Victor Higgins (American, 1884-1949), Circumferences, 1914-1919, Oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. John T. Higgins, Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, 1963.053.004


Who made it?

Victor Higgins was born in Shelbyville, Indiana in 1884. At only 15 years old, using allowance money that he had saved up for years and against his parent’s wishes, Higgins left for Chicago to study art at the newly opened Chicago Art Institute (now the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Later, he went on to study painting in New York City and abroad in Paris, France and Munich, Germany. 
In 1914 Higgins made his first trip to Taos, New Mexico to join a group of artists from Chicago who had travelled there to paint. The trip was a life-changing experience for him. It was in Taos that he believed he found the authentic America he had been looking for. Higgins left New Mexico several times over the next 35 years, but he always returned. During this time he never stopped creating the rich and varied body of work he is known for—still lifes, figure paintings, and landscapes in styles ranging from Impressionism to Cubism.

What’s going on in this work?

When Higgins first exhibited Circumferences people didn’t know what to make of it. It was unlike any work he had previously painted.  
In Circumferences we seem to be floating high above a planet. Voluminous white puffs suggest clouds which part to give us a peek at a planet below. The brown, blue, and green planet looks a bit familiar—perhaps it is our own home of earth. Another small dimpled, white planet hangs in front of us. Curved lines like orbits arc between and around geometric and organic shapes floating in the blue-gray atmosphere. 
At the time Higgins painted it, this would have been an impossible vantage point for any human to have experienced. The first photograph of the earth from space wasn’t taken until 1946 and it was not taken by a human, but by an uncrewed rocket. With Circumferences Higgins created a “spacescape” that came completely from his imagination and yet the imagery presages many of the photographs of our planet from space that we are familiar with today.
Circumferences is the only surviving abstract work created by Higgins. Former director of the Snite Museum of Art and Higgins biographer, Dean Porter, found evidence that Circumferences was just one of a series of paintings on the same subject which are feared to have been destroyed. One can only imagine what these “spacescapes” might have looked like.

Take a closer look.

Click on the full image of Circumferences above to see a larger version of the work. Look closely at the painting and use these questions to guide your looking. Share your thoughts with your family at home, with a friend through a virtual conversation, or with us in a response to this email.  
  • What do you see when you look at this painting? What does it remind you of? What do you see that makes you say that? Consider how another person might have a different idea and different reasons for their idea. 
  • How would you describe the mood of this painting? What are you seeing that makes you say that?
  • If you were to create a series of paintings like this what would the other images in the series look like? Grab a piece of paper and some drawing materials to create 2-3 works that would fit into a series that included Circumferences.
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About the Article:

Engage with the Snite Museum of Art by exploring their collection through background information and reflection questions. For more information on the collections, please visit the Snite Museum of Art website.

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May 4, 2020

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