Victor Higgins (1884-1949)

Victor Higgins Museum Collections


Victor Higgins, A Market Place in France, Oil on Canvas Board, c. 1912-13, 14" x 18"

Victor Higgins, A Market Place in France, Oil on Canvas Board, c. 1912-13, 14″ x 18″

Born William Victor Higgins in 1884 to a Shelbyville, Indiana farm family where the only art Victor was aware of as a child was his father’s love of flowers. “He loved their forms and their colors, and he tended his garden as a painter might work a canvas.” At the age of nine, Victor met a young artist who traveled the Indiana countryside painting advertisements on the sides of barns. He purchased paints and brushes so the young Higgins could practice his own artwork on the inside of his father’s barn. He also taught Victor about art museums and especially about the new Chicago Art Institute. This information never left the young artist, and he saved his allowance until his father allowed him at the age of fifteen to attend Chicago Art Institute. He worked a variety of jobs to finance his studies both there and at the Academy of Fine Arts.

Victor Higgins traveled to New York in 1908, where he met Robert Henri, who became a significant influence by depicting every-day scenes and stressing the importance of the spirit and sense of place as important factors in painting. Higgins was also greatly affected by the New York Armory Modernism Show of Marsden Hartley in 1913.

While Victor Higgins was in Chicago he met former mayor and avid collector Carter H. Harrison who was to prove instrumental in the growth of Higgins career for several years. Harrison agreed to support Higgins for four years to go to Paris and Munich and paint and study in the great museums in Europe. While at the Academie de la Grande Chaumier in Paris (1910-1914) he met Walter Ufer, who was another Chicago artist being sponsored by Carter Harrison. This meeting was not only a life-long friendship, but the beginning of a great change in the way Higgins looked at “American” art. He decided that America needed it’s own authentic style rather than the 19th Century classic style he was taught in Europe. Very soon after returning to Chicago in 1914, Harrison sent him and Walter Ufer on a painting trip to Taos, New Mexico for a year in exchange for paintings. Higgins made other similar agreements and was able to support himself with his painting. This trip was a life-changing experience and introduced Higgins to the authentic America he had been looking for.

In 1914 Taos was an isolated village about twelve hours from Santa Fe on an impossible dirt road. But the colorful life of the pueblo people and the natural beauty drew a collection of artists who became the Taos art colony, from which the Taos Society of Artists was founded in 1915. Victor Higgins became a permanent resident within a year of his arrival and a member of the society in 1917, exhibiting with Jane Peterson in 1925 and with Wayman Adams and Janet Scudder in 1927. The members would travel around the country introducing the Southwest scenes with great success. He remained a member until the Society’s dissolution in 1927. Higgins was the youngest member of the group of seven. Other members were Joseph Henry Sharp, Bert Phillips, Ernest Blumenschein, Oscar Berninghaus, Irving Couse and Walter Ufer.

His studies at the Royal Academy of Munich were at a time when a type of realism was encouraged by spontaneously reacting to the subject rather than preliminary drawing. Higgins was credited with bringing modernism to realism, which he practiced successfully as he sold his work in Chicago, Indianapolis, New York and occasionally to Europe during 1917-1919. He also changed his subject matter from the pueblo Indians to more experimental landscapes and even nudes (using local Native Americans as models). In 1918 Higgins was awarded the First Logan Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago and the First Altman Prize at the National Academy of Design, New York for “Fiesta Day”. But there was controversy around the awarding of the prize because of the artist’s stylistic approach to Native American subject matter that had been greatly idealized on canvas prior to this time. Possibly because of feeling that his audience missed the point, Victor Higgins concentrated for the next three decades on Impressionism, Cubism and Modernism. He continued to win awards at exhibitions in Luxembourg, France and the Venice Biennale. In 1921 he was elected to the National Academy.

The landscape became his primary focus with some still life and portrait work. Having met Dasburg and Marin in Taos, he experimented with multi-point perspective and interlocking planes. By the 1930s he had completely departed from his academic training and exhibited a strong cubist influence in his oil painting and the many watercolors he created.

Victor Higgins was married briefly to Sara Parsons (daughter of painter Sheldon Parsons) and to Marion Kooglen McNay of San Antonio, but the artwork seemed to be his primary relationship.

In the 1940s which became his final years, he painted a series of oils that he called “Little Gems”. They were small landscapes which, in his three-piece suit, he painted from a setup in the trunk of his vehicle. Some of his friends including Ernest Blumenschein felt they were his best works ever. He was known to have commented, “This last group of pictures I shall never forget. In them was the best Higgins quality, a lyrical charm added to his lovely color…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…All works of love: love of his simple subjects and of his craftsmanship.” Victor Higgins died in 1949, signaling to many the end of the Taos art colony as it had been.

1. Richmond Art Museum
2. Eiteljorg Museum
3. “Art in New Mexico, 1900-1945 Paths to Taos and Santa Fe”: Eldrege, Schimmel, Truettner
4. “Artists of the 20th Century, NM” The Museum of Fine Arts Collection
5. “The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier”, Dr. Rick Stewart