exhibit at the Museum of New Mexico and later in the fall at the American annual at the Art Institute and was certainly an “invited” painting in Philadelphia. Hennings probably stayed in Chicago to see the opening of his one man show at O’Brien & Jacobus Galleries. His painting Nature’s Leafy Screen (location unknown), was illustrated in the Chicago Evening Post, to announce the show. As always, his one-man show was cause for press coverage and the next week the Post illustrated another work, Passing From the Canyon (location unknown), which had been earlier exhibited at the end of 1924 in the National Academy of Design winter annual and in early 1925 at the Sixteenth Annual Exhibition of American Art under the auspices of The Charcoal Club of Baltimore. While a few paintings had been previously exhibited, the majority of the work had not previously been shown. A succinct comment summed up the work of Hennings to this stage in his career:
“The pictures are all studies of the west and are full of the bigness so characteristic to the open country they present. Few artists capture this spirit in the convincing manner of Hennings, because few artists know and understand the rugged vistas and natural beauty of our western country.” Hennings was in Taos again in time for the annual meeting of the Taos Society of artists in July and remained there through the summer and autumn, returning to Chicago in December 1925.
Hennings had his busiest year ever in 1926. With the sadness of his mother’s illness came the happiness of his engagement to Helen Otte early in the year. Among his exhibitions that year were the: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts annual for which he sat on the jury, in January; Chicago Galleries Association first semi-annual exhibit in March, for which he also sat on the jury; Albright-Knox Art Gallery American annual; All-Illinois Society of Fine Art first annual in September; Carnegie Institute International annual in October; Illinois Academy of Fine Arts first annual in November and Taos artists exhibit at the Washington D. C. Arts Club. In addition to these he won the Fine Arts Building Prize in the Chicago and Vicinity annual at the Art Institute, for his painting Winter In New Mexico (Denver Art Museum), the same prize he had won four years earlier in 1922. One month later his Passing By, won the Isidor Gold Medal, at the National Academy of Design annual for artistic merit in figure painting, and was also awarded the Henry Ward Ranger Purchase Prize. The painting was then donated to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in an effort to build their collection, a stipulation of the Ranger prize which benefited several museums. Ufer won the Second Altman prize in the same show. The city of Chicago purchased two works for the municipal collection including A Street in Laguna Pueblo, and Evening in Sagebrush, bringing to five the total they owned. The crowning glory to this fantastic year was his marriage to Helen on July 20, 1926 at her home in Oak Park, Illinois. Immediately after the ceremony they left for New York and sailed for a sixteen month tour by car of Europe. They purchased an automobile in Paris and drove through France, Spain, down to Gibraltar and Morocco, and to Italy. Hennings was sure to search out the many small villages for material and continued to work throughout the trip. They also met with Spanish artist Ignacio Zuloaga whose work had recently been acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago. Hennings wrote a letter to the Chicago Evening Post, whose weekly Magazine of the Art World, he had been receiving regularly throughout the trip:
“…I have enjoyed every minute of it in spite of the discomforts and inconveniences… while painting in small, quaint and picturesque places… In my search for places of interest for my brush, naturally I have seen very much of strange things and monuments of historic value as well as artistic interest. Cities ancient and modern, museums old and new, works of art of several countries, all of which have been stimulating and surely made my trip worth while to me.”
In the 1926 Chicago and Vicinity exhibition at the Art Institute, his Goat Herders (location unknown) had been illustrated in the catalogue and The Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World. Hennings thought it a good idea to try the painting at the Salon Société des Artistes Français for 1927 and shipped it over for the jury. Accepted, he apparently thought nothing further of the work until notified it had won an Honorable Mention. Fellow Chicago artists Howard Leigh (1896-1981) also won Honorable Mention that year. Mr. and Mrs. Hennings also had the pleasure of meeting other Chicago artists along the way during their honeymoon including Albert H. Ullrich (1869-1951), president of the Business Men’s Art Association and former president of the Palette and Chisel Club. Ullrich was the man who had donated the Gold Medal to the Club over a decade earlier and of course Hennings had won the award in 1916. He also met Mary Hackney Wicker (1867-1943) who was spending two years painting in Spain, France and Morocco.
Spain provided a great deal of rich material for Hennings as it was similar in many ways to Taos and he must have felt much at ease there in the small towns, despite the language barrier. Three paintings were sent back for the 1927 Chicago and Vicinity annual and Spanish Beggars, won the Harry A. Frank Figure Composition Prize. In May, he was awarded a third purchase prize of $400 from the Chicago Galleries Association for his A Bit of Southern France (location unknown). Hennings had some difficulty raising money for the trip and these prizes certainly were welcomed and perhaps even extended their stay abroad. He also used the opportunity of his new marriage to an Oak Park woman, to exhibit with the Austin, Oak Park and River Forest Art League in their annual exhibition. This venerable group gave him an opportunity to broaden his potential patron base within these wealthy suburbs.
It was now time for the newlyweds to return to their home in Chicago. In their absence the Taos Society of Artists had disbanded as the members felt their purposes had been fulfilled and sales had begun to lag at their circuit shows. But there was much to be expected in Chicago after a long absence and the couple left France for the United States in November 1927, and perhaps arrived in New York with a chance to see his Goat Herders, which had been accepted for the annual winter show at the National Academy of Design. While sixteen months abroad would be an extended stay for any artist, they may have been excited to return to Hennings’ triumphant opening and the museum where he had been educated two decades earlier. On December 27, 1927, exhibitions by Hennings, his Taos compatriot, Ernest L. Blumenschein, recently deceased Oliver Dennett Grover (1860-1927), Charles W. Hawthorne, Russian emigrant Boris Anisfeld (1879-1973) who would soon become a professor at the School of the Art Institute, Serge Sudaykin and sculptor Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966), opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was common for the Art Institute to group one-man exhibitions for all but the most exalted artists such as John Singer Sargent or Winslow Homer. An opportunity to show at the museum was cause for celebration and his show stayed opened a full month. This exhibition was the culmination of a career which to this point was long, improving and prosperous. The commentary of Chicago critics who would naturally be attracted to Hennings’ works was
voluminous; and even the usually negative and highly acerbic critic Ernest L. Heitkamp, actually had something positive to say:
“For here is an artist whose work is broadening, deepening, developing and quickening. Here is an artist who thinks, who plans, who mixes brains with his pigments and who finally, and at all times, produces an organized logical, reasoned picture… Always the design is balanced, the lines related, the color beautifully opposed in its large masses and subtle in its smaller harmonies, and the use of light and shade at times so masterful that it gives a thrill without being obtrusive…”
Hennings had worked hard during his travels and sought the uncommon and out of the way spot to set his easel. Critic Lena McCauley cited the many and various figures and locales he worked into paintings now hanging on the Art Institute walls:
“The hill towns of Italy filled the notebook with sketches… A group of street studies from Morocco picture colorful, animated scenes… Especially alluring are the byways of Tetuan. Natives at the market place, the bazaars, and groups of draped figures… Spain was very much alive… remote villages where only Spanish was spoken… From the tribes of Spanish gypsies… a type of blackbrowed, brown-skinned young woman of considerable beauty… The more assertive Spanish musicians with guitars… in the French Riviera… the figure of a woman – a quaint character on the pathway… Chioggia provided rare materials to effect the climax of attainment… The harbor, the shore-side, the quaint boats with colorful sails, the fisher-folk…”
Not only had Hennings gathered a great deal of material from his extended trip, but he was in high demand as an exhibitor. Naturally he showed at the Chicago and Vicinity show. Additionally he exhibited with the Illinois Academy of Fine Arts and his work entered the permanent collection of the Illinois State Museum with a purchase prize of Drying Nets. At the Chicago Galleries Association he received the second place $750 purchase prize in May and another purchase award in November. He showed with the Association of Chicago Painters and Sculptors, and at the Men Painters of Chicago exhibit his Goat Herders, was said to “dominate the show, standing head and shoulder above the rest of the pictures,” which had been described as a show where “almost every one has exceptional strength and character.” In Rockford, Illinois, he was part of a group called “Seven Chicago Artists,” who showed at the local Art Association. And he also exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery bi-annual. Hennings was even featured in Progressive Magazine, with numerous illustrations of his work.
Beyond the one-man exhibit at his home museum, probably the most important event of 1928 was a one-man show at Milch Gallery in New York. Located in the heart of Manhattan on West 57th Street, Milch gave Hennings a broader Eastern exposure and opened opportunities for him with important New York collectors. The show began on March 26 and remained until April 14, with most of the canvases from the Art Institute show and predominantly of European subject matter. Upon closing, the paintings were sent back to Chicago for exhibition at the Lake Shore Athletic Club, where many of Chicago’s most important politicians were members.
In the summer of 1928, Mr. and Mrs. Hennings left Chicago for the Southwest. They drove through Texas, which enabled him to paint local wild flowers as he wished to enter annual the Texas Wildflower Competition, which would be held early in 1929. They proceeded on to Taos and took an apartment at the Harwood Foundation, staying until the early winter and then returned again to Chicago. Hennings had now developed a well planned practice of spending winters and springs in Chicago and summers and falls in Taos. When the annual Chicago and Vicinity show opened on February 7, 1929, the catalogue featured his Friendly Encounters (location unknown). Only three weeks later he received this astounding telegram at their residence in the Tree Studio building: “Your picture of thistle blossom has won first prize congratulations.”
A fantastic prize of $3,000 was his for the painting Thistle Blossoms (Tobin Foundation, Courtesy of the McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, Texas) at the Edgar B. Davis Texas Wildflower competition of the San Antonio Art League. Hennings was lauded in the San Antonio press and back home his photograph appeared in the Chicago Tribune, dressed in his smock at work on a large canvas. The prize money would come in handy for the conservative couple as the country’s deepest financial crisis ever was to begin very soon. It was a busy year as he won another purchase prize at the Chicago Galleries Association, exhibited at American annuals in Chicago and the St. Louis Art Museum, sat on the jury at the Hoosier Salon annual in Chicago, continued exhibiting at the Palette and Chisel Club annual as well sitting on the jury that year, and was seen at the National Academy of Design annual.
Critic Eleanor Jewett decided it was time for a feature on Hennings, which would be educational and rather than write about it, she took to the airwaves over the Tribune Company’s radio station WGN during the special children’s hour. When his work opened at the Chicago Galleries Association in a one-man exhibit she marked his advance by saying the works were of “great merit” and:
“Mr. Hennings is the showman, brilliant and sure and painting with his mind even more than with his heart… Mr. Hennings is one of the foremost paintings in the Taos group… He has done some magnificent things.”
Another purchase prize was Hennings’ at the Chicago Galleries association in 1930 and he continued entries at the annual shows of the Art Institute, Corcoran Gallery (bi-annual) and Pennsylvania Academy. This was also the year a new group of artists came together in Chicago calling themselves “The Eight;” however they lasted only one show. Each were members of the Chicago Galleries Association and included Frederic Tellander (1878-1977), Carl C. Preussl (1894-1951), Edward T. Grigware (1889-1960), John T. Nolf (1871-1950), J. Jeffery Grant (1883-1960), Rudolph F. Ingerle (1879-1950) and W. Stark Davis (1885-1950). All but Tellander were members of and regular exhibitors at the Palette and Chisel Club. With no message, they sought to paint with their own sense of beauty and design. All successful artists, it was Hennings’ painting chosen to illustrate the newspaper commentary.
Apparently his service on the jury of the Hoosier Salon paid off as three active supporters of the Salon, Alexander F. Banks, H. R. Kurrie and C. T. Bradford, were also members of the Traffic Club in Chicago, whose members were involved primarily in the railroad system as well as other modes of commercial transportation. As Chicago was the leading rail and transportation center in the country, connections with these men must have proved fruitful for patronage. His painting the Goat Herders, was featured in the club’s May issue of their monthly magazine The Way-Bill. This was followed by a feature article on Hennings that highlighted four canvases loaned for hanging in the clubrooms. He had been invited as a guest to speak before the club in honor of his paintings and was later quoted in The Way-Bill describing how he had come to art at an early age. As Ernest Heitkamp had so flatly stated earlier in his positive review of Hennings’ work, Hennings himself said:
“As for my aspirations, I realize that I have so much further to go in my own direction, that experimentation is not part of my program. It doesn’t interest me simply because I desire to attain a goal and I have set that far beyond my present work. I progress toward it, as fast as I am able.”
While at Taos that autumn, the couple’s only child, Helen Rosalie, was born on October 14, 1930. The birth of a daughter and the active artist’s community in Taos provided some consolation from the hardening Depression. Blumenschein, Ufer and Oscar Edmund Berninghaus (1874-1952) were frequent visitors and Blumenschein regularly offered praise for Hennings’ work. While Hennings continued exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy and Art Institute annuals in 1931, and his work was illustrated in the 1931 Chicago and Vicinity catalogue, patrons had ceased purchasing paintings as the severity of the economic downturn became much more realized. Possibly in response to this Hennings exhibited a series of “small paintings” that would sell at more affordable prices at the Chicago Galleries Association.
Two months later a purchase prize of $500, at the same gallery, in May, must have been of great relief for the couple with a young child at home. As economic matters became even more serious, Hennings gave up their home in Chicago at the Tree Studio building. In the 1932 biannual at the Corcoran Gallery, his work was illustrated in the catalogue and he listed his address as “Taos, NM.” When they had funds to travel to Chicago, which was not often, Helen’s parent’s home in Oak Park now served as headquarters. At the end of the year in November 1932, the Ilsley Gallery in the Ambassador Hotel, in Hollywood, California, gave Hennings a one-man exhibition. If Hennings visited the show he must have felt out of place as the Ambassador was one of Hollywood’s most glamorous hotels. It featured what was then known as the most beautiful pool in the world and the famous Coconut Grove nightclub, home to the Oscar presentations. When December came, Hennings found his canvas Vengeance (Stark Museum of Art) illustrated in the Corcoran Gallery bi-annual catalogue. A similar honor was accorded his Sunlit Cottonwoods (location unknown), which had been illustrated earlier in the Chicago and Vicinity catalogue; his last ever exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago where his works had been seen for thirty years.
While the Depression was at its worst, Hennings works were barely seen at all. Whether or not he was painting as actively during this period is not known, but his travels were severely limited and one could guess that the cautious couple was saving every penny. Certainly his connections to the Chicago art scene had been strained during this period. As the economy slowly mended, Hennings’ works reappeared on both coasts and in Chicago. He was likely back in Chicago for the winter and spring of 1935 when the city made their seventh and final purchase of his work bringing The Caravan, into their collection. His canvas In Rio Hondo Canyon appeared in February 1935, with the Association of Chicago Painters and Sculptors who held an exhibit at Marshall Field and Company, however, this was to be his last exhibition with the group, and, his last exhibition with any Chicago organization for the remainder of his career. Reflecting the economic times his entry for the bi-annual show at the Corcoran Gallery was entitled Federal Emergency Relief (location unknown). More starkly depicted was Depression, Slaughtering Cattle, Ranchos de Taos (private collection). On the West Coast he exhibited with the Academy of Western Painters who held their first annual show in Los Angeles.
Mr. and Mrs. Hennings saved wisely since the stock market crash in 1929, as in 1936 they moved out of their apartment at the Harwood Foundation and purchased an adobe home on Kit Carson Road in Taos. The low cost of living in Taos must have had a gentler impact upon their savings and they probably were benefiting from depressed real estate prices. Author Miriam Dewitt remembered that during the depression wages for laborers were only one dollar per day and the price for materials was “absurdly” low. The great Texas Centennial Exhibition was in 1936 and Hennings’ work was included, as were the works of Higgins and Ufer. Robert B. Harshe (1879-1938), director at the Art Institute of Chicago, was one of the organizers of the fine arts display and made sure several other Chicagoans were seen at the fair. In 1936 Ufer died and several other original members of the Taos Society of artists had either passed away or very aged. A new organization was formed, the Taos Artists Association, “to unite all artists for the purpose of improving and protecting their economic interests.” Hennings served for three years as treasurer beginning in November 1937.
Beginning in February 1938, the Hennings family began traveling regularly to Houston to accept portrait commissions. For three years they would uproot their daughter Helen and place her in school there while her father worked. From 1938 through at least 1946 the Joseph Sartor Galleries in Dallas showed his works. His painting Passing By, which had been donated to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, was illustrated as one of the featured works to see for Houstonians. It had been a long time since he won an award when the Academy of Western Painters gave first prize to his painting The Goat Herders. It is interesting to note the excellent exposure this one painting gave the artist as ten years earlier it had on Honorable Mention at the Salon Société des Artistes Français. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Hennings had actively shown his works at annual exhibits in the Museum of New Mexico, which by 1939 had become an annual exhibition of Southwestern artists. That year, his work Passing From The Canyon (location unknown), was featured on the back cover of the museum’s magazine El Palacio.
It seems probable that the art organizations in the West were unfamiliar with Hennings’ earlier career. He had already won first prize for a painting over a decade old and then again in 1940 he was awarded another first prize for Nature’s Leafy Screen, by the Western State College of Colorado at their Fourth annual art fiesta; a painting which he had shown fifteen years earlier in Chicago as part of a one man exhibition and had been shown in 1930 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. This award was followed in November by first prize at the Grand Junction, Colorado, graphic arts club eighth annual exhibit. The same month Hennings’ mural The Chosen Site was completed under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration and installed in the Post Office at Van Buren, Arkansas. The painting, still extant today, depicts a pioneer family which has found a new home site. Hennings used his wife and daughter as models for the family and a local Taos gas station worker posed for the central figure. The mural was received with much fanfare as Hennings accompanied the piece for its installation and unveiling, he had worked two years in preparatory sketches before committing the piece to oil paint. Hennings had also completed a mural series of the Stations of the Cross for an Evanston, Illinois church, but little is known of the work.
By the time Hennings was well into his fifties, his life and career had become important to other people who tried to better understand the influences that caused the man to produce his art. Magazine writer Ruth Watson traveled to Taos in February, 1942 for an interview. What she reported was very revealing of the man whose career had been so successful. Hennings was thankful to Taos, giving the credit for his success away to an enchanted area: “In fact, I feel that I owe what honors I have achieved to Taos and its subject matter.” Watson was obviously impressed by him, expecting someone with a much haughtier attitude, bespoken of his success. She found instead, someone to her liking, someone who was an avid outdoorsman, and loved a good game of chess, and summed up the man by saying:
“For an artist of the first rank, recipient of many honors throughout the country, Martin Hennings is one of the most unpretentious people I have ever known.”
We know for certain Hennings was still earning an income from portrait commission. One letter in his scrapbook comes from a Chicagoan who had a presumably deceased son committed to canvas, during World War II. He remained active in the fine arts showing canvases in a one-man exhibit at the Museum of New Mexico in 1945 and the following year it was circulated in New Mexico to the State Teachers College in Silver City, Los Cruces Woman’s Club, Carlsbad, Portales, Las Vegas and Raton. This tour culminated with a profile of the artist including a cover illustration in the Museum’s magazine El Palacio and important reflective commentary from Hennings:
“New Mexico has almost made a landscape painter out of me, although I believe my strongest work is in figures.”
Hennings had now successfully transferred his market to New Mexico, California and Texas, foregoing Chicago except for the odd portrait commission. His work was shown in February of 1946 at the Sartor Galleries where he had had success a few years earlier and the Wichita Art Association later the same year. Without exhibition catalogues from each venue, it is a matter of conjecture, but possibly, due to the frequency of exhibits, he was continuing to show paintings that had been produced during the preceding twenty years.
While he was unlikely to receive much attention any longer in Chicago as the city had turned towards modernism and post-war artistic aesthetic, western curators and collectors began to recognize the importance of his work beyond the acquisition of something of beauty. Taos artists were beginning to receive a great deal of focus when Mabel Dodge Luhan published her important text outlining the history and current state of affairs of the colony. She illustrated Hennings’ Flight (Denver Art Museum), which was picked up by the Christian Science Monitor and spoke of his work poetically.
In 1951 the Colorado State College at Greely purchased eight canvases. The acquisition was celebrated in a way when the magazine of the Denver Post, featured Watering Their Horses, on their cover, which had been purchased by a boy scout troop in Junta, Colorado, and mentioned the Greely acquisition. As late as 1954, Hennings was still traveling to Texas for work, indicative of the ever industrious qualities of a man who had no plans to retire. In his modest way, and without knowing the end was only two years away, he wrote succinctly of himself:
“My work is representational and realistic. I have a sence (sic) of design a feeling of the decorative, good drawing, and able craftsmanship. This country with its great richness [and] variety of subject matter [in] figure and landscape make this a marvelous environment to really spend ones life. Modernism has taken the ascendancy in the art world with abstraction dominant, but I can not overthrow the traditions of the heart…”
The next year two of his paintings valued at $3,000 each, entered the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, a gift of Tulsa doctor W. J. Bryan, Jr. Since 1925, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company had been a patron of Hennings eventually acquiring nine of his works for their collection of Western art. In 1955, a railway official saw a painting by Hennings in an Arizona bank. He was so impressed with this work that he traveled to Taos to discuss a new commission. The railway was interested in buying several paintings with Navajo subjects. Hennings had never been on the Navajo reservation and must have considered this somewhat of an opportunity for both business and adventure. He and his wife drove to Ganado, Arizona, in September 1955, where they lived in a hogan for six weeks on the reservation. Hennings discussed the work with Arthur Dailey:
“It was quite an experience working on the Navajo Reservation… I was fortunate enough to meet a nurse… [who] knew the Indians for miles around and spoke the Navajo language. With her assistance I was able to select models and make arrangements for posing which I did at their homes.”
One of the last paintings he ever created was Navajo Sandpainter, and it was used for the 1957 Santa Fe railway calendar. Mr. and Mrs. Hennings traveled back to Chicago for his their daughter’s wedding on May 5, 1956. Upon their return to Taos he suffered a fatal heart attack on May 19, having been weakened two years earlier by heart trouble. His body was taken to Raton, New Mexico, and boarded on a train for Chicago where he was buried beside his mother and father. There could hardly have been a more fitting tribute to the greatness of the humble Hennings when on December 26 and 30, 1956, NBC television in Chicago featured him as one of the foremost painters of Southwestern Indians.
While today we seem to focus upon his art because the man himself is gone, he possessed other traits to lend a larger image of this humble, hardworking man. In a letter to Mrs. Hennings from the Harwood Foundation, the organization’s secretary spoke of these other terms, especially those involved in volunteering one’s time, which describe a man’s greatness:
“Ultimately, it would seem, a man’s true worth to the world can be calculated in the simple terms of how willing he was to give of his time and talents to help make his own small piece of earth a better place in which to live. Measured by these standards, as – indeed – by any others, Mr. Hennings was a truly important man whose loss to the community of Taos is incalculable.”
FOOTNOTES: PLEASE CONTACT US