How It Began, The Santa Fe and Taos Art Communities
by Pamela Michaelis courtesy the Collector’s Guide, Wingspread Inc.
Even before the arrival of the “Anglo” artists who would form the art colonies of Taos and Santa Fe, the pioneering spirit of explorer-artists such as Karl Bodmer and George Catlin gave the eastern United States and Europe a glimpse into the world of the American West and the first Americans.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the numerous events and circumstances that drew pioneering artists to northern New Mexico were inextricably linked . . . for then as now, each event was connected to an occurrence preceding or paralleling it. railroad survey crews and census takers were frequently accompanied by artists who would sketch and paint this exotic land and its inhabitants. In 1880 Peter Moran, youngest brother of Thomas Moran, accompanied the group that first counted the residents of southwestern Indian pueblos. Moran’s chalk sketches and watercolors are among the earliest Anglo documentation of pueblo life.
But it is Joseph Henry Sharp who is most often referred to as the artist who “started it all.” Pursuing his dream of painting Indian subjects, sharp first visited New Mexico in 1883. Ten years later he returned to Taos for the summer. In 1895 while in Paris, he met Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips and passed on word of a remote painter’s paradise. The Ernest Blumenschein/Bert Phillips first encounter with New Mexico is legendary. In 1898, the two artists set out from Denver on a sketching trip intended to end in Mexico. Somewhere around Questa, north of Taos, a wagon wheel broke. The losing flip of a gold piece sent Blumenshein on horseback to Taos for repairs. By the time he returned to the stranded Bert Phillips, each had been smitten by the magnificence of northern New Mexico and each eventually returned to settle in Taos. In the next years, Philips and Blumenschein were joined by Joseph Sharp, Oscar Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse, and W. Herbert Dunton and in 1915 the Taos Society of Artists was formed. Other elected members of the Society were Walter Ufer, Victor Higgins, Martin Hennings, Kenneth Adams and Catherine Critcher, the Society’s only woman member. These well-trained artists with considerable professional experience brought European techniques to uniquely American subject matter. The Society’s stated purpose was to advance the standards of American art and to promote the work of its members through traveling exhibitions. These goals were, in fact, achieved and the Society put itself out of operation in 1927.
Throughout this time, the Santa Fe Railway was actively engaged in promoting regional tourism and artistic interest in the Southwest. To that end, beginning in 1892 with Thomas Moran, the Railway provided artists free passage to picturesque locations. From other artists, the Railway commissioned southwestern pictures for advertisements in popular magazines and for decoration of train stations and affiliated Harvey restaurants and hotels.
Many forces worked to bring renowned painters, photographers and authors to New Mexico. Among them were the strong beckonings of those already here. Mabel Dodge Luhan lured artists and authors to New Mexico as tirelessly as a missionary. Among those she ‘summoned’ were D.H. Lawrence, Marsden Hartley and Andrew Dasburg. Each talented person who came and discovered the richness of the Indian and Hispanic cultures and the undeniable magnetism of the landscape, in turn encouraged others to come. Another important magnet to northern New Mexico was the healing, dry air of the Sangre de Criso mountains. Many early artists arrived – some on stretchers – at Sunmount Sanitorium in Santa Fe seeking relief from debilitating respiratory ailments. Finding the climate salutary and the light inspirational, most stayed to develop their art and to continue to build the burgeoning artistic community. Among those influential people who recovered and stayed to add their talents to the magnificent mix were John Gaw Meem, Alice Corbin Henderson, Sheldon Parsons and Carlos Vierra.
Santa Fe became the center of Anglo interest in Hispanic culture. Ironically, it was a group of non-Hispanic transplants who led the crusade to preserve Spanish colonial art and urged contemporary craftsmen to revive carving traditions. It was in Santa Fe that those artists lived who responded to-and painted-Hispanic people and their customs, including the secretive Penitente rituals. These artists formed a close group within Santa Fe’s artistic community. In 1920, Will Shuster and Willard Nash arrived in Santa Fe. The next year, Shuster, Nash, Fremont Ellis, Walter Mruk and Jozef Bakos formed the avant-garde group Los Cinco Pintores. Los Cinco Pintores represented a new, vigorous and original generation of artists. The group held its first exhibition in December, 1921, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. The group would dissolve in 1926.
The list of influential artists who, drawn to northern New Mexico by the power of the land, the urging of friends, or their own failing health, is an impressively long one. As a group, their legacy is a major contribution to mainstream American art; individually, each has left an imprint on those who followed and on those artists who continue to be enticed by the magic New Mexico.