Portrait of a German Tragedian

Ernest Leonard Blumenschein (American, 1874-1960)

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A portly man, with a gaping smile and lit cigarette, sits on a delicate bench in an elegant interior. The painter, Tarkington’s friend, explained that the sitter was an out-of-work Austrian actor who had stranded himself in Paris.

The author clearly appreciated the contrast between the unemployed performer depicted in stylish surroundings and the deft application of paint, which can be seen in the superbly foreshortened hands and the reflections in the eyeglasses. Tarkington so enjoyed this portrait that he hung it in his study, proclaiming it “the best of [his] 20th-century pictures.” It was the first gift that Tarkington offered to the John Herron Art Institute, the forerunner of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Before the Taos Art Colony: Ernest Leonard Blumenschein’s Paris Years

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of a prominent musician, Ernest Blumenschein was exposed early in life to art and music. After some success as a violinist, he decided to study art in Paris at the Académie Julian. There, he met Joseph Henry Sharp, who told him about the marvelous landscape of New Mexico. Both artists eventually travelled west and helped found the Taos Art Colony in Taos, New Mexico. Blumenschein and his artist-wife Mary Shepard Greene both taught at the Pratt Institute. Every summer, Blumenschein would go to Taos to paint the landscape. He eventually moved his family to New Mexico where he remained for the rest of his life. Blumenschein became one of the more well known of the Taos painters and won numerous awards. During the early part of his career, Blumenschein divided his time between New York and Europe, creating canvases very different from his depictions of Taos.

Portrait of a German Tragedian is one of Blumenschein’s early paintings. The subject, with its memorable face and figure, was painted in Paris in 1907 and exhibited at the Salon of 1908, where it was viewed and subsequently purchased by Indiana author Booth Tarkington. Many years later, the artist reminisced about the subject of this work, “The ‘German Tragedian’ was an Austrian actor in real life, stranded in Paris, posing between jobs for a few painters. He was a reciter of verse I discovered while he was posing for me in our Salon at Boul(evard) Raspail.” The actor’s rotund form is agilely perched upon a delicate French bench, while his dark suit and heavy coat contrast with the subtly striped backdrop. One look at the portly actor’s expressive right hand, exquisitely painted, reveals that Blumenschein had clearly absorbed the French curriculum of draftsmanship and modeling.

Hassrick, Peter H. and Elizabeth J. Cunningham. In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Object Information

Ernest Leonard Blumenschein (American, 1874-1960)
creation date
oil on canvas
57-1/2 x 33 in.
63 x 40 in. (framed)
accession number
credit line
Gift of Booth Tarkington
© Ernest Leonard Blumenschein
American Painting and Sculpture to 1945

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