Ernest L. Blumenschein's Jury for Trial of a Sheepherder for Murder
Ernest Leonard Blumenschein (1874-1960), Jury for Trial of a Sheepherder for Murder, 1936, oil on canvas, 46 x 30 inches. Clara S. Peck Fund purchase. 97.13
In 1898 Blumenschein helped establish the Taos art colony and was one of the founders of the famous Taos Society of Artists. Over time his style shifted away from his academic roots toward modernist principles and techniques. By 1936, when he painted Jury for Trial of A Sheepherder for Murder, he had been influenced by the social realist paintings and murals produced by Mexican and American artists, especially scenes of trials by artists such as Ben Shahn. Blumenschein considered this to be his "finest and most successful" painting.
The subject concerns Hispanics of the Taos Valley, who were caught between their longstanding laws and customs and the American legal system. The jury is made up of Hispanics who appear to be sitting in reluctant judgment of a fellow sheepherder who killed a hiker who wandered into his sheep camp unexpectedly. The Anglo hiker and his companions had violated the wellâï¿½ï¿½known procedure for approaching isolated camps, and the jurors knew he had acted reasonably, and was therefore innocent. Nevertheless, they were forced to judge him by the laws of the United States, symbolized by the featureless portrait of George Washington over the jury box.
Blumenschein says that he used only one model for all the jurymen, but he would go uptown and look at the sheepherders lounging around the plaza, then do the heads from memory. He did not do ‘Jury' until a year after the actual trial, but he kept thinking of it and finally had to paint it." --Laura M. Bickerstaff, Pioneer Artists of Taos
This painting is about two conflicting peoples within a single community. Note: Although Blumenschein's daughter, Helen, recalled that the bespectacled figure peering from behind the jury box was a "blind Taos Indian, symbolizing Blind Justice," it now is generally believed that Blumenschein painted his selfportrait as a witness to the proceedings.
The West frequently has been portrayed as a kind of Eden. This painting dealt with a difficult subject at a time when most paintings of Taos residents, both Hispanic and Native American, avoided unpleasant issues. This painting reveals a different West.
This artwork raises issues of conflicting values and expectations. It explores ideas connected with the tumultuous decade of the Depression.