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2010/11 Winter Catalogue > 4. A Rare and Profound Vision of the Penitentes

4. A Rare and Profound Vision of the Penitentes

Theo Ballou White. “Morada at Chimayo,” c. 1934. Lithograph, no. 10 of 21. Image: 10 x 13 3/4." Frame: 20 x 22 1/2." Signed in pencil, l.r. Titled and numbered in pencil, l.l. Framed to archival standards in a custom molding and bevel mat. Superb condition.

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Theo White (1902–1978) created this unique depiction of the morada at Chimayo as part of his outstanding Southwest series. Following his travels to New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada in the 1930s, White was inspired to develop a series of lithographs drawn from the scenes he had observed, focusing primarily on landscapes and religious themes of the Taos and Santa Fe areas. In these works, White employed a spare modernist approach, paring down landscape and architectural subjects to nearly elemental forms. With superb simplicity of form, White conveys the potent spiritual presence of northern New Mexico folk traditions.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, East Coast artists began to flock to New Mexico, attracted by the clarity of the air, the charismatic light, and the vibrant colors of the landscape. Kindred spirits—artists like White, writers, and free thinkers—followed in their wake and contributed to the formation of two world-famous art colonies. During this fertile time of production in the Santa Fe and Taos art colonies, avant-garde American Modernists adapted Cubism and ancillary stylistic movements to express the exoticism of Southwestern landscapes and cultures. Rather than choosing the more standard icons of this popular region, however, White focused on the esoteric meaning of New Mexican folk religion and the force of its mountainous environment. Making use of black and white symbols, he captured an essential power at the core of local traditions such as the churches and shrines of the heretical Penitente sect.

Morada at Chimayo depicts a chapel of the Penitente sect, located within the dynamic setting of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. The Penitentes of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is a lay confraternity whose foundation dates to Mexican independence in 1821, when Spanish missionaries left the area. In the mid-nineteenth century, the region became an American territory and Penitentes were driven ‘underground,’ practicing in secrecy until the mid-twentieth century when they were reconciled with the church. The village of Chimayo’s history of fervent devotion extends back centuries, and continues to this day.

In White’s image of the morada, the small structure appears firmly rooted in an ethereal environment of cloud-like representations of mountains and hills, while a number of crosses at various angles give a sense of the living spiritual presence. The print offered here is a fine example from White’s Southwestern series, all of which are quite scarce because of the small sizes of the editions.

White was born in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, and trained as an artist and architect in Philadelphia. He was well known as an author of architectural history and appears to have produced only a limited series of images in the print medium. White completed several sequences of prints using as subject matter the Hoover Dam, Colonial Richmond, Philadelphia area mansions, and the landscape and religious iconography of the Southwest. The Southwest lithographs are extremely scarce, having been pulled in editions of 25 or fewer, and in the case of the present image only 21.

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