In 1918, Victor Higgins was awarded the First Logan Prize ($500) at The Art Institute of Chicago and the First Altman Prize
($1,000) at the National Academy of Design, New York, for Fiesta Day (To the Fiesta). These were to be among the most important prizes that the Shelbyville, Indiana-born artist would receive during a successful career in Taos, New Mexico.
In 1899, at age fifteen, Higgins went to Chicago, where he studied and worked until 1911. He then traveled to Europe, studying in England, Belgium, Germany, and France, returning to Chicago in the spring of 1913. While becoming established as an important figure on the Chicago cultural scene, he attracted the attention of Mayor Carter H. Harrison. In November of 1914, Harrison sponsored Higgins’s first trip to the small town of Taos in northern New Mexico. It was a trip of great consequence, because for the remainder of Higgins’s life, Taos would be the inspiration and Chicago a receptive market for his canvases. He became a member of the Taos Society of Artists along with E. Irving Couse, Joseph Henry Sharp, Oscar E. Berninghaus and others. However, Higgins was considered the “loner” in this group, as he preferred one-man shows of his nontraditional Southwest subjects over exhibiting with others of the Society.
Fiesta Day is a critical painting in the artist’s career. In a 1917 Chicago Sunday Herald article, Higgins described the Taos Native Americans as “a people living in an absolutely natural state, entirely independent of all the world.” He saw them as “self-supporting, self-reliant, simple and competent,” and most important, as having “dignity in spite of their lack of riches, and nobility in spite of their humble mode of living.” Higgins undoubtedly began work on Fiesta Day the same year. An oil sketch and photograph from the estate of the artist’s daughter, Joan Higgins Reed, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico collection, supports the contention that he began the picture before 1918. It was exhibited for the first time in the Twenty-second Annual Exhibition of Works by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity (The Art Institute of Chicago, February 19 March 17, 1918).
Higgins seems to describe his subjects in Fiesta Day with his Chicago Sunday Herald words, however, he rejected the usual practice of romanticizing the Native American, so often evident in his colleagues’ canvases. Rather, the figures are stripped of their heroic and idealized qualities. His pictures are as much about New Mexico light, composition, and the quality of the painted surface as they are about the Pueblo people.
The success of Fiesta Day was to affect the direction Higgins’s art would take. An article in the Chicago Examiner of March 16, 1918, reveals that a controversy arose over its selection as the First Logan Prize winner. The writer, Marcus, reported heated battles over the painting’s alleged flaws: “Fists used vociferously over its quality.” As the critics pronounced the colors untrue and the anatomy of the horses ill-proportioned, supporters of Higgins praised the canvas as being “splendidly decorative” and creating an “exquisiteness of distance.” In truth, both sides of the controversy had failed to understand Higgins’s intentions with the painting.
Following the completion of Fiesta Day, Higgins all but abandoned using the Native American as a subject. For the next three decades, as he explored forms of Impressionism, Cubism and Modernism, it was the townscape, still life, occasional portrait, and, in particular, the landscape that became his strength.