The artistic culture of Taos spans centuries, however the establishment of the community as an art colony was due to the adventurous nature of several painters who came to Taos and became enchanted by the unique cultures, breathtaking landsapes and seemingly unspoiled way of life. Joseph Henry Sharp, a Cincinnati artist who had decided to make the painting of American Indians his life’s work, made a trip to New Mexico during the summer of 1893. Taos particularly impressed him. When he studied art in Paris the following two years, he told others about New Mexico. Two colleagues, Bert Geer Phillips and Ernest L. Blumenschein, took his advice and decided to explore the area during a painting trip which was to take them to Mexico.
Blumenschein and Phillips were traveling from Denver to Mexico in September 1898 when their wagon wheel broke twenty miles north of Taos. Decided by the toss of a three-dollar gold piece, Blumenschein rode into Taos to get the wheel fixed while Phillips remained behind to guard their wagon. They found Taos and its Pueblo culture even more intriguing than Sharp’s description of it and stayed to paint the Taos Pueblo Indians. Two months later, Blumenschein returned to New York City while Phillips remained in Taos. The two artists began writing to each other about the possibility of an art colony in Taos. Blumenschein talked about the beauty and artistic promise of northern New Mexico to a wide circle of friends and acquaintances both in New York and Paris. All three of these early painters envisioned an art colony founded on the model of the French Barbizon painters who, starting in the 1830s, took up summer quarters in the small village of Barbizon to paint directly from the landscape.
By 1912, Blumenschein, Oscar E. Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse, W. Herbert ‘Buck’ Dunton, and Joseph Sharp had arrived in Taos. These five plus Phillips shared a strong attraction to Taos and formalized their relationship by creating the Taos Society of Artists, which existed from 1915 to 1927. The Society sent traveling shows of its Members’ works throughout the country. The images they created, frequently of American Indians in traditional garb, northern New Mexico Hispanos and old-timer Anglo-Americans, as well as landscapes, came to define the first decades of the art colony.
Joseph Henry Sharp was the first member of the Taos Society of Artists to visit New Mexico and he is considered the “spiritual father.” An established artist, he traveled to the West in 1883 and his enthusiasm was to draw other young artist’s to the area for many years. Throughout his life Sharp’s primary concern in painting was to record Indian life before it had been significantly altered by modern influences. Born in Bridgeport, Ohio Sharp showed an early fascination with Indians and stories of the West as well as an interest in drawing. He studied at the Chicago Art Institute, and L’Academie Julien in Paris. Sharp arrived in Taos for the first time in 1893, then visited in the summers, becoming a resident in 1912. Sharp’s work is distinguished by its attention to detail and scientific accuracy. Many of his paintings depict his favorite models, in a corner of the studio among artifacts. Often he painted by firelight, which lent a soft glow to his subject. The National Cyclopedia of American Biography says of his work: “His paintings express a strange poetic note, rare sense of beauty, and rich tonal perception.”
Bert Geer Phillips, founding member of the Taos Society of Artists, was born in Hudson, New York and trained in fine art at The National Academy of Design and The Art Students’ League in New York City. He was a dedicated artist even as a young man, and constantly sought out new instructors and material in order to hone his talents as an academic realist. He studied at L’Academie Julien in Paris, where he met Ernest Blumenschein and J.H. Sharp. Phillips was one of the earliest artists to settle in Taos. In the late summer of 1898, Phillips and Blumenschein made their infamous trip to Taos where Phillips stayed and established his home. He became very close to the Indians of the Taos area and made their concerns his own. He was instrumental in obtaining a government prohibition against prospecting on the Taos Indians sacred mountain. Phillips deep respect and admiration for the Indian and his way of life led to a never-ending effort to capture the vital spirit of these people on canvas. He idealized his figures, which reflected his romantic vision of the great pure land of the Southwest.
Ernest Blumenschein was a colorful and controversial figure whose character was marked by fierce determination. A supporter of Post-Impressionism, Blumenschein’s own style is marked by the use of deep, rich colors and a strict sense of spatial geometry and rhythm. As an artist his interest was in formal integrity and harmony rather than a desire to accurately portray pueblo culture. He was born in Pittsburgh, PA, after high school took an illustration class at the Cincinnati Art Academy and decided to pursue a career in the visual arts. In 1892, he moved to New York to study at the Art Students League. He soon became convinced that European study was necessary to establish himself as a professional artist and enrolled at L’Academie Julien in Paris, where he became acquainted with Bert Phillips and J.H. Sharp. From 1910, he spent his summers in Taos. In 1915, he became a co-founder of the Taos Society of Artists. He finally settled permanently in Taos in 1919. He is remembered as an artist of boundless enthusiasm, with extremely high standards, both as an artist and an intellectual. He was so uncompromising with his work that today only his best work survives: “I can’t explain why I paint and draw. It is as necessary for me to do as for an apple tree to produce fruit. Just a job I love. But a good many bad apples came off my tree – and were often destroyed.”
Eanger Irving Couse was born in Saginaw, Michigan. His lifelong pursuit of painting Native Americans was kindled by the beauty and tranquility of the local Chippewa and Ojibwa cultures. Couse chose a career in art at an early age, studying at the Chicago Art Institute, the National Academy of Design in New York, and, at the Académie Julian in Paris. The training he received in Europe, particularly under Adolphe Bouguereau and Tony Robert-Fleury, influenced the measured studio style he practiced for the rest of his life. Upon the advice of fellow artists, Joseph Henry Sharp and Ernest Blumenschein, Couse made his first visit to Taos in 1902 and became a founding member of Taos Society of Artists. Though Couse maintained a studio in Manhattan during the winter months until 1928, Taos was his inspiration and became his permanent home. Couse was elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design in 1911. His painting received national exposure and brought recognition to Taos. Couse created images that were highly influential in changing the public’s perception of the West and many are regarded as poetic renderings of a vanished time.
Herbert (“Buck”) Dunton was born on a family farm near Augusta, Maine where he spent his time in the Maine woods that sparked an interest in hunting, animals, and the outdoors, that lasted a lifetime. A life changing event occurred in 1896 when he ventured to Montana. He fell in love with the West and for the next fifteen years made summer trips to Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico, Montana, and Mexico where he cowboyed and hunted. During these trips, Dunton contributed pen and ink drawings to newspapers. In New York, he contributed to Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and various book projects. In 1912, Dunton visited Taos, at the urging of his friend and teacher, Ernest Blumenschein. He relocated to Taos permanently in 1914, and in 1915, he became one of the founding members of the Taos Society of Artists.This is where he was able to thrive as a western illustrator, combining his two loves — hunting and painting. From 1914 until 1935, Dunton exhibited paintings at the National Academy of Design at New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at Philadelphia, and the Art Institute of Chicago.Though his career as a fine artist in Taos was less financially secure than his work as an illustrator, it was more satisfying. In a 1913 interview, Dunton said, “This is the ideal place for me because there are more varieties of atmosphere than I have found in any other place. . . There are several varieties of sage and cactus for backgrounds, according to the elevation that you choose.”
A founding member of the famed Taos Society of Artists, Oscar Edmund Berninghaus captured the nomadic spirit of the American Southwest through the depiction of Native American culture, pioneer ambition, and expansive landscapes. For many years, Berninghaus remained tied between the primary inspiration for his artistic production, the Taos Pueblo tribe of New Mexico, and his native St. Louis, the serendipitous “Gateway to the West.” Berninghaus came to Taos in 1899 after a sightseeing trip through the Rockies. He worked in St. Louis as a commercial lithographer. A few months of night classes at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, his only formal training led Berninghaus to a successful career as a painter and illustrator. While touring the southwest in 1899, he was persuaded by a brakeman on the Rio Grande Railroad to visit Taos. He then began to spend summers there until 1925, when he settled in Taos permanently drawn by the diverse population and scenic landscape. By the early 1920’s, he was well known in the East as a painter of Indians and the southwestern landscape, which remained his favorite subject for the next thirty years.The light and landscape of the region captivated Berninghaus and, even when wintering in St. Louis, the sights and scenes of Taos were his primary subject matter. Berninghaus believed that art was an emotional exercise, not a representational one. “The painter must first see his picture as paint-as color-as form-and not as a landscape or a figure. He must see with his inner eye, then paint with feeling, not with seeing.”
Art in New Mexico, New Mexico, 1900-1945 Path to Taos & Santa Fe by Eldredge,C.; Schimmel, J.; Truettner,W., Abbeville Press; N.Y. 1986.
Masterworks of the Taos Founders by the Museum Art of the American West, Houston; Gerald Peters Gallery, Gerald Peters, 1984.
Caldwell Gallery, Manlius, NY.
Dunton Family Organization, W. Herbert Dunton–His Life and Artwork.
Nedra Matteucci Galleries, Santa Fe, NM.
Robert L. Parsons Fine Art, Taos, NM.
Rockwell Museum of Western Art, Corning, NY.