VIEWS: 6 PAGES: 10 POSTED ON: 11/24/2009
“I stayed here but a week, became infected with the Taos germ and promised myself a longer stay” (Owings-Dewey Fine Art). Those are the words of a young Oscar Berninghaus, who first visited Taos in 1899 and then went on to beoame one of the most recognized American western artists, producing oil paintings of the New Mexican landscape and her people. All of his works, including Family Group – Taos Indians, are a tribute to a lost way of life for the Native Americans of Taos, New Mexico. These paintings, though, are much more than a sentimental glimpse of the past. They are evidence to the power of place. It is evidence that the land has the power to keep to keep a man under a spell and hold him captive for a lifetime. It is proof that the spirit of earth has the power to take hold of a man and elevate him to success. For Berninghaus, Taos was that place. Taos and her climate and colors and people held him enthralled and he could not absorb enough of her. Berninghaus was so inspired by her landscape, he painted in New Mexico for the rest of his life and, consequently, became one of the most recognized names of twenthieth century American painters. (Topic 1) Although Oscar E. Berninghaus is now considered “one of the finest illustrators in America and also one of the best of the self-taught painters” (Morand 14), he had humble beginnings. Berninghaus was born in St. Louis on October 2, 1874, to German-born William and Torry Harris. The Berninghaus family lived modestly, but the five children were encouraged to explore various interests. For Berninghaus, this was drawing. By the age of 10, he was an accomplished sketch-artist. He also explored watercolor and was fascinated by the blending of colors. It did not surprise his parents when, at age 19, Berninghaus applied for an apprenticeship with Woodward and Teirnan, a renowned printing company based in St. Louis. There, Berninghaus was trained in lithography and, to continue his studies in drawing, he also attended night classes at the School of Fine Arts of Washington University in St. Louis (Sanders 6). (Topic 1, 3) In 1899, at age 25, Berninghaus was commissioned to complete a special assignment by the Denver and Rio Grand Railroad, a prominent Woodward and Teirnan client. They asked him take the railways out west and sketch the landscapes of Colorado and New Mexico. The railroad company believed that the grand views, when painted and published in newspapers, would capture the hearts of the nation and plant the desire to travel west. (Topic 3) As young Berninghaus traveled the railway line, he was overwhelmed with the exquisite wilderness. What had originally been an assignment turned into the ride of lifetime. It was obvious the ride made an impression on Berninghaus and he journaled extensively about the trip. Berninghaus wrote, “[It was] suggested I might ride the top of the freight car that I might better see the country as we rolled along, but not before I was securely strapped to the brakeman’s guard rail that ran along the top” (Morand 14). The adventurous Berninghaus quite literally felt the wind on his face and inhaled the fresh mountain air. (Topic 3) Berninghaus knew he had found his true home when the railroad turned south and entered the deserts of New Mexico. Berninghaus continued in his journal, “the brakeman pointed out Taos Mountain and I started on a 25-mile trek. I found it all as the brakeman had described . . .” (Samuels 13). What Berninghaus found was a landscape beyond his imagination: “At the turn of the century Taos was a small village located in a lush valley deep in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The 7,000-foot elevation provided crystal clear skies which contrasted sharply with the vivid color of the aspen groves, pinon pine forests, and stand of cottonwood. The deep blue, azure, purple, red, and rose skies stretched over the eroded arroyos, mesas, buttes, and canyons with their yellow, red, orange, and brown earth colors” (Bryant 443). Ernest Blumsenschein, another Taos artist, experienced the same thrill of riding into the pristine village, and wrote beautifully, “When I came into this valley—for the first time in my life, I saw whole paintings right before my eyes. Everywhere I looked I saw paintings perfectly organized ready for paint” (Bryant 443). (Topic 3, 4) As a young, impressionable artist, Berninghaus undoubtedly felt utter amazement. He had stumbled upon an oasis of color, the perfect place to establish himself as an artist. On top of that, Berninghaus found artistic encouragement in Taos. He befriended Bert Phillips, an established and welltraveled artist, who instructed and encouraged him. Berninghaus spent one week capturing the rugged beauty of Taos and experienced three major revelations during his visit. Firstly, he knew he must return. Secondly, he knew he had to master oil painting to adequately capture the expansive landscape (Sanders 10). Thirdly, he discovered his favorite subject: the Pueblo Indians. (Topic 3, 10) For Berninghaus, the Native Americans of Taos represented a treasured way of life, a peaceful compliment to the natural setting. Their clothing, horses, and crops were made up of the same beautiful colors as the landscape. Their very nature and actions were testimonies to a simple and noble way of life, and they were the embodiment of the landscape that had taken hold of his heart. He wrote, “Every now and then I see whirlwinds. Looking out now, I see one but as it approaches it is a band of Indians out on the ceremonial rabbit hunt. These rabbits are hunted with bows and arrows, clubs and dogs—but no firearms, such is the reverence for the old days. The bands come on—all mounted on their ponies, help making the sight picturesque” (Samuels 15). (Topic 3) When he returned to St. Louis, Berninghaus held a one-man exhibition and displayed sketches and paintings from his trip west. He spent the rest of the year perfecting his oil painting technique and returned to Taos the summer of 1900. That fall, back in St. Louis, Berninghaus sold three of his paintings to the St. Louis Star Illustrated. They were printed, as well as a large photo of Berninghaus, with the caption: “Mr. O. E. Berninghaus, although a young man, has gained the reputation as a painter of American Indians. He ranks among the foremost of Indian painters of the country” (Sanders 14). Although Berninghaus already knew he had to return to Taos once again, such a review solidified his decision to become a western painter. (Topic 4) Berninghaus was neither the first nor the only artist to paint under the spell of the rugged beauty of Taos. Painter Joseph Sharp visited Santa Fe in 1883 and Taos in 1993 and had a similar artistic reaction. The trip to the Southwest made such an impression that, when Sharp traveled to Europe and became acquainted with painters Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips, he encouraged them to visit. His descriptions were such that they couldn’t turn down the invitation. Thus, by the time Berninghaus visited in 1899, the beginning of an art colony was already in place (Bryant 443). (Topic 4) As Berninghaus and other artists returned summer after summer, it became clear that there was a large market for paintings from the American west. In 1912, the artists took action. There were no galleries in Taos to display their work, so the artists formed a sales cooperative—the Taos Society of Artists (Owings-Dewey Fine Art). The six founding members were Joseph Sharp, Ernest Blumenschein, Bert Phillips, Irving Couse, Herbet Dunton, and Oscar Berninghaus. In 1914, Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins joined the society. They promoted and sold paintings in galleries across America, and these eight members soon became the most prominent and recognized painters in Taos (Bryant 445). (Topic 4) Although each artist had a slightly different style, all worked under the umbrella of a romanticized realism and portrayed the captivating New Mexican landscape and its Native Americans. The artists lived and worked with the native population and were committed to “appreciate, publicize, and preserve native culture” (Rodriguez 82). An interesting dynamic grew out of this situation. Native Americans often modeled and worked for the artists, sitting for a painting in the morning and then performing paid tasks—such as yard work, carpentry, and construction—in the afternoon (Rodriguez 82). These master-laborer, artist-model relationships sometimes turned into lasting friendships and the artists were accepted into the native culture more readily than other Anglo-Saxons (Rodriguez 83). However, as these paintings—tributes to Native American way of life—were promoted by the artists, tourism, commercialism, and a modern way of life was brought to the small town of Taos. (Topic 4) Although this effect was a double-edged sword for the Native American way of life, the artists only experienced success. Berninghaus thrived off the country’s enthrallment with the “Wild West” and he was kept busy with commissions, as well as painting for his own fulfilment (Sanders 26). Berninghaus returned to New Mexico every summer until 1925 when, at age 51, he finally became a permanent resident of Taos. Living year-round in the majestic setting allowed him to take advantage of the splendid fall colors and to spend more time with his beloved Native Americans. In 1927, the Taos Society of Artists was dissolved due to the fact that each of the artists had established himself as a painter in the art world. Berninghaus had a reputation for being one of the foremost western painters and he could easily support himself without following the different art movements that went in and out of fashion, such as Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Fauvism, and Futurism (Owings-Dewey Fine Art). (Topic 5) The painting Family Group – Taos Indians, painted in the summer of 1928, is a prime example of the Berninghaus style and subject matter. The Native American family painted in this work is relaxing under a tree, looking out onto the southwest landscape and seemingly unaware of the viewer. The branches shade their position and create an abstraction of light and dark patterns on their clothing. The father stands in the foreground, centered on the canvas and most prominent with his draping cloak. He holds a staff in front of him and gazes straight ahead. He fills roughly one-third of the painting. Below him, the mother sits on the ground with her young son, their backs against the sheltering tree. She is sitting crosslegged, absent-mindedly playing with her hair and smiling, as if thinking of something amusing. Her child is absorbed with a toy, unaware of either of his parents. Behind the family, poles and fabric of a tipi rest in the middle ground, against the tree. In the distance, there is an impression of a horse and rider, and the forested southwestern landscape creates the backdrop. (Topic 7) Family Group – Taos Indians is an oil painting that contains brushstrokes with immaculate detail as well as areas of soft, impressionistic articulations. There is a gentle flow to the painting, and rhythmic curves make up the framework of this artwork. The bright colors of the family’s clothing catch the eye and focus the viewer’s attention, but it is the deep value of the tree that gives weight and importance to the foreground. The high-key, abstracted background gives even more importance to the defined foreground. (Topic 6, 10) Although the content appears simple, much can be read by this painting. It reflects the great time and thought Berninghaus put into his works of art. Author Van Deren Coke wrote accurately of Berninghaus, “There is much to ponder and study in the technical mastery behind this man’s seemingly straightforward and easily grasped subject matter. How an artist uses his formal facility to reach various levels of meaning often is misunderstood and overlooked. The simple and clear part of Berninghaus’ art also conceals a true psychological understanding of his major subject, the Pueblo Indians. Unlike some of his associates in Taos, Berninghaus’ sophisticated early illustrative style was used as a frame to hold his spectators’ attention, while he slowly unfolded his observations of the inner truth surrounding the life of a twentieth-century Taos Indian” (OwingsDewey Fine Art). Therefore, appreciating the composition leads the viewer into appreciating the meaning behind the work. (Topic 6, 8) In Family Group – Taos Indians there is no interaction between the family members, and each is absorbed in his/her thoughts. The dominating fatherfigure radiates importance and weight, which is enforced by the dark value and deep shadows of his clothing. Deep folds and creases run through his cloak, indicating the heavy matters weighing on his shoulders. He has a serious look on his face, contemplating a matter beyond what the viewer sees in the artwork. The mother is sitting below him, a sign of her “behind-the-scene” presence in the tribe. She has a peaceful expression, as if she knows that is where she can best serve her family. The woman’s thoughts are elsewhere, although hers seem more amusing. Her clothing reflects this mood. She is wearing colorful material, an indication of typical Native American dress, but also an indication as to the novelty and nature of her thoughts. The boy sits off to the side, away from the center of the painting, as if waiting for his turn in the spotlight. The boy is absorbed in his toy, unaware of the thoughts/worries of his parents. He is the future of the tribe, but is simply concentrating on what is in front of him. The background is muted and impressionistic, a sign that the landscape is in sharp contrast with the thoughts and actions of the family. These relationships between composition and content are clearly referenced in the attached diagraphs. (Topic 2) This painting is part of a lifetime series by Berninghaus. Although his style changed slightly over the years—he became more loose and colorful with his brushwork--Berninghaus remained true to his original style of realism. He became so adept at painting Native Americans that, in his later years, he could paint completely from memory (Owings-Dewing Fine Art). In Berninghaus’ mind, though, each work remained unique and was a labor of love. This was made apparent when Family Group – Taos Indians was bought at $1,200 by Pearl Gehner, a resident of St. Louis, in April of 1929. Berninghaus wrote a special “Thank you” note to Pearl, voicing his appreciation for her business and hoping that she enjoyed owning the painting as much as he enjoyed producing it (Phiefer). (Topic 9, 11) Although some may question the level of originality and lack of artistic liberty in Berninghaus’ work, respect must be given to his unfailing dedication to capturing the lifestyle of Native Americans at the turn of the century. He was enamored with the beauty of New Mexico and based his entire life around capturing and promoting the natural wonder of the landscape and its native people. As an untrained artist, he experienced enormous success because his love for Taos flowed into his paintings. Had Berninghaus not experienced this enraptured love for the land, his paintings would have fallen short of their inspired state. His artwork would have lacked that extra touch and he would not be called one of America’s finest western painters. Thus, when the life and paintings of Oscar Berninghaus are examined, it becomes obvious that he found his passion early in life and his success was a natural result. As a young, impressionable man, he was captured by the wild beauty, warm colors, and native inhabitants of Taos. Although the art scene changed over the years, Berninghaus remained devoted to his beloved subjects and continued to paint them in a gentle, romanticized style. Indian Group – Taos Family is a prime example of Berninghaus at his most effective level, his faithfulness to his Taos subjects, and a testimony to the power and beauty of the New Mexico landscape.
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