Alfred Morang was a gifted and prolific artist who made numerous contributions to the North American Post-Impressionism art movement, and to the artistic community of Santa Fe, New Mexico in its early years. His character and to some extent his art has been tarnished by an unsavory reputation gained during particularly difficult times near the end of his life, which were marred by debt, illness, and alcoholism, culminating in his sudden passing in an explosion and fire in his home. However, for much of his life he was a beloved painter, mentor, and friend to many.
Born in Ellsworth, Maine in 1901, Alfred Morang had an unconventional childhood. He was very ill as a child, possibly due to a heart condition, and was unable to attend school. As a result, his family hired private tutors and from a young age he was drawn to a variety of artistic mediums and studied them passionately. As a teen he was taught by artists Carroll Sargent Tyson, and Henry Snell. In addition to studying the visual arts, he was an accomplished violinist and writer of fiction and poetry. He was one of the youngest violinists to play a solo performance at Jordan Hall in Boston, and met his future wife, Dorothy Alden Clark, at the New England Conservatory for Music. Like many other artists of the time, they moved to Santa Fe for its reputation as a health resort at the advice of his doctors when he contracted tuberculosis.
A number of interested parties worked to establish Santa Fe as a cultural center beginning around the turn of the century. They made efforts to draw and support artists there, and Santa Fe was already an artistic incubator of sorts when the Morangs arrived in 1937. Santa Fe buzzed with influences from impressionism, post-impressionism, surrealism, and cubism. Many artists from the east and west coasts were also enthralled with the southwestern countryside and the unique quality of its light and expansive landscapes.
Alfred Morang quickly began teaching in Santa Fe, at the Arsuna School of Fine Art, and joined The Transcendental Painting Group. This group, founded by Raymond Johnson, Emil Bistram, and William Lumpkins, championed abstract and non-objective art. For a time, Morang taught Janet Lippincott, who would go on to become a celebrated abstract artist. Their influence on one another is evident in both of their work. The Morangs’ home quickly became known for late night salons where one would frequently find live music and animated discussions about art. He further shared his passion for art in a radio program, which he hosted for 15 years, and with the Morang School of Art, which he opened at the end of WWII. Morang was surrounded by other notable artists including Randall Davey, John Sloan, and Miki Hayakawa. Together, they made up a community of artists that supported and challenged one another.
(Left to Right) Alfred and Dorothy Morang, Mary Hunsacker and Friend, Miki Hayakawa, November 1943, lent by Astilli Fine Art Services
Following the lineage of abstract artists before him, the influence of music is especially evident in Morang’s abstract pieces and greatly affected his theories on art. He wrote to a friend in April of 1955:
The abstract, non-objective. A line starts and where it finishes is a matter of rhythms, inner and outer. The outer can be explained as conscious effort to achieve a unity of line that in its turn suggest other forms, Kandinsky, some Picasso. But the inner rhythms are subconscious, dictated by life experience of the individual which of course differs with the painter who is doing the work. Thus, we are tied to the musical theme, counter point after the basic line has progressed to its logical end. Then other forms suggest themselves both curves and angles and each shape demands colors that will, either pull it forward or push it back into the picture plane. And this very picture plane will also assert itself through what I shall call “shape-logic,” the need to take into account the over-all shape in which forms are enclosed, the sonata form, the concerto form etc that dictate the composers shaping of his fundamental musical conception. Then we have staccato, largatto lines, rough places, smooth places in pigments that may well be compared to the various instruments in the orchestra. A string quartet is limited to the subtle progressions, so some paintings in this type of work must also be limited to subtle color mixtures and liner mixtures while each theme is stated with great clarity.
“Mountainscape,” 1941 watercolor on paper by Alfred Morang
Morang is still frequently referred to as the Toulouse-Lautrec of Santa Fe. Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec lived from 1864-1901, and is recognized as one of the great post-impressionist artists. Alfred Morang was clearly heavily inspired by Toulouse-Lautrec’s style, but he was also inspired by his subject matter. Many of Morang’s paintings depict CanCan dancers from a local bar, or “Ladies of the Night” as he referred to them. Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from multiple congenital health issues and, like Morang, threw himself into his art when unable to participate in the same activities as other young men of the time. Unfortunately, Toulouse-Lautrec died the same year that Morang was born, from complications of alcoholism and syphilis. It is easy to imagine that Morang was touched by the similarities he perceived in their experiences. Morang’s admiration for Toulouse-Loutrec’s life and work may have even lead to the embrace of the bohemian persona for which he became known.
Alfred Morang was a prolific artist and produced an impressive catalog of work throughout his career. He often traded drawings and paintings for meals or a bar tab, a common practice from the early days of the artist colony in Santa Fe. Dorothy Morang became an accomplished painter in her own right, pursuing her interests in transcendental art. She later became a curator at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Sadly their marriage deteriorated and they divorced in 1950. Morang stayed in touch with friends and his adopted daughter throughout the 1950’s, which letters and accounts portray as a tumultuous period. In 1951 he was struggling to sell art and to pay rent to his landlord and longtime friend, Erskine Caldwell who originally assisted the Morangs’s move to New Mexico from Portland, Maine in 1937. As a result, Morang and a reportedly beautiful but alcoholic girlfriend were evicted. By many accounts he was drinking heavily at this time, although some question this due to his continued creative output.
There is evidence, however, that things turned around. His turbulent relationship ended and there is talk of AA that does not fit neatly into our fantasy of the bohemian artist. By 1955 he had a new art dealer, and was once again able to focus on his art and numerous household cats. He even resumed teaching on a one-on-one basis. Unfortunately, for many of his relationships, the damage had been done. One friend describes how acutely Morang was hurt when his old friend Erskine would not see him during a trip to Santa Fe. Morang was in frail health and had continued heart issues which may have exacerbated a relapse with drinking. His resentment for doctors is obvious in his letters and by one account in 1956 or ‘57, having been hit by a car, he insisted on being taken home to sit in bed and pray to the Holy Mother instead of going to the hospital. He died on the morning of January 29th, 1958. The electricity had been turned off due to non-payment and a gas heater exploded as he lit a match to light it.
The dramatic events of his death play into our collective desire for the eccentric artist, characteristics of which he embraced during his lifetime, and they have often overshadowed his artwork and contributions he made during his life. It has now been more than 60 years since his passing and from this vantage-point we can acknowledge his flaws, but also lend him some humanity and appreciate his immense talent as an artist, something he shared generously with his community. Today his work stands on its own and demonstrates a mastery of light and color, dynamic landscapes, and emotive portraiture.