O. E. Berninghaus: Soulful Artist, Gentle Man
By David C. Hunt
Born in St. Louis in 1874, Berninghaus showed an early interest in art and while a teenager found employment as an illustrator with a lithographic firm. He also attended night classes at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts and began painting in oil. He held his first one-man show in St. Louis in 1899. This same year he made his first trip to the Southwest on a pass from the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. At a stop in Servilleta, New Mexico, he took advantage of the opportunity to sketch the local scenery. A brakeman, interested in this activity, reportedly described to him the Pueblo settlement at Taos some twenty miles to the north and suggested that he visit it. Accordingly, Berninghaus traveled by wagon to Taos, where he stayed for a week. Captivated by the people and the place, he made yearly excursions to Taos, until he established a permanent residence there in 1925.
Although New Mexico proved to be an ideal location for his development as a painter, Berninghaus continued for many years to earn his living as a commercial illustrator. Through exhibitions sponsored by the Taos Society of Artists, he gradually achieved recognition as a painter of Western subjects. Eventually he abandoned his narrative approach to art for a more direct observation of nature. He began to represent Southwestern life, not in the setting, with all of the evidences of modern civilization intruding upon an older, native culture.
Berninghaus did not cease altogether to paint historical subjects. He received public commissions of this kind throughout his life, including a series of murals he produced for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. Similar assignments for Federal buildings in Fort Scott, Kansas and Phoenix, Arizona soon followed. The Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company of St. Louis commissioned nine paintings illustrating important events in the opening of the American West. But Taos remained his favorite subject.
A hard-working and prolific painter, Berninghaus entertained few if any artistic pretensions. Conscientious in his approach to subject matter, he was meticulous in its execution. In his later years he spent most of his waking hours at the easel or in researching various projects. To those who knew him personally, he was unassuming, generous, and dependable, delighting in his family and the company of many friends. He was always glad to help anyone in need of his assistance. Nothing seemed to unimportant for him to undertake, from painting a greeting card to creating a school poster or designing a float. He was held in high regard by his fellow artists.
When Berninghaus died in the spring of 1952 he was seventy-eight years old. In August of the following year a group of friends in Taos organized a retrospective exhibition of his work under the auspices of the Harwood Foundation and the University of New Mexico. A total of thirty-six paintings was augmented by numerous drawings, prints, posters, and watercolors. An article appearing in the local newspaper on August 20 noted that the hanging committee included artists Martin Hennings, Andrew Dasburg, Emil Bisttram, and Ward Lockwood. Fellow artist Fremont Ellis of Santa Fe is mentioned as having attended the opening. On October 1, 1953, only a week before the show was scheduled to close, the newspaper reported:
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