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THE TAOS SOCIETY OF ARTISTS AT 100, Part 1; April 2015

A Centennial Celebration

The Taos Society of Artists at 100, Part 1

by Stacia Lewandowski

"Fate Drew the Three of Us Together"

At the time of the founding of the Taos Society of Artists, there were six members:

Bert G. Phillips
Ernest L. Blumenschein
Joseph H. Sharp
Oscar E. Berninghaus
E. I. Couse
W. Herbert "Buck" Dunton

During their lifetimes, members of the Taos Society of Artists were often asked about what drew them to Taos and what initiated the formation of the group that would become nationally recognized. Of the founding six artists, Blumenschein left not only a legacy of artwork, but also of a copious amount of writings that provide us with stories, as well as informative essays and notes from speeches that give us first-hand accounts of those early days.

When Blumenschein and Bert Phillips were students in Paris in 1896, they happened to meet Joseph Sharp who had been to the American West and visited Taos for a short period of time 3 years before. Blumenschein later wrote that while the three young artists sat talking at a cafe, Sharp told them "'If you ever go west you should visit Taos and see the Indian Pueblo.'" And that was the extent of Sharp's influence on them. However, Blumenschein would later write, "Fate drew the three of us together."

Two years later, Blumenschein convinced Phillips to join him on a western painting excursion that would take them from Denver to Mexico by wagon. In Denver, the two greenhorns bought a light wagon, "two broncos," and a harness to hitch the horses to the wagon. Leaving Denver in June, the pair traveled through Colorado and finally entered the Territory of New Mexico after two months' journey. Summer thunderstorms began to make the mountain roads hazardous and Blumenschein reported, "We soon found our light wagon was no match for New Mexico." Some twenty-five miles north of Taos, the wagon hit a deep rut, CONTINUED: a wheel broke, and the wagon was left tilting at a perilous angle toward a deep precipice. After pulling the wagon and all of their gear to safety, Blumenschein won the coin toss to take one of the horses and carry the wheel to the nearest blacksmith, in Taos. Phillips waited for his return; it would take three days.

"Sharp had not painted for me the land or the mountains and plains and clouds," Blumenschein later wrote. "No artist had ever recorded the New Mexico I was seeing. No writer had ever written down the smell of this air or the feel of that morning's sky. I was receiving under rather painful circumstances, the first great unforgettable inspiration of my life. My destiny was being decided as I squirmed and cursed while urging the bronco thru those many miles of waves of sage brush."

His description of his first impressions of Taos were equally enthusiastic:
"There I saw my first Taos Indians, picturesque, colorful, dressed in blankets artistically draped. ... New Mexico had gripped me -- and I was not long in deciding that if Phillips would agree with me, if he felt as inspired to work as I, the Taos valley and its surrounding magnificent country would be the end of our wagon trip."

Once they finally made it to Taos with the repaired wagon, the two artists sold the wagon and "broncos" and immediately set about painting the rich subject matter they found in Taos. Indeed, Phillips heartily agreed with Blumenschein; he decided to remain in Taos full-time. Blumenschein left Taos that Fall, but as he related, other artists soon appeared: "In 1901 Oscar Berninghaus drifted along and cast his anchor. Shortly after Irving Couse at my suggestion arrived to paint sheep. . . . Then in 1903 Sharp returned and from 1910 I joined this little group of happy pioneers for 3 or 4 months every year."

Blumenschein had returned to Paris for further study, married fellow artist Helen Greene, and later moved to New York City where he taught at the Art Students League. W. Herbert "Buck" Dunton, a talented illustrator, became one of his students and in 1912, at the suggestion of his teacher, spent that summer and the next painting in Taos. By 1914, he moved to Taos full-time. Blumenschein, with his wife and young daughter, moved permanently to Taos in 1918.

During the summer of 1915, this group of six officially formed the Taos Society of Artists. An exhibit of their work was displayed in Santa Fe at the state museum, which was still housed at the old Palace of the Governors. (The museum building we know today as the Museum of Art would open in 1917.) El Palacio, a publication of the Museum of New Mexico noted the show: "At present, an exhibit of fifty canvases by the Taos Artist Colony, is giving the Southwest the most notable art exhibit in its history." The notation lists the six artists with the inclusion of Ralph Meyers and recent new-comer, Victor Higgins. Though not organized formally as an exhibit of the Taos Society of Artists, it was the first group exhibit that included all six founding artists.

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