The Lure of the Hondo Valley
Posted on January 29, 2015
Leaving the flat, open range of the southern New Mexico, a winding, narrow road runs along the remnants of an old stagecoach trail, with its stone path marking an eyebrow on the surrounding for the hills, subtly marking the entry to the a unique and historic landscape. Passing though these initial broad canyons, the road follows the path of the Rio Hondo, lined with golden cottonwoods in the fall, up the valley into the Sacramento Mountains, past El Capitan and on to Sierra Blanca, now a favorite destination for weekend skiers.
This remote valley has long been a retreat for artists and those wanting to get away from it all, dating back to the 1930. The New Mexico painter Peter Hurd had studied for 10 years under the great American illustrator and painter N.C. Wyeth in Pennsylvania, as a part of the Brandywine School.
While becoming a learned painter under Wyeth’s tutelage, Hurd’s work grew into its own after he married Wyeth’s daughter, Henriette – an artist in her own right known for her portraits and still life paintings, and moved back to La Rinconada on the banks of the Hondo River. It was here that his landscapes and portraits would capture this remote, yet undeniable spirit of place. Upon arriving back home, he grew dissatisfied with his ability to capture the quality of light in New Mexico using oils. He began to research other options and through the translations of the Italian Renaissance painter Cennino Cennini recipes, written 1431, Hurd’s experimentation led to the discovery of the perfect medium for painting the New Mexico landscape – egg tempera. A gesso panel is prepared as the base, and the paint is created by mixing a thinned egg yolk with pure mineral pigments. His grandson tells this story of him mixing and grinding pigments, by putting the minerals, some that he might have dug out of clays in his own yard or other more exotic that he may have tracked down over time, in a glass jar with a few ball bearings and then setting it within the axel of the water wheel in the river at his ranch, and after a few hours having the perfect mix for his pigment. At times these might be finished with a beeswax varnish, but often the inherent luminosity of the surface is left in its natural state.
The Hurd Family would grow to generate several generations of artist, and inspire countless others, who have come back time and again to capture the play of light and shadow, the character of ranchers and villages that dot the trail, and the seasonal range of color of this hidden valley. The works of Michael Hurd(son) and Peter de La Fuente(grandson) carries on the family’s tradition, each of their work has its own unique voice. De La Fuente has even continued on with the use of egg tempura in his own paintings.
Other artists influenced by Hurd include those like Janet Palin, who also abandoned oils in her work and uses the medium of dry pastel to capture these landscapes and the play of light against them.
This place and these artists have inspired me time and again as I have traveled through New Mexico, sketching and watercolor painting the string of small chapels that mark and define these small, rural communities from San Patricio to Hondo.