BY MICHELLE GALLAGHER ROBERTS
Two nearly identical paintings of a young cowboy named Gerald Marr: one is owned by the New Mexico Museum of Art, the other by the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center. Both paintings were created by noted New Mexico artist Peter Hurd between 1952 and 1953. Both feature Gerald Marr in three-quarter profile looking off to the left. In a characteristic Hurd composition, Marr’s bust is superimposed on a typical New Mexico landscape of rolling hills, wide blue sky with white clouds, and cattle fencing (Hurd’s San Patricio ranch).
Only in the details do the two paintings vary. In the Colorado Springs version, Marr has a rugged and somewhat solemn look, with deeper shadows around the cheeks and jaw, whereas in the Santa Fe painting, he looks slightly younger and more relaxed. Marr’s shirt is a bit bluer in the Colorado Springs version; the striping is more loosely painted, and the collar and shoulder of his shirt are slightly more wrinkled. In the background of the Colorado Springs version are five buildings, including a small red one, which is absent in the Santa Fe version, where only four buildings cluster in the distance.
Why would Peter Hurd spend the time and effort to create two nearly identical works? The answer lies in the story of a prize-winning rodeo performance, a painter’s ascent, and a young cowboy on the road.
In 1952 Gerald Marr was growing up in southern New Mexico. He loved horses and rodeos, as did most of the boys in Tularosa. He liked to spend time with his Uncle Tom and Aunt Louise Babers, who owned a ranch in San Patricio, New Mexico, while also running the general store and post office in town. A top steer roper in his youth, Tom Babers taught young Gerald everything he knew about riding and horses. Tom and Louise Babers’ ranch was just across the river from Peter Hurd’s place. When Gerald Marr visited his aunt and uncle, he would often play impromptu polo games with Hurd. If he wasn’t directly involved in the game, he could be found wrangling the horses or cooling them down.
Three years earlier, Thomas Fortune Ryan III (an aviation entrepreneur and descendant of industrialist, philanthropist, and art collector Thomas Fortune Ryan) had started the annual Billy-the-Kid Rodeo along with the Tularosa Lions Club. In 1952 the rodeo was staged at Ryan’s Three Rivers ranch, near Tularosa. There were numerous events for boys up to fifteen years old. Even though this would only be the second rodeo he had competed in, Marr decided to enter all the events he could.
Marr rode one of his Uncle Tom’s horses, a fourteen-year-old named Beetlebaum, a descendant of the US Cavalry’s Remount Program, which has been credited with creating a superior stock of horses. According to Marr, “He was just about the ugliest horse you ever saw. But he was a good roping horse and good barrel horse. Why, he could do anything.”
That year first prize for the champion of the Billy-the-Kid Rodeo was an airplane trip to New York City and Washington, DC, and a portrait commissioned by Thomas Fortune Ryan III from Peter Hurd. Second prize was a new leather saddle. Marr really wanted that saddle. For a boy who practically lived on a horse, how could a trip and a painting ever compete with a brand new saddle?
At the age of fifteen, Gerald Marr won “All-Around Cowboy” in his age division (thirteen to fifteen year olds), and even though he didn’t win the saddle, the win proved advantageous to him. His trip to New York and Washington was packed with highlights organized by Ryan, including meeting President Eisenhower and New Mexico Senator Dennis Chavez, and a tour of the White House and Pentagon. He met Gene Autry before Autry’s performance at the Madison Square Garden Rodeo and attended a World Series baseball game. While in Washington, Marr competed in a radio game show called Wonderful City, where he won numerous prizes, including clothing, hunting gear, a dog, and a horse that was donated by Ryan.
During the Christmas holiday in December 1952, Marr sat for his portrait with Hurd. They would start around 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning and work until around 10:00 a.m., when the changing light required rearranging the studio setup. Hurd completed preliminary sketches before executing the work in egg tempera. While sitting for the portrait, Marr again stayed with his aunt and uncle on their ranch in San Patricio. His part of the portrait was completed in under two weeks.
Born February 22, 1904, in Roswell, New Mexico, Harold Hurd Jr. would later change his name to Peter. After attending the New Mexico Military Institute, he entered West Point Military Academy in 1921. After two years, he decided to pursue art. He transferred to Haverford College, outside Philadelphia, and later attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1924 he obtained an apprenticeship with N. C. Wyeth, where he met his future wife, Wyeth’s daughter, Henriette.
By the time of Marr’s portrait, Peter Hurd was known for his egg tempera paintings. Egg tempera was the primary medium of Western easel painting through the early Renaissance period but had fallen out of favor in modern times to be replaced by oil paint. The most common recipes use the yolk of an egg (although the whole egg can also be used) as the binder. Hurd favored egg tempera on gessoed panels (mostly Masonite) because it allowed him to capture light, sharp edges, and luminous shadows. He prepared his own panels and ground his own mineral pigments. The paint dries to a hard, durable, and lustrous surface, and since egg tempera dries very fast and cannot be brushed uniformly over large surfaces, these types of paintings have characteristic small-hatch brushwork. The quantity of each day’s paint must be estimated and prepared ahead of time. This necessitates numerous preparatory and field drawings.
In April 1953, the portrait of Marr won the Maynard Prize at the National Academy of Design’s 128th Annual Exhibition in New York. A month later, Hurd started discussions with the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center regarding their acquisition of one of his paintings as a memorial to Percy Hagerman, a well-known Colorado Springs resident and supporter of the Arts Center. In August 1953, Hurd offered them the painting of Gerald Marr, as he wrote in a letter to Fred Bartlett, “a painting of a young ranch boy who last year won a statewide junior calf roping competition sponsored by Thomas Fortune Ryan III.” There is no mention that this work had already been promised elsewhere, probably because by this time there was another version.
In May or June of 1953, Peter Hurd asked Gerald Marr to sit for a second portrait. This time Hurd paid Marr one dollar as a modeling fee. To this day, Marr still owns the framed check for one dollar written to him by Hurd. For the second portrait, Hurd asked Marr to wear the same hat and shirt, made by Marr’s mother, he had worn for the first.
In October 1953, the first version was exhibited in Tucson and then purchased by the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. A label on the reverse of the painting in the collection of the Colorado Springs museum reads, “National Academy of Art, Annual Exhibition, 1953,” clear evidence that the Colorado Springs version is the earlier.
After Hurd completed the second portrait in late 1953, he gave it to Thomas Fortune Ryan III to fulfill his commission. It is not known why Ryan didn’t give the painting to Gerald Marr at that time. At some later point, Ryan loaned it to the Old Lincoln County Memorial Commission. The holdings of the commission transferred to what was then the Museum of New Mexico in the late 1970s, but this painting fell through the cracks and remained on loan. Records of the commission suggested the painting was intended as a gift, but legal transfer of ownership was never completed.
In 1993 Jon Freshour, chief registrar of the Museum of New Mexico, contacted Mr. Ryan regarding the possible donation of the piece to the New Mexico Museum of Art (then the Museum of Fine Arts). At that time, Ryan contacted Gerald Marr to ask if he would like the work. Unfortunately, Ryan only left a phone message for Marr, who was traveling. The message did not make clear whether Ryan was offering to sell or give the work to Marr, and by the time Marr was able to get back to Ryan, it was too late: Thomas Fortune Ryan III had given the work to the museum. Even though he never received this part of his prize, Gerald Marr holds no ill will toward Mr. Ryan or the museum. He blames himself for not speaking up sooner.
The Museum of New Mexico version of the painting was first exhibited in Santa Fe in April 1993 at the Governor’s Gallery in the Round House Capitol Building. The exhibition was entitled Working Cowboys of New Mexico. An article in the Albuquerque Journal praised the portrait as “the most outstanding painting in the show.” It lists the history of the work as a commission that was donated by Thomas Ryan III after being “overlooked at a small branch museum in Lincoln.”
The portrait has been shown in numerous exhibitions and reproduced in several publications. Prior to the rediscovery of the second painting, the Colorado Springs painting was often reproduced with an incorrect citation, saying that it was from the collection of Thomas Ryan. It wasn’t until after Ann and Albert Manchester published an article, “The Face behind the Portrait: Young Cowboy Wins Rodeo and a Place in Art History” in the January 1994 edition of New Mexico Magazine that the existence of the two paintings became known by most of the players. The article never mentions the painting in Colorado Springs and incorrectly merges the tales of the two paintings into one story. But it was the first widely available published article on the subject, ending with the story of the donation of the painting to the Museum of Fine Arts (now the New Mexico Museum of Art). The article includes several illustrations of the painting, and staff and volunteers at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center easily recognized the work and sections of the history listed in the article. It was a probably a bit of a shock to them that the work illustrated was listed as being in the collection of Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe.
So why did Peter Hurd paint two nearly identical paintings? There’s no clear record of his thinking, but his creation of the second portrait is probably explained by the popularity of the first. These works are often considered some of the best paintings done by Hurd, and the artist himself considered the first painting to be “one of the best examples of my work.” There was also the more practical motivation of replacing Thomas Fortune Ryan’s commissioned painting, which Hurd had sold to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
Gerald Marr went on to become a professional rodeo participant and well-known thoroughbred horse trainer and breeder in Tularosa, New Mexico. Ryan and Marr remained friends long after the 1952 Billy-the-Kid Rodeo. In 1995, shortly after the existence of the two paintings was brought to light, Marr’s stepdaughter, Rhonda Rae Smith, became the first person to attempt to distinguish the two works and their histories for a New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities project. However, her comprehensive report was never published, and her research became buried in the files.
Of course, Marr has known about the location of the two works from the beginning. During a high school field trip with his class, he stood in front of his portrait hanging in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. When asked why he never mentioned the existence of the two paintings to any of the writers documenting his portrait before Rhonda Rae Smith, he answered in typically laconic cowboy style, “I guess they never asked.”
The two paintings were exhibited together for the first time in November 2012 at the New Mexico Museum of Art. The Colorado Springs version is in Santa Fe for exhibition in the New Mexico History Museum’s Cowboys Real and Imagined through March 16, 2014. The New Mexico Museum of Art’s version is on display in It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of New Mexico Art until January 2014. Over the course of a few months, the curious can compare the two paintings by crossing Lincoln Avenue in downtown Santa Fe and visiting both exhibitions.
Michelle Gallagher Roberts is chief registrar at the New Mexico Museum of Art. She presented an earlier version of this essay as a gallery talk at the museum.
Correspondence. New Mexico Museum of Art Chief Registrar’s Office, Santa Fe.1993.38.1.
Simone Ellis. “Even Cowboys Get the Artists.” Albuquerque Journal, April 11, 1993.
Andrea Kirsh and Rustin S. Levenson. Seeing through Paintings: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.
Ann Manchester and Albert Manchester. “The Face behind the Portrait: Young Cowboy Wins Rodeo and a Place in Art History.” New Mexico Magazine 72 (January 1994):26–28.
Gerald Marr. “Cowboy Never Did Get Rodeo Prize.” The Gazette, Colorado Springs, May 7, 2009.
Robert Metzger, ed. My Land Is the Southwest: Peter Hurd Letters and Journals.College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1983.
Rhonda Rae Smith. “Peter Hurd’s Portrait of Gerald Marr.” Manuscript, 1995.
“U.S. Remount Service Subject of New Book.” Equus Magazine, June 2003.