By: John Dorfman
On Sept. 4, 1898, two young artists, Bert Geer Phillips and Ernest L. Blumenschein, were driving a horse and wagon from Denver to Mexico, in search of scenery to paint. They lost a wheel not far south of the Colorado border into New Mexico, and flipped a coin to see who would have to walk to the nearest town and replace it. Blumenschein lost and headed off on a journey that would make art history. Two days and three nights later he returned to the site of the breakdown with a new wheel and important news for his friend Phillips: On the other side of the mountain was an unbelievably picturesque town that had everything that they’d hoped to find in Mexico, and then some.
Taos, nestled among the Sangre de Cristo mountains at an altitude of 7,500 feet, combines incomparable scenery with magical light and a rich cultural mix of American Indian, Spanish-American and Anglo. Right outside town is the Indian pueblo, a 1,000-year-old adobe apartment complex, still fully inhabited and still adhering to its ancient traditions. D. H. Lawrence, who lived in Taos for several years, called the area “one of the magnetic centers of the earth.” It proved irresistible to artists looking for, as Blumenschein later put it, “a stimulating subject.” Phillips settled there immediately; Blumenschein stayed awhile, left and then lived in Taos continuously from 1919 until his death in 1960.
The two pioneers planted the seed that flowered into a school of painting that lasted until World War II. Within the next decade or so Blumenschein and Phillips were joined by a few more painters—Joseph Henry Sharp, Eanger Irving Couse, Herbert “Buck” Dunton and Oscar E. Berninghaus—and in 1915 they formed the Taos Society of Artists to promote their work. Together with Walter Ufer, Victor Higgins, Ernest Martin Hennings and Kenneth Adams, who came later, they form a core group of artists whose works are keenly sought after. A number of other artists joined the society or worked the same vein around the same time, but these 10—known as the “Taos Founders”—are generally considered the most important by the American paintings market.
The styles of the classic Taos artists run the gamut from 19th-century academicism to Post-Impressionism to modernism. Some, like Sharp and Couse, are academic enough to seem rather like 19th-century holdovers in the 20th century. Their portrayals of the American Indian, in particular, have the rich color and romantic realism of European Orientalist painting. A few, notably Blumenschein, Higgins and Adams, introduced significant modernist elements. But in general, those who love Taos School art prize it for the fascination of its subject matter—peaceful scenes of domestic life or religious ritual among the Pueblos, psychologically astute portraits and enchanted landscapes—as well as for the classical elegance of the paint handling. Those who want hard-core modernism in a New Mexican context can look elsewhere—starting in the 1920s, Taos played host to a new generation of artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Andrew Dasburg and John Marin, who were just as affected by the “magnetic” forces as the founders had been, but refracted the local light through very different prisms.
Even though he wasn’t the first of the group to reside in Taos, Sharp deserves credit for launching it as an art center. Born in 1859, he was the oldest of the painters and had first seen northern New Mexico during a sketching tour of the West in 1883. Several years later, while studying in Paris, he met Blumenschein and Phillips and encouraged them to go home and go West. He himself moved to Taos in 1906. Sharp’s concerns were more ethnographic than anything else; he was passionately devoted to the task of preserving a visual record of traditional Indian life, which he believed would soon disappear forever. Author and curator Van Deren Coke, in his 1963 study Taos and Santa Fe: The Artist’s Environment, 1882–1942, called Sharp a “latter-day George Catlin.” The incredibly prolific Sharp created some 10,000 paintings in his long life (he died in 1953), so works by him are relatively easy to find.
Blumenscheins, on the other hand, are quite scarce. This perfectionistic artist once said that painting and drawing were “as necessary for me to do as for an apple tree to produce fruit. But a good many bad apples came off my tree—and were often destroyed.” Blumenschein evolved an intricate style of painting, with brushwork that reflects a Post-Impressionist influence and a tendency to compress space in order to enhance the sense of tension in a scene. While he painted landscapes and Indian themes as much as the others did, Blumenschein also turned his eye to contemporary events, as in his somber and dramatic Trial of a Sheepherder for Murder (1936). In his group portrait Ourselves and Taos Neighbors, Blumenschein recorded for posterity not only his fellow artists but also a representative cross section of Taos bohemia.
A major traveling Blumenschein retrospective in 2008 and 2009, In Contemporary Rhythm, finished up on June 14 at the Phoenix Art Museum. According to Peter Riess, director of Western art at Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, the exhibition was “a real eye-opener” that “helped people realize why Blumenschein was so fabulous: very complex, very dynamic, never formulaic.” The quality and scarcity of his work put him at the top of the price hierarchy for Taos painters; expect to spend at least $500,000 for a Blumenschein, if one should turn up, says Riess.
The market ranks Ufer, Hennings and Higgins just below Blumenschein, according to John Marzolf of Biltmore Galleries in Scottsdale, Ariz. Ufer, admired for his sympathetic Indian portraiture and fine technique, was not particularly prolific either, although he set out to be. In the early 1920s he partnered with a New York dealer to mass-produce paintings, which Ufer would help sell by deploying his well-known abilities as a storyteller. The dream of “an Ufer in every home” failed to materialize. Today the artist’s best works are relatively rare. This past May at Sotheby’s New York, The Red Moccasins (1917) sold for $765,000.
Hennings concentrated on landscape; his paintings tend to be very precisely rendered, majestic vistas with a “big-sky” look. Higgins was more experimental, both in his choice of subjects and in his Cubist-influenced approach to rendering space. Dunton, a New Englander, loved cowboy subjects and often painted wildlife. Couse was rather formulaic: He never modified his academic style, and tended to paint the same firelit, crouching, loincloth-clad Indian again and again. His works are relatively easy to find, and typical examples can be had in the low five figures. Couse and Sharp are the subjects of two exhibitions this summer at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos: Kindred Spirits and the Adobe Connection: E.I. Couse and J.H. Sharpand The Artist and His Photographs: The Photographic Studies of E.I. Couse (both through Oct. 18).
In addition to scarcity, advancing scholarship has fueled the interest in acquiring Taos School paintings. All the founders have had “very high run-ups in value,” says Mark Sublette, owner of the Santa Fe- and Tucson-based Medicine Man Gallery, and Riess observes that “over the past 10 years auction records have continuously been broken.” Although the highest prices have been achieved in private sales, the records for Sharp, Ufer, Hennings and Berninghaus all stand at or around $1.5 million; that Blumenschein’s record is only $398,500 reflects the fact that his best works aren’t offered at auction. Interestingly, the current records for Sharp, Ufer, Couse, Higgins and Dunton were all set at Christie’s American paintings sale on May 21, 2008. Taos School works frequently come up at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction in Reno, Nev., which takes place July 25 this year.
Sublette urges collectors to remember that all of these artists were capable of superior work. “If you try to check off each name, you can limit yourself and miss some great examples,” he says. “They were all working together, talking, side by side, encouraging each other.”
Asked why he went to Montana to paint the Crow Indians soon after discovering the Pueblos, Sharp replied, “I went north because I realized that Taos would last longer.” And it has. The Southwest as a whole remains the most vibrant center of Native American culture today. And while, luckily, we don’t need Taos paintings to remind us of a totally vanished way of life, they have definitely taken their place in American art history.
Biltmore Galleries, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe and New York
505.954.5700; 212.628.9760 gpgallery.com
Medicine Man Gallery, Santa Fe and Tucson, Ariz.
505.820.7451; 520.722.7798 medicinemangallery.com
Owings-Dewey Fine Art, Santa Fe