Ernest Martin Hennings was born in Pennsgrove, New Jersey to German immigrant parents. Early in his childhood, the family moved to Chicago. In Chicago, Ernest became intensely interested in painting, studying 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 declined in favor of beginning a career in commercial art immediately.
By 1912, six years after his graduation, Hennings had become tired of commercial art and was considering his next move. He entered a piece in the Prix de Rome and took second place and, emboldened by his success, traveled to Munich to study at the Royal Academy under Franz Von Stuck. He also joined the American Artists club, where he met Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins. His style, which had until this point been classical realism, was altered slightly by the avant-garde work of the modernists working in pre-war Munich. With the dawn of the First World War, Hennings was forced to return to the United States, where he resettled in Chicago, taking two studios- one for commercial work and one as a fine art showcase for interested patrons.
He picked up two such patrons quickly, both of them quite influential. One was the former Mayor of Chicago and leader of an art-buying venture, Carter Harrison. With Harrison came Oscar Mayer, the meat packing czar of the city and one of the largest benefactors of several members of the Taos society, including Ufer and Higgins. Harrison and Mayer sent Hennings to Taos to paint in 1917, and the opportunity proved a pivotal moment in his career.
When Hennings returned from Taos his style had changed. Gone were the broad, indefinite brushstrokes and somber palette of the Munich artists. Instead, a more colorful and precise style using very thin layers of paint, left to dry for long periods of time and varnished much later emerged. The result was a series of bright paintings featuring riders and Indians in the birch forests of New Mexico. Hennings would render the background first and then consider where the figures in the piece would go after seeing the result. After the figures were placed, any foliage that might obscure them was added on top of that. Because of the lengthy periods required to let pieces dry, he would work on multiple canvases at a time, finishing a stage and then setting the piece aside.
In 1921 Hennings moved to Taos permanently and, in 1924, he was invited to join the Taos Society of Artists and accepted. This put him in good company, as such noted painters as Sharp, Ufer, Higgins, Sloan, Henri, Baumann, Nordfeldt, B.J.O., Philips, Couse, Berninghaus and Blumenschein, who believed Hennings to be the most talented painter of the group. Hennings produced both commercial work and consumer pieces in Taos, and painted primarily New Mexico scenes even when in his studios in Chicago and Houston. 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.