Leon Gaspard’s (1882-1964) colorful paintings are only matched by his own colorful life. Born in Vitebsk, Russia, Gaspard first started sketching as a child in the villages around his home. His most influential artistic period began in his early youth while accompanying his father to the Siberian Steppes to trade furs and fine rugs with the native tribes.
The influence of these trips to the snowy Siberian plains to see vibrantly dressed tribesmen with their scarlet silk robes and fur caps and boots had an indelible effect on Gaspard and his relationship with rural culture and rugged terrain. He began to fall in love with the movement and spirit of the rural lifestyle and people. His adventures to Siberia and nearby villages with their bustling markets and merchant lifestyles presented a beauty young Gaspard could not resist drawing.
Gaspard continued to sketch at home, and at fifteen decided he wanted to be a painter. He started a job with a contractor, painting murals in nearby churches, and then enrolled in an art class taught by Julius Penn. Gaspard then went to study in Odessa, and at seventeen, moved to Paris, the art capital of the world. He enrolled in the Academie Julian and later studied with Edward Toudouze and Adolphe Bouguereau. In Paris, Gaspard lived the struggling artist’s life, so he began to sketch the thing he knew most at that moment, the energetic city of Paris. He sketched the lively Paris streets and captured the mood of the city with its intensity and haste, which proved incredibly successful by earning Gaspard his first art show.
In Paris, Gaspard developed his French impressionist style of painting. His sketches also taught him how to perfect catching the movement of people and the city in a single, vibrant moment before it vanished, a skill he used while sketching and traveling through his native Russia on horseback for two years with his new American wife, Evelyn Adell.
Later during World War I, Gaspard enlisted in the French Aviation Corps as an aerial observer. After being severely injured when his plane was shot down, Gaspard left for America in 1916. Once in New York, his doctors encouraged him to go west for a more healthy and quiet surrounding that would be conducive to his healing. Gaspard then left for Santa Fe, NM, but instead settled in Taos for the summer.
After living in Taos, Gaspard travelled back to live in the countryside of New York near the Catskill Mountains and then the artists’ colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts. However, Gaspard could not forget the beauty he left behind in Taos, including the snowy, forested mountains, immeasurable deserts, colorful Indians, rural Spanish villages, and picturesque pueblos that reminded him of the colorfulness and bustling life of his own native Russia. Taos’ primitive beauty could not be resisted and early in 1918, Gaspard returned to Taos to settle there permanently to paint the rural vibrancy of New Mexico.
After living in and painting Taos for a few years, Gaspard left for a trip to Japan. In Japan, the desire to travel the vast wilderness of Asia consumed Gaspard, and soon he left for a trip through China and Mongolia on horseback. He wandered on the ancient caravan routes in central Asia, passing colorful nomadic tribes and snowy, ancient villages, eventually going into the Himalayas of Tibet and finally into his native Siberia. Gaspard travelled about three thousand miles for two years and four months, sketching scenes of the colorful people and rural village life he encountered on the way. Once back in Japan, he developed many of these sketches into vibrant paintings.
Gaspard returned and settled back in Taos after his adventures in Asia. He saw the same spirit and colors of rural Asia mirrored in the desert of Taos and its people, which renewed Taos’ charm and complimented Gaspard’s love for Siberia and Central Asia. Gaspard lived and painted in Taos throughout the 1920s, and in 1932, he continued his artistic adventures and left for Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia where he painted the bazaars, dancing girls, camel caravans and bustling merchant villages. Again in 1958, Gaspard left Taos to travel to England, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Egypt and his homeland, Russia, for more artistic inspiration.
In his old age, Gaspard continued to travel around Taos and the west, painting until he passed away in 1964. His impressionist works captured the beautiful intensity of rural life from Russia to Central Asia to New Mexico. Gaspard cared little about the urban centers of the world that many artists wanted to experience. Instead, he lived in the exotic, rural world of indigenous color and spirit.