O. E. Berninghaus: Soulful Artist, Gentle Man

By David C. Hunt



Lutcher Stark had acquired his first Taos paintings in the 1920s. A letter written by Berninghaus, on file at the Stark museum of Art, indicates that Mr. Stark visited the artist's studio as early as 1927. Although Lutcher Stark was an avid collector, he did not acquire works of art in great number until after World War II. His mother, Miriam Lutcher Stark, is said to have introduced him to collecting. Miriam Stark collected historical Americana, rare literary works, and European paintings. Lutcher Stark initially collected the works of living artists. In time he also acquired paintings and sculptures by the better known artists and illustrators of the Old West. His interest in wildlife, especially birds, led him to collect the works of John James Audubon, John Gould, and other artists-naturalists of the nineteenth century.

His arrival in Taos invariably generated excitement among the resident artists. Among his favorite painters were W. H. Dunton, J. H. Sharp, and E. M. Hennings. Eventually E. L. Blumenschien, Leon Gaspard, and Ila McAfee were added to the list. In earlier years he and his family traveled to Colorado in chauffeured touring cars, one of which was reserved to carry paintings and related purchases. Later he and his wife Nelda bought a large station wagon, in which they brought back even more paintings.

Mrs. Stark later recalled that the drive from Orange to Taos usually took from one and a half to two days. They customarily stayed in Taos for several days, while Lutcher toured the local galleries and studios and purchased paintings from various artists, their families, or dealers such as Jane Hiatt. According to Mrs. Stark, when Lutcher saw something he liked, he never haggled over the price, asked for a discount, or attempted to "make a deal." If he wanted it, he bought it. As a result, he often lent support and encouragement to artists when they most needed it, especially during the 1930s and early 40s.

Support of the artists' families through his purchases continued into the 1950s. Most of the Berninghaus paintings in the Stark collection were purchased between the years 1953 and 1957 from the artist's widow or his son, Charles. Mr. Stark acquired at least fifteen of the works previously exhibited in the Berninghaus retrospective, including Guadalupe Church Plaza and Racers in the Pueblo. On October 13, 1954, Mr. Stark sent Mrs. Berninghaus a list of titles he was then interested in buying. This purchase inaugurated what became the largest collection of Berninghaus paintings extant.

Nearly twenty-five years were to pass before the museum was a reality. Meanwhile, the Starks also acquired some of the artist's earlier illustrations and several studies for murals.

Most of those who knew him agree that Berninghaus took his work more seriously than he took himself. He loved Taos and its people. Largely through his association with the shows sponsored by the Taos Society of Artists, he achieved election as an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design in 1926. He was represented in important exhibitions and received numerous awards.

In her book, Taos and Its Artists, published in 1947, Mabel Dodge Luhan wrote glowingly of Berninghaus, describing him as "a loving artist." Concerning his life in Taos, she further declared:

"How he has enjoyed himself! And how he has given back to Taos in gratitude for what he has received here!... He is never too tired or too busy to help in any undertaking. He is always there for anyone who asks backing for a Taos project."

Six years later, Tom Benrimo summarized the artist's contributions to his craft and to Taos in his preface to the catalogue of the 1953 retrospective exhibition:

It is difficult to indicate briefly the special quality and uniqueness of Bernie's art. He worked within a circumscribed romantic tradition. He loved his subjects and their agreeable aspects of quaintness and sentimentality. His technical dexterity and immaculate technique grew out of the bucolic scene so sympathetically observed.

While Berninghaus recognized the importance of the modern movement, he never felt that it was for him. He loved the object with an affection comparable to Chardin's love of pots and pans and painted masterpieces of simple lyric beauty that will always stand as a record of peaceful interlude.


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