Sunday, December 11, 2016

Who is Mabel Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan (1879-1962)?

The answer can be found in the exhibition “Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West” currently at the Albuquerque Museum.  In a nutshell she was the “hostess with the mostest".

The show was organized by the Harwood Museum in Taos where it opened traveling to the Albuquerque Museum.  The guest curators for the show are Lois P. Rudnick and MaLin Wilson-Powell. Lois is a professor emerita of American Studies from the University of Massachusetts in Boston and has written voluminously on Mabel Dodge.  MaLin is an art historian, independent curator and author who has concentrated on the art of the Southwest.   Their show has been 36 years in the making since MaLin applied for an NEH planning grant in 1980.  It never came to anything, however, since museums had no particular interest in Mabel Dodge.  According to Rudnick until relatively recently no museum would have considered doing a show about someone who “was not an artist but a cultural catalyst”.  The world changes and when it is ready it will come.

I am sure that one of the exhibitions that opened up this possibility was a show at the Metropolitan Museum in 2012 called “The Steins Collect” about the incredible collection that Gertrude Stein and her family put together.  Of course, Gertrude Stein is far better known on an international basis but as far as opening the southwestern United States to the art world Mabel Dodge was a major figure.  She had a relatively simple methodology.  She just asked everyone who was anyone to come stay with her.  To quote Mabel Dodge, herself in 1913, “I wanted to know everybody and … everybody wanted to know me”.  They were not just painters and sculptors but included writers such as D.H. Lawrence.

Here is Mabel’s story. She was born to a wealthy family in Buffalo New York  (the final venue for the show will be at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo starting at the end of June, 2017).  In 1902 she marries her first husband, Karl Evans, who dies in a hunting accident the following year leaving her with a son.  In 1904 she moves to Paris, meets and marries Edwin Dodge and the couple establish a salon in their villa near Florence.

Meeting Leo and Gertrude Stein and seeing their fabulous collection of paintings including Cézanne, Matisse, van Gogh and Picasso transforms Mabel’s taste and changes her view of art.  She had felt suffocated by the art of the past.  (As an art dealer I can tell you that children rarely like the art that their parents collected.)

In 1912 she moves with her husband and son to New York City where she established a salon in her Greenwich Village apartment and participated in organizing the famous 1913 Armory Show.

She divorces Dodge and marries the artist Maurice Sterne.  He establishes a painting studio in Santa Fe and entices Mabel Dodge to come out and soon after they move to a town north of Santa Fe, Taos. Here she becomes involved with Tony Lujan, an Indian from Taos Pueblo, who advises her on building a home (now a bed and breakfast). She divorces Sterne to marry Lujan in 1923.

The current exhibition revolves around the artists and writers who Mabel brought out to Taos In another way, however, the show is a view of the history of art in New Mexico in the 20th century.  Thanks to her final marriage she became a great defender of the Indians and brought all her artist friends to the dances at Taos Pueblo.  She wrote about and expanded the market for the Native American artists.  Here is a watercolor by the artist Velino Shije Herrera (1902-1973) from Zia Pueblo.  It was lent by the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe.

A key work in the exhibition representing Mabel’s patronage and role in introducing Modernists to the West is “Abstract Arrangement of Indian Symbols” (1914-15), oil on canvas by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)  which she bought and today is in the exhibition Courtesy of Yale American Literature Collection, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  Mabel left her archive of photos, letters and manuscripts said to weigh 1500 pounds to the Beinecke.

In 1927 Mabel Dodge had her portrait painted by, Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955), a Russian émigré who had arrived in Taos the year before.  He portrays her as the Grand Dame she believes she is.  Today the Nicolai Fechin House is a tourist attraction in Taos. The portrait, however, was lent by The Museum of Western Art, Denver.

One of the paintings I find the most effective in the show in its empathy for the Hispanic culture of Northern New Mexico is “Mexican Wake” 1932 by the Hungarian-born Modernist  Emil Bisttram (1895-1976.  It was a gift of the artist to the University of New Mexico Art Museum in Albuquerque.

Another amazing painting possibly the best one the artist ever did is one called, “Hunger”  1919, by Walter Ufer (1876-1936) lent by the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa Oklahoma. Ufer, an Anglo artist became something of a hero on the Taos Pueblo as he worked night and day side by side with the doctor ministering to victims of a devastating flu epidemic 1918-1919.

You will have to forgive me but now that I am a Santa Fean I cannot end without mentioning Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986).  She herself said to Alfred Stieglitz in 1929, “…the whole world comes to Mabel’s” as she did herself.   Of her painting  “Gray Cross with Blue”, 1929, she wrote “… the cross stood out-dark against the evening sky … I saw the Taos mountain-a beautiful shape.  I painted the cross against the mountain …”  It comes from the Albuquerque Museum’s own collection.

The show is so rich with material I do not have room to include the Spanish Colonial material, the decorative arts or the wonderful photographs that include Weston, Adams and Stieglitz.  So I hope you will be able to go before the show closes on January 22, 2017.

*Images of the Fechin, Hartley,  Ufer and O’Keeffe are courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum.


  1. On a happy day in 1904 my maternal grandfather's brother, Edwin Sherrill Dodge - whom you mention in this piece - married Mabel.
    My mother's Boston family was respectable, probably of the Brahmin class, and tolerant as far as it went.
    Even with that, though, Edwin's Mabel adventure put a strain on things. So I've heard. I mean you can imagine.

    1. Oh do tell more.... or you can read Lois Rudnick's book, "The Suppressed Memoirs of MDL: sex, Suphillis and Psychoanalysis!