Ernest Martin Hennings was born in Pennsgrove, New Jersey to German immigrant parents. As a child, his family moved to Chicago. He went on to study at the Art Institute of Chicago for five years before graduating with honors and receiving the Clyde M. Carr Memorial Prize, the Martin B. Cahn Prize and the “American Traveling Scholarship,” which he turned down to pursue a career in commercial art. By 1912, Hennings had become tired of commercial art and wanted focus again on his fine art. That same year, he won second place in the Prix de Rome for a painting he submitted.
Ernest Hennings traveled to Germany and enrolled at the Munich Academy where he learned to paint in the style of academic realism. Walter Thor, a portrait artist, was one of his teachers who emphasized the need of the artist to enter the soul of their subjects. Ernest Hennings also studied with Franz von Stuck at the Royal Academy, who taught him classical theories. He later joined the American Artists club, where he met life-long friends Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins. His style became strongly influenced by the German Art Nouveau movement and modernists working in pre-war Munich. In 1915, at the beginning of World War I, he returned to Chicago to work as a commercial artist and muralist. He kept two studios; one for commercial work and one showcase his fine art work. He soon attracted the attention of two important patrons. One was the former Mayor of Chicago and leader of an art-buying venture, Carter Harrison, who introduced him to Oscar Mayer, an important supporter of several members of the Taos society, including Ufer and Higgins. In 1917, Harrison and Mayer sponsored Hennings first trip to Taos to paint. This opportunity would define his career as an artist.
When Ernest Hennings returned from Taos his style had evolved to reflect the inspiration he found in New Mexico. His work had become more colorful and precise with style deploying thin layers of paint. He allowed his paintings to dry for long periods of time and varnished much later. This method has prevented yellowing and cracking over time.
In 1921 Hennings moved to Taos permanently and, in 1924, he accepted an invitation to join the Taos Society of Artists. Hennings continued to produce both commercial and fine art work in Taos, and painted primarily New Mexico scenes even when in his studios in Chicago and Houston. For the remainder of his career, Ernest Hennings was devoted to painting the West. However, his primary subjects were the New Mexico Indians. His technique was to paint the background first and then put figures in to create the strongest composition. He also worked on multiple canvasses at once. His final project before he died in 1956 was a commission from the Santa Fe Railway for a series of paintings to be hung on the Navajo Reservation. Few of his paintings are dated. His wife, Helen Otte Hennings, kept a meticulous record, but when she moved from Taos to Chicago in 1979, it was lost, and no copy has ever been found.
Corcoran Gallery of Art Washington, DC
International Exhibition Paris, France
Venice Biennale Venice, Italy
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Philaldelphia, PA
National Academy of Design NY