O. E. Berninghaus: Soulful Artist, Gentle Man

By David C. Hunt



Among its extensive holdings, the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas houses one of the finest collections of works by members of the Taos Society of Artists to have been assembled to date. Comprising nearly 700 examples in various media, the collection was brought together for the most part in the 1940s and 50s by Nelda C. and H. J. Lutcher Stark, who often visited Taos during their annual excursions to the family's ranch in Colorado. In Taos they became acquainted with a number of painters, establishing familiar ties over the years with several of them. Artists associated with the original Taos group have been featured in a succession of exhibitions since the Stark Museum of Art opened its doors to the public in 1978. Oscar Edmund Berninghaus was a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists. When it was organized in 1914, the group also included Bert Phillips, E. L. Blumenschein, Joseph Henry Sharp, E.1. Couse, and W. Herbert Dunton. Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins later joined the association, as did E. Martin Hennings, Catherine Critcher, and Kenneth Adams. Artists such as Leon Gaspard and Nicolai Fechin sometimes are named in this context, although they actually settled in Taos at about the time or shortly after the society was formally dissolved in 1927.

The constitution of the Taos Society of Artists contained no specific pronouncements regarding approved methods or techniques in painting. Its members espoused no particular "ism" at a time when many American artists had identified themselves with contemporary movements of one sort or another and aggressively promoted their respective points of view. Instead, the purpose of the Taos organization was a general one: to encourage artistic production and to generate appreciation and sales of art on the part of the public. What its members otherwise shared was their devotion to Taos and is immediate environs, which brought into focus the talents peculiar to each. The unique character of the region, its native peoples, and the physical beauty of the landscape provided both inspiration and subject matter for their art. Largely as a result of their efforts, the area became in time as well known as the artists, themselves. For O.E. Berninghaus Taos "had everything." In an interview published in the St. Louis Republic in 1913, he declared:

This is a splendid country for the artist, because there are more varieties of atmosphere here than I have found in any other place. Up in the hills one can get the right setting for old trapping pictures. There are many varieties of sage and cactus for background, according to the elevation you choose. The Taos Indians are a splendid type, in fact, the best I have ever seen. And if one wants to paint Mexican pictures, he can get a background near Taos just as picturesque as any in Old Mexico.

In 1927, he enlarged upon this theme in another interview, when he said:

I think the colony in Taos is doing much for American art. From it I think will come a distinctive art, something definitely American -- and I do not mean that such will be the case because the American Indian and his environment are the subjects. The canvases that come from Taos are as definitely American as anything can be. We have had French, Dutch, Italian, German art. Now we must have American art. I feel that from Taos will come that art.



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