The Taos School
Part One: The Founders
Mention of the northern New Mexico art scene inevitably summons mental images of works by Georgia O'Keeffe and Andrew Dasburg. However, Taos became a thriving art colony almost a century ago.
Drawn by the picturesque setting, "exotic" culture and pure light they likened to that of Greece, artists from the East and Midwest flocked into this area and, in 1915, established the Taos Society of Artists.
Its six founding members - Joseph H. Sharp, Oscar E Berninghaus, Ernest L. Blumenschein, Bert G. Phillips, Eanger Irving Couse and Herbert Dunton - were later joined by Walter Ufer, W. Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings and Kenneth Adams. Not exactly household names, but the exhibitions mounted by this group - combined with the individual and commercial patronage they elicited - brought national attention to the Southwest and attracted a further influx of artists that still hasn't stopped.
The "discovery" of Taos took place in 1893, when Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1952) made his first visit. He produced a series of illustrations that appeared in popular magazines, told all his friends this village was a must-see and soon settled in permanently.
A native of Bridgeport, Ohio, Sharp possessed solid artistic credentials, having studied in Italy, Spain, Germany and Belgium, as well as at the McMicken School of Design and the Cincinatti Art Academy, where he later taught life classes. During summer holidays, he traveled to sketch Native Americans, producing finished portraits in the winter months. In 1901, the U.S. government commissioned his building a cabin and studio near the "Little Big Horn" Battlefield" in Montana; here he produced around 200 portraits of warriors who had fought Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Eighty of those paintings were acquired by the University of California's Department of Anthropology, after which Sharp was engaged to execute 15 more works annually over five years.
Circa 1902, Sharp was fortunate to secure several patrons who routinely purchased his Native American portraits. Among them were Phoebe Hearst in California, the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution and Joseph G. Butler, Jr. in Ohio. The paint was barely dry when Butler acquired Ration Day at the Reservation in 1919. Here Native Americans in a somber, frieze-like pose are pictured outside an adobe building with the classic blue-framed door (said to repel evil spirits) - much like the Taos home purchased by Sharp in 1908. This or a similar buffalo skull hung over the entrance to his studio. Representing no specific tribe, these Native Americans huddle in commercial blankets, perhaps of government issue, awaiting rationed supplies.
Highly familiar with this bureaucracy, Sharp had lived among government employees including his close friend, Samuel Reynolds, the Crow agent from 1902 until 1910. Protesting a rule that required tribesmen to wear short hair, Sharp wrote - sharply - to the Department of the Interior.
Paintings such as Making Sweet Grass Medicine further convey his sympathy with the Native American culture, which other Taos artists came to share.
At auction, the top price for a Sharp is currently $442,500.
Another Cincinnati Art Academy alum', Ernest Leonard Blumenschein (1874-1960), arrived in Taos in 1898 - having been urged by Sharp to visit the Southwest. The two met during the early 1890's in Paris, where Blumenschein had also became friendly with fellow-students Bert G. Phillips and E. Irving Couse. All were destined for New Mexico. Small world.
Pittsburg-born but raised in Dayton, Ohio, "Blumy" was a serious student of both music and art, from a prominent musical family. When the paintbrush won out, he received training in New York and Europe, then launched his career as a Manhattan illustrator in 1896. For further study, he returned in 1899 to Paris, where he resided until 1909 and married American artist Mary Shepherd Greene. Both taught at the Pratt Institute upon return to New York, where he also joined the faculty of the Art Students' League and in the following year was elected an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design.
After summering in Taos often since 1910, Blumenschein finally succumbed to the siren-song of village and easel, becoming a full-time resident in 1919 and severing ties to his commercial career.
Under the influence of Robert Henri's informal teachings during summer visits to Santa Fe, Blumenschein's palette grew brighter and richer; his approach more painterly in the Post-Impressionist mode. Echoes of Gauguin in Tahiti are readily apparent in his Indian Fishing (above).
Esteemed as the most innovative of early Taos Masters, Blumenschein remained abreast of 20th century art currents. There's a decidedly Art Deco spin on his 1936 Jury for Trial of a Sheepherder for Murder - which also has something of the look of a Mexican fresco. This prize-winning work clearly demonstrates his interest in the area's Hispanic populace. Uniquely tri-cultural, northern New Mexico offers a a piquant mix of traditions savored by all - often on the same plate. (Nowhere else can you rely upon being asked if you want your eggs with red or green chile.)
Elected a full member of the National Academy of Design in 1927, Blumenschein was honored in 1948 with the first retrospective exhibition ever held at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. His work continues to be exhibited and acclaimed in Europe, South America and the U.S., where he won almost every major honor accorded to American artists.
His work has attained the $400,000 range at auction.
Traveling with Blumenschein, Bert Geer Phillips (1868-1956) got his first glimpse of Taos at the same time as "Blumy." The young artists meant only to pass through the region, while sketching their way between Denver and Mexico - but a wagon wheel breakdown stranded the friends near Taos. (For a charming account of the famous "broken-wheel incident," visit The Van Vechten-Lineberry Taos Art Museum online.)
Finding at hand everything he desired from life, Phillips remained to paint it all lovingly, while the more ambitious Blumenshein resumed studies in Paris. Phillips thus became the group's first permanent resident and was a pillar of the Taos arts community until his death.
A native of Hudson, New York, he had been trained at the Art Students' League and National Academy of Design in New York City, as well as the Academie Julian in Paris.
His lyrical style speaks for itself and, in my view, Phillips' work is undervalued, his top price at auction being less than $300,000.
St. Louis-born Oscar Berninghaus (1874-1952), whose fine arts training consisted of three terms of night classes at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, worked as a commercial artist from the age of 16.
In 1899, he traveled the Southwest and a brakeman of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad changed his life forever. Noticing that Berninghaus stepped out to sketch during the train's frequent stops, he suggested that the artist visit Taos. He spent a week in the village, then visited every summer until 1925, when he settled in Taos permanently.
By contrast to the dramatic conflicts depicted by such western artists as Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, and the romantic images typical of other Taos artists, Berninghaus made no attempt to glamorize his subjects. His quietly harmonious scenes of daily life evoke nostalgia for the pre-industrial world.
In addition to easel paintings, he produced advertising art for the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company from 1910 until the mid-1920's and designed decoratative motifs for public buildings, including the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City (1924) and the Phoenix Post Office (1938).
Berninghaus paintings have achieved the $400,000 range at auction.
Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936) joined the Taos crowd in 1902 and established a permanent summer residence four years later. Interestingly, Couse had Indians on his mind, long before. Raised in Saginaw, Michigan, he was exposed to Chippewa culture and, while studying in Paris, produced the painting below. Dating from 1892 and actually shown at the Paris Salon that year, The Captive is a mawkish pic if ever I saw one. Mrs. Couse modeled the role of Oregon schoolmarm, Lorinda Bewley, stolen in 1847 but safely returned by her Cayuse captors a month later in trade for blankets, tobacco and guns.
Once in New Mexico, Couse saw things somewhat differently. On amicable terms with the Taos Indian community, he often painted Ben Lujan, whose brother married errant heiress Mabel Dodge. For Couse's "ages of man" and "doomed race" paean, A Vision of the Past, Lujan posed along with his children and two friends for numerous photographs.
By the time this picture appeared, Couse was represented by major New York galleries, had been purchased by national museums and routinely garnered awards in competitive American and international exhibitions. This work received the Second Altman Prize at the National Academy of Design in 1916.
An Academician at the National Academy of Design since 1911, Course held all the right tickets as a graduate of The Art Institute of Chicago (1882), the National Academy of Design (1883-85), the Academie Julian (1886-91), and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1891).
By painting modern reservation life, Couse hoped "to remove the misconception and contempt in which the Indian has been held, and to show that they are human beings worthy of consideration and a place in the sun."
He summered in Taos from 1902 until 1927, when he became a year-round resident. From 1925 to 1935, he created many images used in calendars, ads and menus by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, as well as other commercial patrons (even a blanket company introducing "Indian" designs).
Works by Couse are quite valuable today and have sold for more than $600,000 at auction.
Landscape painting was another important aspect of early Taos art, as exemplified in this stunning work by William Herbert "Buck" Dunton (1878-1936).
Moody and quite Art Deco in spirit, it reveals - along with an exciting color sense - his strength in graphic design.
Dunton began his artistic career as an illustrator for leading magazines, including Harperís, Collierís and Scribnerís, while still enrolled at the Art Students' League in New York. Under the tutelage of Blumenschein, he swtiched to the study of fine art painting.
Also at Blumenshein's urging, he began spending summers in New Mexico in 1912. Though he hailed from Maine and had previously studied at The Cowles Art School in Boston, Dunton didn't need much persuading to leave the East Coast. He'd been in the West before and fallen in love with hunting, during 1896 travels in Montana.
Relocated to Taos on a full-time basis in 1914, he thrived not only as painter but also as a western illustrator - creating covers for Zane Grey books, among many other projects.
In the Impressionist tradition, Dunton preferred to work outdoors, the better to capture the fleeting and dramatic effects of light.
His pictures have sold at auction for as much as $264,000.
To identify artworks, position mouse over images above.
Auction figures are from askart.com in December, 2000.
Text ©2000, 2005 Katherine Anne Harris. All rights reserved.