- E. Martin Hennings, American, 1886-1956
- Born: New Jersey
- Work Locations: Taos, NM
- United States
About the Artist
E. Martin Hennings was born in New Jersey and spent his childhood in Chicago. Inspired by a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, he decided to become an artist at the young age of thirteen. He enrolled in classes at the Art Institute and eventually graduated with honors. He also studied painting at the Royal Academy in Munich. In 1917, Hennings visited Taos, New Mexico, on a summer trip sponsored by Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison, Jr. While there, Hennings found inspiration in the subject matter of the American West. He made Taos his home in 1921, joined the Taos Society of Artists in 1924, and remained there until his death in 1956.
Hennings did most of his paintings outdoors but would often add finishing touches in his studio. He used many thin layers of paint, which required lengthy drying periods, so he would work on several paintings at a time. Hennings would never sign his name until he was completely satisfied with his work.
What Inspired It
Hennings was drawn to both the landscape and the people of the Taos area. The bright sunlight of New Mexico inspired his colorful palette. He commented in his later years, “I have been working in Taos many years and I think that should prove that I like it here; the country, the mountains with their canyons and streams, the sage beneath the clouded skies, the adobe village with its Spanish people and of course the Taos Pueblo with its Indians. Their life—domestic and agricultural—with all the color and romance of their dress and history.”
Hennings knew some of his American Indian subjects very well, and he was even known to change a painting in response to their concerns. He and his wife lived on a reservation for a while, and Hennings shows Indians as he knew them—as people living in the modern world, hunting with rifles and clothed in individual ways, including one fellow in a tennis sweater. “[I]n figure subjects I think I find my greatest inspiration—subjects which you have grown to know from experience and subjects which the imagination brings forth.”
The vertical patterns are most noticeable in the blanket and the braids worn by the men, but Hennings also used the patterns in nature: in the sky, the horse’s tail, and in the sagebrush.
Dramatic light, bright color, and pattern activate this rather static scene. In spite of the dark, stormy sky, the sun throws hard shadows in the foreground. Bright light falls on the three men and the horse in the foreground of the painting, but the title subject, the dead rabbit, is obscured in dark shadows.
Though the rabbit is hidden in the shadows, Hennings uses several techniques to signal its presence. All the men seem to have their attention focused on the rabbit and their rifles point to their recent kill. The vertical lines play another role here; if you follow the rider’s braids to the horse’s reigns to the other set of braids, your eye is led directly to the rabbit.
Three men have a bold presence in Rabbit Hunt. Though they have quite individualized faces, we don’t know exactly who they are. Notice how each man is clothed in an individual way. The rider, for example is wearing a cross-cultural combination of trousers, a cuffed shirt, a tennis sweater, and moccasins.
The diamond shape under the horse’s neck creates a frame for another horse and rider. At first glance there is only one horse present, but look a little closer and you’ll see there are three in this painting.
Striped blankets were used all the time, but Hennings would have selected the colors, pattern, and position of the blanket to suit his vision for the scene.
Bright colors are found throughout this painting in the highlights and shadows. Notice the bright red-orange near the horse’s hind leg, the yellow contours on the shadowed white clothing, and the light blue edges of the sagebrush in the center.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- E. Martin Hennings and Theodore Van Soelen were both Western artists who painted the people and scenery that they experienced on a personal level. Compare Hennings’s Rabbit Hunt to van Soelen’s The Road to Santa Fe. How are they similar? How are they different? Theodore Van Soelen believed that artists should live and work with their subjects, so his neighbors often appeared in his work. Hennings would sometimes even make changes to his paintings based on the requests of his subjects. Ask students: How does a familiarity with your subjects give you a different perspective? Think about the people that surround you and the places that you’ve experienced. How would you portray those things? Look at van Soelen's Road to Santa Fe.