NAVAJO TAPESTRY, GOUACHE, 20 X 40. COLLECTION OF PHOENIX ART MUSEUM, MUSEUM PURCHASE WITH FUNDS PROVIDED BY THE WESTERN ART ASSOCIATES.
By Todd Wilkinson
The esteemed western painter Robert Lougheed has been gone for exactly 20 years, but his spirit lives on. Earlier this year, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lougheed’s world, I set out from Santa Fe’s historic central plaza where conquistadors once strolled, where frontier cowboys passed through, where Navajo weavers still sell their famous rugs, and where the nearby Museum of New Mexico holds several Lougheed masterworks that speak to his place in the pantheon of western art.
From there I went looking for the artist himself. I followed a path rising into the outskirts of town along an arroyo and proceeded past clusters of adobe trophy homes, each one surrounded by a fashionable coyote fence. Eventually I reached a dirt road, transformed by summer monsoons into gumbo and tinted iron red. Pausing only to take stock of the fragrant piñon pine scenting the hillsides, a pair of Hispanic horseback riders, and the big, atmospheric skies, I arrived at the doorstep of Lougheed’s modest old studio, managing to temporarily evade the pack of mongrel guard dogs prowling his old-fashioned neighborhood.
In his studio, in a remarkable assemblage of art, Lougheed does indeed live on. Two decades after the famed painter’s death at age 72, his widow, Cordy, is offering the outside world a rare look into Lougheed’s daily life by unveiling a treasure trove of works spanning half a century that few have ever seen. Not since the National Cowboy Hall of Fame staged the first major Lougheed retrospective in 1990, with 150 works displayed posthumously, has the artist’s rightful status as a giant among 20th-century western painters been brought more clearly into focus.
JIM NEVILLE’S TEAM, OIL, 12 X 16. COURTESY NICHOLAS FINE ART.
Although Lougheed is known foremost for his ambitious western studio paintings, he also produced an impressive number of finished field drawings, landscape studies, and a handful of larger works never put on public display. “When he made these paintings, he painted them for himself, or for us as reminders of the places we visited together, or as inspiration for larger works that went to the galleries, shows, and his regular collectors,” Cordy said as we chatted in Lougheed’s studio.
Except for his easel, brushes, and distinctive palette, which now reside at the National Center for American Western Art (formerly the Cowboy Artists of America Museum) in Kerrville, TX, everything is pretty much as he left it. Over the fireplace protrudes a stuffed bison head; above the sofa is a photograph of Lougheed’s mentor and friend, the great Frank Vincent DuMond, who taught at the Art Student’s League; on a table are animal horns and other visual props; and, in between, the wall space is covered with uncir-culated works that have remained Cordy’s favorites.
In 2002, Mrs. Lougheed enlisted one of her husband’s former students Dwayne Harty, a wildlife painter and curator at Nicholas Fine Art in Billings, MT to catalog the still-intact collection. The objective, Harty says, is to make some of the western, wildlife, tropical, and European paintings available for acquisition by private collectors. But of equal importance is to ensure that the expatriate’s Canadian works find a proper home in museums in his native country.
HITCHING THE SLEIGH, OIL, 24 X 30. COURTESY NICHOLAS FINE ART.
“For any artist of significant stature, it would be remarkable to have an assemblage of paintings like this together,” Harty says. “But the fact that these are Lougheeds, considering how his work has become increasingly rare on the open market, is incredible. What you see is an encapsulation of an entire brilliant career.”
“The longer Bob is gone, the larger he grows,” the noted artist Wilson Hurley once observed. Lougheed’s closest friends, the late western painters and legendary illustrators John Clymer and Tom Lovell, called him a genius. And the venerable DuMond who counted Ogden Pleissner, Norman Rockwell, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ken Riley, Andrew Dasburg, John Marin, and Charles W. Hawthorne as students confessed that Lougheed was his most gifted.
Carrying on DuMond’s legacy, Lougheed mentored his own generation of students, among them Wayne Wolfe, John and Terri Moyers, and Harty. Wolfe, who was taken under Lougheed’s wing as a young painter, once said that Lougheed would have been content to stand in the same spot and paint as the weather, light, and seasons changed, and would have produced a remarkable body of work.
NAMBE ARROYO, OIL, 12 X 16. COURTESY NICHOLAS FINE ART.
“It’s true, particularly when you’re a plein-air painter of Bob’s caliber, that you never see the same thing twice,” Wolfe says. “Nature is not always a benevolent host, but it never stopped Bob.” Lougheed painted outdoors in any conditions, whether it was 30 below zero on a January morning in Ontario or 100 degrees in the middle of the southwestern desert.
Migrating to Santa Fe in the 1950s, Lougheed was part of the second major wave of East Coast painters to settle near the flanks of the Sangre de Cristos and bring worldwide recognition to fine-art portrayals of cowboys, Indians, Spanish culture, wildlife, and heroic vistas. An immigrant to the West, he nevertheless became a catalyst for the movement of western art that continues strong today.
“I am a realist in painting,” Lougheed explained in a 1958 interview with American Artist that presciently described his direction for the next quarter century. “I know that a serious composition must include those emotional and spiritual qualities extolled by the professional art theorist; like every other artist, I also know that accurate reporting of detail does not, of itself, constitute art; but unlike our many theorists, I cannot feel that realistic treatment need detract from my reasonable or sensible ideal. From my viewpoint, realism is not only helpful it is definitely requisite.”
Having grown up on a farm in Ontario and devoted years of study to animals and the landscape, his knowledge was encyclopedic, remarked the late Tom Lovell in a foreword to the posthumous book, Lougheed. “This deep background coupled with fine color sense continued to make him one of the most forceful painters of our time, a true artist’s artist. In his ability to select, he saw the best and the most telling of whatever was before him. When his rapid brush struck in sunlight on an adobe wall, it was better than the wall itself.”
The Lougheeds married relatively late; Bob was in his late 40s and Cordy in her mid-30s. Previous women in Lougheed’s life had felt threatened by his love of painting; Cordy embraced it. “Cordy was Bob’s very thoughtful and fresh eye,” Wolfe says. “He had much talent, and when you were as happy as he was with her, art was life and life was art. When he moved to the West and married her about the same time, he entered an atmosphere perfectly conducive to his painting because there were no snafus at home. She lived in his part of the forest and was happy to be there. As male artists, we all would pray for a partner like Cordy.”
Even as his life was drawing to a close, Lougheed remained a passionate painter and a compassionate man. On Christmas eve in 1981, just months (continued on page 191) before his death, he was gravely ill and barely able to move. He had always told Cordy that he would stop painting only when he could no longer hold a brush. In the previous months, he had come close to reaching that fateful threshold.
On the night before Christmas, after the Lougheed family agreed not to exchange gifts because Bob was unable to leave his home, Cordy went to bed. Lougheed pulled himself up and arranged his palette on one of the few evenings that he ever painted after the sun he loved had gone down.
He sat near the spot where he had executed a few of his western masterpieces. Then he called the couple’s beloved dog, Honcho, near. He painted a small portrait that would have pleased DuMond or Sargent, and it was his gift to Cordy on Christmas morning.Every day they paint, Lougheed’s students who today are some of the finest of the new generation of western artists hold memories of their teacher. “The better that I seem to get as a painter, the better he does as well,” says Wolfe, who won the Prix de West award in 1982. Lougheed had suggested ways to improve the prize-winning painting a few weeks before he died.
Wolfe carries a passage from American naturalist Henry David Thoreau in his wallet, and the force of the words summon up Lougheed: “The most stupendous scenery ceases to be sublime when it becomes distinct or limited and the imagination is no longer encouraged to exaggerate it,” Thoreau wrote.
Lougheed rendered beautiful outdoor scenes that in his mind only aspired to convey the full glory of nature. For him, all the beauty we need is right there in front of our eyes.
Featured in October 2002