The Rio Grande Painters

Promoting Modern Art During the Social Realist 1930s.


The Rio Grande Painters group wished at the time to have a gallery outside of the State Art Museum which was still much devoted to “Indian” subjects. Although art was displayed in Santa Fe in the one bank then existing & in cafes, there were no small galleries in the early depression years.

—E. Boyd, coordinator and secretary of the Rio Grande Painters Group

It seems like a very modest proposal. A group of diverse “moderate modernists,” as one museum director described them, opened a gallery at 129 Palace Avenue, in Sena Plaza, in the fall of 1933, which was disbanded by the end of 1935. Very little has been written about the group, aside from a few brief mentions in the biographies of two of its members. Yet their story is a fascinating window into the Santa Fe and Taos arts communities of the 1930s, one that enriches our understanding of the aesthetics of the era. Those aesthetics include the Rio Grande Painters Group’s (RGPG) carnivalesque ways of celebrating identity and community, as well as their exhibition of modern New Mexico art in some surprising venues where they were, for the most part, warmly welcomed. These include Dubuque, Iowa, famously stereotyped by Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker, who wrote in 1925 that his urbane and sophisticated magazine was not intended “for the little old lady from Dubuque.”

In a decade of economic desperation, when most American artists, particularly those supported by the New Deal programs in the arts, turned to social realism in order to create an art that spoke about and to the “common” man and woman—farmers, Dust Bowl migrants, the urban poor, among them—the RGPG sought to promote an eclectic modern art and modern aesthetic to all age groups. During their short-lived tenure as a formal group, they showed in small cities throughout the East, Midwest, and South, as well as in museums like the Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City; the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts; and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

Joseph Traugott, former curator of twentieth-century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art, has written about the Santa Fe and Taos arts communities as a “Fraternity Row.” The mostly short-lived early to mid-twentieth century artists groups and associations included the Taos Society of Artists (1915–1927), the New Mexico Painters (1923–1927), Los Cinco Pintores (1922–1926), and the Transcendental Painting Group (1938–1942). There were a total of four women artists among all of these groups, although many professional women artists were working in Santa Fe and Taos.

The RGPG disrupted this male-dominated pattern. Its chief organizing officer was E. Boyd, who would become the foremost authority on Spanish colonial religious art in New Mexico and the first curator of the Department of Spanish Colonial Art, within the Museum of New Mexico. The group included three other women artists: Gina Schnaufer Knee, Anne Goodwin Stockton, and Eleanor Cowles. Although the RGPG’s one and only catalogue, published in 1933, shows strong work by all of these women, and they received praise from critics, I have only been able to locate reproducible images for the two best known, Boyd and Knee. Other members of the group included Cady Wells, Paul Lantz, Charles Barrows, and James Stovall Morris; Stockton and Barrows left the group after the first year, and McHarg Davenport and John Dorman were added. The deepening of the Great Depression was likely a major factor in the disbanding of the RGPG. Starting in January 1936, Boyd, Wells, Morris, Barrows, Lantz, and Dorman began to work on the Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design, under the aegis of the WPA, which ultimately published 200 copies of fifty color plates of Hispano religious art. Morris, Barrows, and Lantz also benefited from work on other New Deal projects.

The informal articles of incorporation that the RGPG drew up in 1934 indicate a much more ambitious project than E. Boyd’s modest summation in the notes she wrote in 1966, when she donated their papers to the New Mexico State Archives. Correct in their assessment that modern art was given short shrift by the New Mexico Museum of Art, they hoped to form a permanent gallery of modern art in Santa Fe, both for members of the association and others, and to provide education in modern art for the general public. Modern art for them was broadly inclusive, both in terms of the ethnic identities of the artists who showed in their gallery and the range of styles they embraced.

The RGPG’s monthly exhibitions included artists like Rebecca James, whose reverse paintings on glass were stunning modern examples of a practice that began during the Renaissance. Other artists mentioned in local reviews were Hispano woodcarvers Pablo Roybal and Antonio Gallegos, and painter Pablo Cervantez; Polia Pillin, a Polish Jewish immigrant who lived in New Mexico during the 1930s, painting delicate watercolors of adobe houses and landscapes, before moving to California in the 1940s, where she became a noted potter; and Valintin Vidauretta, from Taxco, Mexico, who created lithographs of Mexican workers in the modern Mexican muralist tradition before joining the famous silversmithing workshop, Taller de las Delicias, in the 1940s. (In her review of this exhibition in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Ruth Laughlin referred to the Hispanos as local “boys” and to Pillin as a “Polish girl”—apparently in her lexicon only Anglo artists were grownups.)

All of the RGPG artists were second-generation escapees from the East and Midwest. They arrived in Santa Fe in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when they were still young enough (in their thirties) to be seen as youthful turks staking a claim to a place, not a style, to their right to paint as they saw fit and not for the benefit of promoting romantic landscapes and portraits of Pueblos and Hispanos. (The “Land of Enchantment” became the state tourist industry’s motto in 1935.) The RGPG planned to have scholarships for needy artists, and painting and art education classes for children that would include prize competitions. In short, they wanted to do “everything possible to develop a public interest in modern art.”

E. Boyd, who wrote most of the publicity and the biographies of the artists that appear in the 1933 catalogue, noted that they had nothing in common but their post office box number and their love of the Southwest. Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Worcester Art Museum, wrote in the introduction to their catalogue: “The RGP are a small group of younger artists living in the Southwest with a distinct preference for the landscape of New Mexico and its freedom from inhibitions. This same freshness of the great open spaces . . . [is] reflected in their work . . . they advocate a moderate modernism.” The “freedom from inhibitions” Taylor mentions was a cardinal marker of the RGPG’s play as well as their work. Not taking themselves too seriously is part of their lasting charm.

We are familiar with many of the delightful ways that Anglo artists in Santa Fe created counter-cultural ceremonies and rituals: Will Schuster’s and Gustave Baumann’s Zozobra, the burning man who consumes our human miseries, created in 1924 and still marking the end of Santa Fe Fiesta; and the Pasatiempo parade, initiated by poet Witter Bynner and social activist Dorothy Sloan, during which artists created fanciful costumes and floats as a comic antidote to the seriousness of the annual re-creation of the Spanish entrada. But the RGPG seem to have taken these antics to new heights during the 1930s, particularly in the level of cross-dressing that took place at their fund-raising parties, even among the more serious members of the artists’ community.

In their first gala, in 1933, the RGPG organized a Circus Ball at La Fonda that brought 400 Santa Feans together under a big tent. The editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican, Dana Johnson, showed up as an “alluring Spanish dancer”; painter Gerald Cassidy as “The Menace of Mickey Mouse” and his wife as antisaloon zealot Carrie Nation (Prohibition had just been repealed); John Gaw Meem came as a grizzly bear and his wife in trainer’s clothes; Randall Davey and his wife as circus dancers in pink tights; Theresa Bakos as Mae West. The proceeds from the ball helped to pay for the RGPG’s traveling exhibitions (always reviewed admiringly in El Palacio), and several of the costumes were donated for display in their gallery.

The RGPG had their first gallery show in October 1933. The first review, written by novelist Myron Brinig, who was Cady Wells’s lover at the time, shares the same insouciant spirit as the group itself. Brinig told his readers that they could “admire or get angry or just stand and look. If you don’t care for pictures there is a lovely plaza just outside, in the rear. Or you may cross the street to the church and pray for the souls of the artists, if you like.”

The bios that E. Boyd wrote for the 1933 catalogue are delightfully irreverent and brash. I will introduce the six artists whose works appear in the catalogue through Boyd’s lens.

E. Boyd (Van Cleave) (1903–1974)

Born in Philadelphia and brought up almost everywhere between California and Berlin. Went to experimental outdoor school with an absence of discipline. . . . Came to Santa Fe in the Fall of ’29 for three months and seems to have become rooted to the spot.

E. Boyd was the chief organizer for the RGPG. A feisty, independent, and highly intelligent woman, with an acerbic wit and no tolerance for pretention, she came from a wealthy Philadelphia Main Line family. Boyd’s early schooling in the Phoebe Anna Thorpe Outdoor School for Girls provided her with a progressive education and reinforcement for not following the rules. During a stint in Paris in the twenties, she married her first of three or four husbands and took up painting. She said of her signature “E. Boyd” (one word): “There is no sex in art, so why should one sign their work as man or woman? If a woman . . . why in her chosen career should she be obliged to change her name just because she has chosen to marry?” She also averred that having gotten “married and unmarried” several times, she needed a permanent name.

The most productive period of Boyd’s art was in the three years that she belonged to the RGPG, after which she devoted her life to collecting, copying, researching, conserving, and publishing on Spanish Colonial religious art. As was true of Rebecca James —a tough and gritty woman whose father managed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—Boyd’s art reveals an aspect of her character that seems counter to the persona she displayed. The delicate washes, brushwork, and low-key palette of her watercolors create a desert landscape that reveals subtle beauties, as it shelters the adobe homes embedded within it. Colors of lavender, blue, green, and sienna mark her paintings as distinctive from the work of her fellow RGPG members, especially the dark and dramatic watercolors of Cady Wells, her closest friend while she lived in New Mexico.

After Boyd joined the team that worked on the Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design, she traveled throughout northern New Mexico making watercolor reproductions of Spanish colonial church altars. It is a sign of the cultural currents of the time that her paintings were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, under the auspices of Holger Cahill, director of the Federal Art Project for the WPA. Cahill titled the exhibition New Horizons in American Art, selecting the works of over 180 artists who, he believed, could speak to audiences in useful ways (i.e., not abstract modernists). Patrocina Barela, whose expressionist woodcarvings were modernist in spirit; Charles Barrows, one of the more realistic of the RGPG; Gene Kloss, a highly popular printmaker; and Pedro Cervantez, a self-taught oil painter who showed at the RGPG gallery, were the others chosen from New Mexico.

In expanding the word “modern” to encompass folk and religious art, Cahill was well within the conceptual framework of many Anglo patrons and artists who embraced New Mexico’s Indian and Hispano aesthetics, in the words of art historian Jackson Rushing, as “modern by tradition.”

Cady Wells (1904–1954)

Left six successive boarding schools, studied music in Paris and Boston. . . . Coming in the fall of ’32 he studied with Dasburg, and has in his painting worked out what he feels of the rhythmic disorder and motion of the country.

Cady Wells was born in Southbridge, Massachusetts, to a wealthy family. The Wellses put together one of the great collections of premodern New England tools and crafts, which became the basis of their living-history museum at Sturbridge Village, which opened in 1946. Wells himself would become one of the foremost collectors of Spanish colonial religious art, donating over 300 pieces to the Museum of New Mexico with the agreement that they would house them in a newly formed department of Spanish colonial art and hire E. Boyd to be the curator, which the museum board agreed to do.

Boyd had been Wells’s mentor in helping him form his santo collection, as well as a keen supporter of his art. Wells developed into one of the finest watercolorists of the mid-twentieth century, as well as the only New Mexico artist of his generation to take on the anxieties and terrors of the birth of the atomic age in his postapocalyptic landscapes of the Pajarito Plateau, near Los Alamos, which was twelve miles from his home.

Charles (Chuck) Barrows (1903 –1988)

Began painting with chemicals on the frosted panes of the laboratory in which he was employed after school hours; at the same time he sold tickets at “The Rat’s Nest” a dance hall in his native town of Washington, Pa.

Charles Barrows studied at the Carnegie Institute of Art, the National Academy of Design, and the Art Students League. In 1928 he met cowboy artist Hal West at the B&G Sandwich Shop in New York City, where they both worked. Hal talked about Santa Fe.

Chuck and his buddy Jim Morris (see below) had read about the town and the modern art teacher and painter Andrew Dasburg, who did much to train many of the first and second generation of modern artists in Santa Fe and Taos. They decided it was the place for them.

One day, so the story goes (in slightly different versions), Barrows and Morris were eating sandwiches in Central Park when they asked a policeman the way to the Holland Tunnel. When he said it was at least five miles, Barrows replied: “That’s all right. We’re going to walk to New Mexico.” They left in April, hitchhiking, hopping freight trains, and finally buying a Model T with money given them by Barrows’s father, in Arizona. They arrived in Santa Fe with no money; camped above the Santa Fe River on Alameda Street; met Witter Bynner, who invited them to “tea” (white lightning) that evening at his house.

Barrows painted in oils and watercolor. A fine example of his early work is his boldly colorful impressionist rendering of the Josef Bakos house on Camino del Monte Sol. But he is best known for his serigraphy. His prints were exhibited widely throughout the US and internationally in the 1940s and 1950s.

James Stovall Morris (1898 –1973)

Began to draw at age four. . . . After a miserable, cold, gloomy winter in Woodstock, deserted to Santa Fe via a freight train. . . . He continues to regard the New Mexican scene as the most spacious and complete in America.

James Stovall Morris was born in Marshall, Missouri, and studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. At some point, he saw a painting by John Sloan of Indians coming from the kiva (most likely Ancestral Spirits, 1919, in the New Mexico Museum of Art) that impressed him greatly. After he met John Sloan in Santa Fe, Sloan provided Morris with a scholarship to the Arts Student League, from which he returned in 1933.

Among the best known of the RGPG, Morris’s work is distinctive for its dynamic and high-energy surrealist portrayal of Santa Fe houses and landscapes. Lightning, ca. 1940, is a fantastical homage to the sometimes terrifying electrical storms that rip through northern New Mexico during the summer monsoons.

Gina (Schnaufer) Knee (1898–1982)

Born in Marietta, Ohio. . . . Attended the Art Students League in New York. . . . Matrimony temporarily checked progress in painting until she began doing pastels of children on commission.

Gina Knee grew up in a genteel southern family in Virginia, prepared for the traditional role of marriage and family. She lived a parties-and-polo life, marrying in her social set when she was nineteen. Ten years later, after seeing a John Marin painting, she left her home, divorced her husband, and in 1931 moved to Santa Fe. Painter and photographer Ernest Knee was her third husband. As Boyd none too slyly suggests, matrimony only “temporarily checked” her, although she did not begin to study painting in earnest until she worked under Ward Lockwood in Taos, at which time she changed her name from Virginia to Gina, with a hard G.

Knee’s biographer, Sharyn Udall, points out that Knee “explored . . . the processes of nature: birth, growth, death, decay, rebirth,” and in these processes she “found the visual and metaphorical basis for her art.” Her earliest watercolors show her fascination with Indian dances and Penitente rituals. Sun, Wind, and Stars, ca. 1935, is a lyrical abstract ode to the forces of nature in New Mexico. Here she achieved one of the most delightful renditions of her aesthetic philosophy, “trying to express in the forms their spirit, or sound, or smell—a more complete picture—a sensual statement—as important as the forms.

Like her fellow RGPG members, Knee regularly showed in the Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico. She joined the Heptagon, the only modern gallery in Taos, in 1939, as did Cady Wells. Although she left New Mexico in 1940 and moved to California, she wrote in her seventies: “I never got over New Mexico—the landscape, the mesas, mountains, the green and tan.” Her final tribute to New Mexico, painted in 1940, was her most powerful. In Near Cordova, New Mexico she embodied the life-giving impulses of the Penitente ceremonials and the dynamism of the environment that she had internalized over the decade she had lived there.

Paul Lantz (1908–2000)

At the age of ten made violins in exchange for lessons in painting, at fifteen went to art school in Kansas City.

Paul Lantz was born in Stromburg, Nebraska, and spent his early childhood in Montana and Missouri. He studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, the National Academy of Design, the Art Students League, and in Europe. He lived in Santa Fe from 1929 to 1939 and worked with Randall Davey.

In a 1976 article on Lantz in Southwestern Art, John Jellico insightfully tagged him as a “Modern Old Master,” whose colorful and dynamic art was “composed upon a fine pattern of movement,” noting that he was “a consummate draughtsman . . . capable of extreme dramatic intensity.” Snow in Santa Fe, ca. 1935, demonstrates these qualities; it is, without doubt, the most stunning landscape “portrait” of the city created by a New Mexico artist in the interwar years.

Lantz was also an illustrator of children’s books, with over thirty-five to his credit. One of these, the Caldecott Award–winning Blue Willow (1940 and still in print), is a remarkable story about the friendship between a young Okie girl, Janey Larkin, and Lupe Romero, whose Mexican American family helps Janey’s family through the worst time of their lives during the Great Depression.

McHarg Davenport(1891–1941)

Like Gina Schnaufer Knee and Cady Wells, McHarg Davenport came from a wealthy eastern family—his father was a banker and on the New York Stock Exchange. A precocious young man, he published A Likeable Chap: A Story of Prep School Life in 1911 while a student at Columbia University. In the early 1920s, he married socialite Florence Chester Johnson and founded the Garden News and Long Island Sketch. Nothing in this background would prepare the viewer for the paintings he would create after moving to Santa Fe.

Davenport’s experiences as a soldier in World War I, during which he was gassed, altered the course of his life. After the war, he continued to suffer from lung problems that sent him to Santa Fe in 1929, and that led to his early death. His family is certain that the horrors of that war and its debilitating effects on him contributed to his satiric and sardonic views of both high art and the human race. Davenport painted the underside of life in Santa Fe, often focusing on aspects of Hispano society that no other Anglo painter had before. Alfred Morang noted of his contribution to the 1938 annual fiesta show at the Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico: “Among American painters concerned with satire, Davenport ranks high, and this is a splendid example of his bitter sympathy.”

Although Davenport seems to have been a self-taught artist, he clearly knew some of the works of the symbolist and expressionist painters who may have influenced him, James Ensor among them. He worked in what most reviewers spoke of as “primitive” style that came close to caricature, but he never demeaned his subjects.

Davenport’s show at the Montross Gallery in New York in 1935 drew a large crowd and mostly favorable commentary. Titled Life and Death in Santa Fe, it included La Vida Nueva, his lively, rhythm-infused depiction of jazz dancers and performers at a bar. In 1937 he painted Bishop’s Lodge Road, a witty depiction of one of the more infamous roadhouses in the Santa Fe area, El Nido. It was run as a bordello by a madam from San Francisco for a few years in the late 1930s before becoming a respectable restaurant in the 1940s.

The painting shows what at first looks like a bucolic scene: a Mexican man on a burro is making his way into a courtyard. But as one looks closer, one notices that the open doors of each room have ladies standing in them, waiting for business. Davenport has used telltale signs of El Nido’s décor—the vultures in the lower right-hand corner reference the bird of prey on their roadhouse sign, while the palm tree has been imported from the murals painted by Ford Ruthling on the inside of the bar.

Davenport’s New York exhibit received notice in Art News and the New York World Telegram. They praised Davenport not only for his “vigor and originality,” but for showing views of New Mexico that never made it to New York art galleries: “Life as Davenport thinks of it, is something more than Red Hills and Stunted Trees,” one of them wrote, and “something from New Mexico besides chilli [sic] . . . adobes, and Indians,” as the other put it.

John Carroll Dorman (1911/12–?)

The youngest of the RGPG, John Carroll Dorman, was the son of Teresa Bakos and her first husband. He was born either in Berlin, Germany, or Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dorman first came to Santa Fe in 1920, with his mother, Teresa, who soon divorced her husband and married Josef Bakos. Dorman graduated from Santa Fe High School and studied at the Santa Fe Art School, the École de Beaux Arts in Paris, and Pomona College. He had a one-man show in San Francisco and lived on and off in Santa Fe from 1928.

Dorman was the only nonobjective artist among the RGPG painters. His 1934 Abstract Balance, included in the RGPG traveling exhibition, suggests the influence of Raymond Jonson in its geometric harmonies and soft pastel colors .

While most of the RGPGworked within landscape and portrait aesthetics that would be recognizable to the general art museum public, it is still surprising to discover how well they were received, especially in the small and often provincial cities where their work was traveled under the sponsorship of the American Federation of the Arts. In fact, we may have to rethink a bit some of our cosmopolitan snobbery about such places, after reading their reviews.

It is hardly surprising that Santa Fe arts promoter Ina Sizer Cassidy sang a song of praise for the “youth” who were “carrying their message of southwestern beauty to art lovers of the middle west” in the May 1935 issue of New Mexico Magazine, or that a Santa Fe New Mexican critic wrote that the show was “overwhelming, deliberate, dramatic, bold, of emotional power, invigorating, stimulating, poetic, lean, vibrant, concrete, articulate, and showing subtle though sophisticated humor.” More unusual was the review in the American Magazine of Art, which spoke of the work in the RGPG’s fifteen-month traveling exhibition as “widely liked” in the Middle West. These comments are affirmed in the clippings of reviews and letters sent to E. Boyd by members of the museums and art associations that hosted the exhibitions. A reviewer for a Tulsa, Oklahoma, newspaper took her readers on a full-page pedagogic tour of the exhibition, noting that the artists of the RGPG were “very pleasing colorists” and savvy stylists.

Clyde Gartner of the Tulsa Art Association wrote to Boyd about her appreciation of this “most interesting group of paintings,” while Don Glasell, from the Lasell Art Galleries in Dubuque, Iowa, told Boyd, “We have thoroughly enjoyed your show,” although he also noted that he was sending an article from the local newspaper that he hoped she wouldn’t “take too seriously.” Mrs. McGehee of the Mississippi Art Association wrote that the RGPG exhibit had been “very much enjoyed for their interesting technique and their feeling of a wholesome new point of view.”

Mrs. McGehee would certainly not have described as anything like wholesome a group painting that the Rio Grande Painters contributed to, along with several other Santa Fe artists. According to Laurie Rufe, former curator at the Roswell Museum, it was first put on exhibit at Capital Pharmacy before being up for sale at Kidding the Masters, an exhibition held in conjunction with the 1939 Santa Fe Fiesta. It is also believed to have been created as a celebration of the birthday of Santa Fe art patron Amelia Elizabeth White.

The Birthday Painting (1939) is a witty and somewhat scatological send-up of several classic motifs found within Renaissance and Baroque European art, with some irreverent New Mexican touches. The joint effort of the fourteen painters whose names decorate the frame, it incorporates stories from the Garden of Eden and Santa Fe (the snake is holding a chile ristra in its mouth), the rape of Europa by Zeus, and Leda and the Swan. Five of the fourteen contributors were women painters, among them Olive Rush, whose gently fanciful watercolor of deer, typical of her work, only seems out of place. Her inclusion bespeaks of the many ways in which the artists of Santa Fe were able, at least at times, to be broadly generous, as well as self-mocking in their collective outlook on what constituted modern art. Four of the contributors had been members of the RGPG. Two of them would die tragically early—McHarg Davenport in 1940, and Cady Wells in 1954. Lantz, Morris, Barrows, and Knee had successful, long-lived careers.

Davenport, who died the youngest of them all, would be accompanied by his Bull Heaven in the obituary written for the impressive special edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican published on June 26, 1940. The oversized paper was devoted to the accomplishments of the scores of writers and artists, both sojourners and permanent settlers—among them the RGPG—who had contributed to making northern New Mexico a significant hub of the modern American art and literary universe in the first four decades of the twentieth century.

Special thanks go to David Davenport for providing me with information about his grandfather, McHarg Davenport, and putting me in touch with family members who graciously provided biographical information and images of Davenport’s work for this article. Also to Anne McNally for providing information on her great-aunt, Eleanor Cowles; to Sandra Goodwin for information on her grandmother, Anne Stockton; and to Stanley Cuba for providing me with on the life and work of John Dorman.

Lois Rudnick is professor emerita of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, a resident of Santa Fe, and author of Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds; Cady Wells and Southwestern Modernism; and The Suppressed Memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan: Sex, Syphilis, and Psychoanalysis in the Making of Modern American Culture(University of New Mexico Press, 2012).