Taos Society of Artists

1915 - 1927

Bert Geer Phillips
 

The Taos Society of Artists was essentially a sales cooperative. At the time that the Society was formed, on July 15 1915, Taos was a very isolated small New Mexican community, without art galleries and without a major art buying clientele.

The purpose of the organization, as stated in their Constitution and By-laws, was primarily to stimulate general interest in art, to develop a high standard of quality among its members, and to promote the work of its members through traveling exhibitions.

The six artists that founded the Taos Society of Artists in 1915 were: Bert Geer Phillips, Ernest L. Blumenschein, Joseph Henry Sharp, Oscar E. Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse and W. Herbert Dunton. These six artists are generally referred to as "the Taos Founders" or "the Founders", because they were the first artists to settle more or less permanently in Taos to paint, thus forming the beginning of the Taos art colony.

Phillips and Blumenschein, who shared a studio in New York, had arrived in Taos in September of 1898, when, on a painting trip to Mexico, twenty miles north of Taos a wheel of their wagon broke, which they consequently had repaired in Taos. Impressed by the landscape and the Native American and Hispanic cultures present in Taos, they decided not to continue to Mexico but to stay here to paint. Shortly thereafter, Phillips fell in love with the sister of the local doctor and settled permanently in Taos; Blumenschein returned after a couple of months to New York because of obligations he had there.

From the beginning of his stay in Taos, Phillips tried to convince other artists to join him; he felt lonely (only 25 Anglos lived in Taos at the time of his arrival) and he felt that the scenery of New Mexico offered a lifetime of work for many artists. At his urgings, one after another, the other five artists came to Taos to paint, some of them settling there permanently, others at first only spending the summers.

These artists knew each other from the art schools they attended in the U.S. and abroad, in places such as Antwerp, Düsseldorf, Munich and Paris. Blumenschein and Phillips, for example, studied at the Académie Julian in Paris around 1894, where they met Sharp. Sharp told them about the Taos pueblo, where he had sketched for a couple of weeks in 1893 on a commission for Harper's Weekly.

Based on the events described above, either Phillips or Sharp is considered to be the father of the Taos art colony. The artists who became members of the Taos Society of Artists formed a diverse group. Many of them had formal academic training and some, like Sharp and Couse, continued to paint in an academic style, while others were receptive to the influence of newer modernist approaches, like Blumenschein and Higgins. The way in which they approached their subjects varied widely, but they were all tired of traditional academic subjects and they were all following the call for a truly American art, which they thought could be found in authentic American subject matter such as the American landscape and the Native American population.

The Taos Society of Artists was modeled on the Society of Western Artists of which Phillips, Sharp and Julius Rolshoven had been members. Another prototype was the Society of Men Who Paint the Far West, to which Couse and Blumenschein had belonged. Membership was divided into active, associate and honorary members. Meetings were annual, extra meetings were held whenever deemed necessary. At the founding meeting the rule was adopted that in order to be elected as a member of the Taos Society of Artists, an artist must have worked in Taos for three consecutive years, which proved their long-term interest in the area. Those who could not fulfill this requirement could participate in the exhibitions of the Taos Society of Artists as associate members.

Between 1917 and 1926 several artists, who were attracted by the fame of Taos that had spread through the activities of the Society, joined the Taos Society of Artists as active members. These were Victor Higgins, Walter Ufer, Julius Rolshoven, Catherine C. Critcher, E. Martin Hennings and Kenneth Adams. Nine associate members and two honorary members were also added.

It seems that the year 1918 constituted the peak of the success of the Society, by then the traveling exhibitions were the major event of the year in many cities. Later, problems started to develop within the organization, by 1927 some of the Taos Society of Artists members felt that the organization had outlived its purpose. They had become famous and were no longer motivated to put effort into the organization of traveling exhibitions. It appears that the Taos Society of Artists was disbanded at a special meeting in March of 1927.

In the following years, the fame of the members of the Taos Society of Artists gradually faded. Their style, which was rooted in their traditional academic training, was now considered as old fashioned, in addition, art patronage suffered severely from the Depression. By 1936, three of the members had died and Victor Higgins died in 1949.

The late 1950's and early 1960's saw a renewed interest in the art of the Taos Society of Artists members, an interest that was initiated by an intense promotion of Leon Gaspard, also an early Taos artist, by the Maxwell Galleries Ltd. of San Francisco and the publication of Van Deeren Coke's Taos and Santa Fe: The Artist's Environment, 1882-1942. More publications on the Taos Society of Artists and the Taos art colony followed.

 

J.H. Sharp
ACTIVE MEMBERS OF THE TAOS SOCIETY OF ARTISTS

1. Joseph H. Sharp:(charter), July 1915

2. Ernest L. Blumenschein : (charter), July 1915

3.  Bert G. Phillips: (charter), July 1915

4. Oscar E. Berninghaus: (charter), July 1915

5.  E. Irving Couse: (charter), July 1915

6.  W. Herbert Dunton: (charter), July 1915; resigned in 1922

7.  Walter Ufer: elected July 15, 1917

8.  Victor Higgins: elected July 15, 1917

9.  Julius Rolshoven: elected associate member July 15, 1917; elected active member July 16, 1918; returned to associate status July 23, 1923

10.  Catharine C. Critcher: elected July 12, 1924

11.  E. Martin Hennings: elected July 12, 1924

12.  Kenneth Adams: elected July 12, 1926