© Laura Walker

Sheldon Parsons (1866- 1943)

While a successful artist living in New York City during the early 1900s, Sheldon Parsons painted the portraits of such important American figures as President McKinley and Susan B. Anthony. But the death of his wife and a severe case of tuberculosis drove him west with his young daughter, Sara, in 1913. Doctors suggested New Mexico, and that year Parsons became one of Santa Fe’s first resident artists. Inspired by the color and light of his new home, Parsons turned his Barbizon and Impressionist training to the raw and endless landscape. He masterfully recorded the unique character of the Santa Fe neighborhoods and nearby Pueblos, as well as the expanse of the desert and mountains.

The impact of the dry, pure air and bare landscape was sufficiently strong to change Parsons’ entire style. Parsons gave up portraiture and never again returned to figure painting. His entire focus became the skies, mountains and soft, pliable adobe architecture of Northern New Mexico. He rendered the contours of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with a soft brush and nearly pastel earth tones. The only intrusions into this scheme were the extreme, sharp tones of red and yellow needed to capture New Mexico in October.

Parsons quickly became a major force in the burgeoning Santa Fe art scene. When the New Mexico Museum of Fine Art was constructed in 1917, Parsons became its first director. He regularly showed his work in the nearby Palace of the Governors galleries alongside that of the many fine artists who spent time in Santa Fe.

Parsons’ career spanned an era. He was born in the same year as Irving Couse, a charter member of the Taos Society of Artists, one year after the end of the Civil War. At his death in September of 1943, abstract expressionism was just beginning in New York City. Through most of these decades Parsons’ style however remained placid, serene, settled and calm, just as he had found the landscape when he first reached New Mexico.

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