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  Virginia True. “Penitente Crosses Near Truchas,” 1930.  
True Morada Truchas
Virginia True. “Penitente Crosses Near Truchas,” 1930. Charcoal on paper. Image size: 14 x 10 7/8". Frame size: 21 3/4 x 18 1/4". Signed by the artist at lower right: VTrue. Handsome archival presentation in black frame. Fine.


Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Virginia True (1900–1989) studied art in the early 1920s at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The former was known at the time as a bastion of the realist tradition and it was in this mode that True began her career. However, a trip to Colorado and New Mexico in the summer of 1928 exposed the artist to the tenets of southwestern modernism and she entered into a period of stylistic transition. That summer she produced a group of watercolors that signal her journey toward “the more abstract style that she would eventually make her own,” as Robin West has written. The next year True moved from Indianapolis to Boulder to take a position at the University of Colorado. Now within easy reach of the New Mexican landscape that had instantly attracted her, she made frequent trips into the mountains to produce plein-air watercolors and drawings of the scenery she observed.

Following the lead of the New Mexican modernist painter Victor Higgins, True created images in which she reduced both natural and manmade elements to grand geometric blocks and powerful sweeping lines. Among those images were charcoal drawings that captured in form and composition True’s “thrill and deep feeling of the grand things I have beheld.” True likely produced the present charcoal during this period, as it portrays a roadside shrine and maderos (heavy wooden crosses) of the Penitente brotherhood, a scene that True could only have observed on the mountain roads of northern New Mexico. The Penitentes were the focus of intense interest among Anglo visitors to New Mexico in the early-20th century, especially artists, who were intrigued by the buildings, religious symbols, and the mysterious rituals they encountered in the remote Hispanic villages.

Evidence of Penitente activity can still be found today among the Sangre de Cristo villages, but it was more apparent in True’s time. In the present charcoal drawing, probably dating to 1930, she recorded an enigmatic scene near the village of Truchas. A tall wooden cross and a group of smaller ones stand before a crude wooden shrine built at the edge of a canyon beneath high peaks. True’s technique is remarkable: with powerful and economical strokes of her charcoal stick, she captures the authority of the Penitentes’ faith expressed in simple vernacular artifacts, here beautifully drawn and integrated with the forms of nature.

In 1935, True returned east to complete a master’s degree at Cornell University, where she eventually received a faculty appointment. Her attention turned increasingly to the demands of her academic career. She retired to Cape Cod in 1965, where she lived until her death in 1989.

A bold, evocative charcoal by a fascinating artist whose work is not readily obtainable.

Ref.: Robin West, Virginia True (Santa Fe: Zaplin Lampert Gallery, 2001), pp. 5–20.

Copyright 2003, William R. Talbot