Drawing by Alfred Morang

Alfred Morang and Post-Impressionist Art in Santa Fe

Alfred Morang is an ever-present name in the chronicles of Santa Fe art history.  In a town filled to the brim with history, his name exists among many memories of the past, which drift in and out of historic casitas and arises occasionally to catch your eye as you glance at the artwork on the wall of a favorite restaurant, walk past a hollyhock adorned cottage garden on Canyon Road, or re-visit other historic figures of the early Santa Fe art scene.  Alfred Morang was a gifted and prolific artist who made numerous contributions to the North American Post-Impressionism art movement, and the artistic community of Santa Fe 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, which was attributed to a heart condition, and 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, which he studied 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.

Several 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 a 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 the life experience of the individual which of course differs from the painter who is doing the work.  Thus, we are tied to the musical theme, and counterpoint 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 overall 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, larghetto lines, rough places, and 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.

Painting by Alfred Morang “Mountainscape,” 1941 watercolor on paper by Alfred Morang

Morang is frequently referred to as the Toulouse-Lautrec of Santa Fe.  Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec lived from 1864 to 1901, and is recognized as one of the great post-impressionist artists.  Alfred Morang was 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, real or perceived in their life experiences.  Morang’s admiration for Toulouse-Lautrec’s life and work undoubtedly influenced his embrace of the bohemian persona for which he became known.

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, contributing to the prevalence of Morang pieces in local collections today.  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 1950s, 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’ 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.

However, things did turn around.  His turbulent relationship ended and AA is mentioned in later letters.  By 1955 he had a new art dealer, and was once again focused on his art and numerous household cats.  He resumed teaching for a short time on a one-on-one basis.  Unfortunately, for many of his relationships, the damage had been done.  One friend describes how acutely hurt Morang was when his old friend Erskine would not see him during a trip to Santa Fe.  Morang was in frail health and had ongoing heart issues which may have exacerbated a relapse with drinking.  His resentment for doctors is obvious in his letters.  In 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 played fantastically into the public desire for the eccentric artist, an identity he embraced during his lifetime, and that has often overshadowed his artwork and the contributions made during his life.  It has been more than 60 years since his passing and from this vantage point, we can acknowledge his flaws, his romantic devotion to art, and also his humanity.  He was an immense talent and shared his talents generously with his community.  Today his work stands out and demonstrates a mastery of light and color, dynamic landscapes, and emotive portraiture.