Laverne Nelson Black 1887-1938
From childhood, Laverne Nelson Black was fascinated with the Native American culture he experienced in his Kickapoo Valley, Wis., home.
After studying art and moving to the Southwest, he created predominantly classic Western images, including Native Americans and their horses, as illustrated in Along the Old Trail, painted in 1927 and selected for BNSF's 2008 Safety Plate.
Befriended by Taos Society of Artists members Oscar E. Berninghaus and W. A. "Buck" Dunton, Black learned to use realistic, vibrant colors and balanced, commanding composition in his wide Western landscapes. But the broad, energetic, Impressionist brush work executed in blocks of color was Black's own invention. With this technique, he imparted energy and liveliness to his Western figures even when they are stock still.
The Native Americans in Along the Old Trail have stopped to survey Conestoga wagons, which pre-dated the railroads and were the primary means of shipping freight across the West. These long wagons carried up to 8 tons and were pulled by teams of oxen that required less water than horses in the parched West. The blue mountains in the background were not solely the artist's imagination, as the mountains north of Taos often appear blue, especially in morning light.
Born in 1887, Black was innately drawn to painting as a child. He made his first paints from vegetable juices, dirt, clay and a soft stone called red keel. When he was 19, his family moved to Chicago. Black enrolled at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where he received a scholarship and studied painting, sculpture and illustration. From 1908 to 1925, he traveled West every summer to paint, returning to Chicago and New York City for illustration and commission work. His small bronzes of Western wildlife were sold at Tiffany's in New York.
By 1925, ill health prompted him to move to Taos with his wife and family. There he enjoyed the collegial support of other artists and excelled at painting pueblo architecture, Sangre de Christo Mountains and Native Americans. Some years later he moved to the warmer climate of Phoenix. During his Taos-Phoenix years, he completed commissions for the Santa Fe Railway, and several of his paintings were displayed in the company's largest ticket offices.
Black's professional recognition was delayed in part due to his reticent personality; in addition, Black's signature Impressionistic style was less popular at the time. But during the 1930s, Black began to receive recognition for his work. In 1937, he won a commission on a Work Projects Administration (WPA) project to paint murals for the main U.S. Post Office in Phoenix. Black's mural portrayed Arizona's progress from pioneering days to the industrialization of the 1930s. Shortly after completing the mural, Black's health deteriorated, and he died in 1938. His work gained greater appreciation after his death, and he has since been considered a mainstay among Western painters of the early 20th century.