The Plein Air Scene

by Sarah Beserra


(above: Scott Burdick, Sarah in Catalina, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches. Please click on image to enlarge it.)


Taos Society of Artists

by Sarah Beserra


At the same time that the California Impressionists dominated the art scene in Southern California in the early 20th Century, a small group of painters were making history in New Mexico. They were known as the Taos Society of Artists. Their paintings now reside in top galleries and museums.

They all came from somewhere else, like the California painters, but for different reasons. Unlike the California artists who were drawn to Southern California by the light and the year-round sunshine, the Taos painters were attracted by the culture, the mix of Hispanic, Anglos and Indians and their boyhood fantasies of the wild west. The focus of this yearning was the Taos Pueblo and its inhabitants -- Tewa Indians -- who had inhabited the large pueblo for hundreds of years.

The story begins in Paris. The Academie Julian was the drawing card for young American painters in the last decade of the 19th Century. Many of the Californians were there at the same time that Joseph Sharp studied there. He had visited Taos in 1893 and told fellow students Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips about the unique mix of light, landscape and culture.

Unable to satisfy their passion for the West by simply reading about it, Blumenschein and Phillips fitted out a team of horses and a wagon in Denver and headed west. A wagon wheel broke somewhere near Taos, and by the time it was repaired, both painters had fallen in love with the beauty of this exotic land. Phillips stayed and made Taos his home, while Blumenschein returned every summer to paint before settling there in 1912. Sharp had already started spending a few months a year in Taos when he met the two in Paris and settled there permanently in 1925.

E. Irving Couse, who had lived and studied in France for a number of years, heard about Taos from Sharp as well. He made a visit and spent the rest of his life there painting the Indians. W. Herbert Dunton had been studying at the Art Student's League in New York when he, too, was told about the charms of Taos by Blumenschein. Oscar Berninghaus had been commissioned by the railroad to do a series of watercolors of the west for travel pamphlets. When he saw Taos he, too, was hooked.

With all six painters in Taos they formed the Taos Society of Artists in 1915. This was a pivotal year in time in American art. The Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco had just opened in San Francisco, introducing painters to the best of modern European and American painting.

The primary purpose of the group was to sell paintings. Traveling exhibitions were devised, as there were no galleries in Taos at the time. These yearly road shows lasted for 12 years and brought widespread recognition to the artists and to the region. Other artists and writers followed including Georgia O'Keeffe, Nicolai Fechin and writer D.H Lawrence.




At their first meeting in 1915, dues were set at $I/year. There were three levels of membership: Active, Associate and Honorary. Active members must have been juried into a "standard and representative exhibition" and painted in Taos for three years. Associate members could come from adjoining regions and states. Associate Members included Gustave Baumann, Robert Henri, John Sloan, B.J.O, Nordfeldt and Birger Sandzen.

For some reason, the six founding members decided to let one member run all of the Society's business for an entire year. There was no discussion of forming committees or farming out the work. This practice was later to result in much dissension and at least one resignation. Duties included organizing the entire circuit for a year, including the attendant correspondence, negotiating, publicity, shipping, and sales. Refusing the job when it was your turn -- alphabetical order by last name -- meant expulsion from the Society unless you had a very good excuse.


The Circuit


The TSA's first show was at the State Fair in Santa Fe. After that, an elaborate circuit was developed with painters contributing two or three paintings each. By 1917, there were two circuits including New York, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Des Moines, Denver, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Salt Lake City and Santa Fe. "Our pictures have met with no little appreciation from thousands of people, and a great deal of advertising matter has been printed and circulated until it would be difficult to find a person in the whole country making any pretensions to being posted in art matters who has not heard of Taos and the 'Taos Artists,' " Phillips reported at the annual meeting that year.




There is no indication that the circuit resulted in a large number of sales, but it brought recognition and fame to the artists. The October 1920 minutes revealed, "in contrast to the report of last year in which the sale of twelve canvases was reported, it is regrettable to report that no sales have thus far been made on the 1920 exhibition." Guest artists were added to the circuit to promote wider interest. According to the minutes, " Our secretary advises if we wish to succeed to take into our cover in the future those who deliver good and standard work of whatever 'ISM' and who do just as much to help the southwest a step along and to further America's name in Art."




The minutes of the 1920 meeting showed the need for additional publicity. "The press has given up liberal space in its columns in all cities where the exhibition was show. There was, though, nothing new in these articles, and the secretary feels that some steps should be taken towards creating a new interest through some publicity and recommends that a new story on different lines about the Society's work, its efforts, etc., be written. This should be sent to all newspapers throughout the country and should be sent in advance to cities where the exhibition is to be shown."

The TSA found that its coffers needed replenishing from time to time. In 1921, the minutes reveal, "in this new era money is more necessary than ever before." It was suggested that dances and costume parties could be given continually throughout the year to keep the treasury full.

They decided to give an annual dance in town, which proved a great success. Higgins suggested that they lead the people to believe that a painting was to be raffled. "But in place of the supposed canvas a certain decrepit, maimed and forlorn dog-about-town was to be presented to the fortunate individual drawing the lucky number. Due to the inhuman phase in view of the dog's physical condition and also to his viciousness, the dog was replaced by a pig." Listed under "Disbursement" in the minutes was seventy cents for decoration for the pig. The event brought in $52.90, a large sum in those days.




Even the renowned TSA had their problems. This except from the July 15,1922 minutes is illuminating. Blumenschein who had served as President for the past two years was quoted, "At the recent meeting of the Society at my residence no action was taken thanking me for my services during my two years in office. I made no melodramatic display to indicate that I had been working for your interests, but there had been considerable to do, especially at the beginning of each season."

He continued, "The morning after the meeting, I told Mrs. Blumenschein that the Society had passed a resolution thanking her for the pains she had taken to see that there was some refreshment at each meeting during the two years. Of course, no such resolution was passed, but I would not have her think that to be the case. I was very careful to see that the Society recognized the labors of the Secretary, but the entire bunch, including the secretary forgot there had been a president. I have waited two days since the meeting hoping someone might have noticed the error, but as no remark or communication has been made of this subject, I do not feel inclined to be of further service to the organization."

Dunton had resigned earlier because "he did not care to belong to a society in which the secretary (Ufer) referred to the president (Blumenschein) as a "bald-headed SB."

It has been said that the TSA dissolved because the artists became so successful that they couldn't keep up with the work required for the circuit. While this may have been true for some, the minutes do not confirm that. By 1927, maintaining the Society had become a burden. It also ceased to provide the sales and the publicity that would justify the work required.

At its zenith, the TSA included the following members: Joseph H. Sharp, Bert G. Phillips, E. Irving Couse, W.H. Dunton, Oscar Berninghaus, E.L. Blumenschein, Kenneth M. Adams, Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings, Catharine C. Critchen and Walter Ufer.

Material for this article was taken from The Taos Society of Artists by Robert R. White, 1983, Historical Society of New Mexico and Taos: A Painter's Dream by Patricia Janis Broder, 1980, New York Graphic Society.

© Sarah Beserra, 2002


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Editor's notes:

Sarah Beserra is Editor and Publisher of The Plein Air Scene - a monthly newsletter on plein air painting in California. Please see the website for The Plein Air Scene for email address and phone number.

Also see New Mexico Art History and Taos Art Colony.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists. Following are examples of artworks created by artists referenced in the above article. Artworks and/or photographs shown may not be specific to this article and are likely not cited in it. All images were obtained via Wikimedia Commons, which believes the images to be freely available for presentation here.  Another source readers may find helpful is Google Images. 


(above: E. Irving Couse (1866-1936), The Lovers, 1909, oil on canvas, Brigham Young University Museum of Art. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874-1960), Star Road and White Sun, 1920, oil, Albuquerque Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953), Fireside, c. 1900, oil on canvas, on loan to the San Diego Museum of Art. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Oscar E. Berninghaus, Natural Bridge, c. 1914, oil on board laid down on panel, 21 x 42 7/8 inches, Christie's. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: William Herbert Dunton, My Children, 1920, oil on canvas, New Mexico Museum of Art. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


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