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Founding the Taos & Santa Fe Art Colonies

by Stacia Lewandowski

In the early days, as artists began to work in Taos and Santa Fe, they came to be called collectively, “the Taos - Santa Fe Art Colony," as that was how they were identified in the early articles of the Museum of New Mexico's periodical, El Palacio. But a closer look reveals that the artists in these two locales were quite distinct from one another and were drawn by differing circumstances. The following comments made by two of the early artists illuminate their clearly disparate points of view. The first:

“Never shall I forget the first powerful impressions, my own impressions direct from a new land through my own eyes. The great naked anatomy of a majestic landscape once tortured, now calm; the fitness of adobe houses to their tawny surroundings; the vastness and overwhelming beauty of skies; terrible drama of storms; peace of night . . . all in beauty of color, vigorous form, everchanging light . . .”
Now the other:
“I am likely to have to stay in this desolate [spot] for a year or two and may not get off as easy as that. . . . There is nothing in this place to paint and no one to buy pictures. . . . The wild sunflower is the only flower that seems to grow naturally here and even they look as if they were sorry they came.”

The first impression is from the Taos artist Ernest Blumenschein who was recalling many years later how profoundly affected he was upon his first sight of Taos and the region surrounding it. He was on foot and carrying the broken wagon wheel which had famously, and perhaps fortuitously, broken about 20 miles north of Taos, during a painting excursion with Bert Geer Phillips in 1898.

The second impression – less favorable but also vivid in its language – was written by Carlos Vierra shortly after his arrival to Santa Fe in 1904. Vierra is known as the first Anglo artist to settle in Santa Fe. As you can see, each artist responded to his surroundings in a very personal manner, yet their impressions of the region offer extraordinarily contrary views! Interestingly, it was these two artists who measured large in the founding of the artists’ communities of Taos and Santa Fe.

CONTINUED: Joseph Henry Sharp was the first artist of the soon-to-be Taos art colony to visit Taos in 1893 and on this preliminary trip had time to consider it as a possible painter's destination. He later described the town, the nearby Pueblo, and the local inhabitants to other artists, including Blumenschein and Phillips. When these two artists were traveling in the West in 1898, they planned to pass through the region, but their wagon wheel broke, forcing them to stop. They certainly recalled Sharp's words to them, but more importantly, the artists had a chance to see Taos and the region in sharper focus and quickly became smitten with the glories of the landscape and the richness of subject matter, human and otherwise. The region seemed to be imbued with all of the raw material they were seeking on their quest to create a uniquely American art. Taos became Phillips's immediate new home and Blumenschein's retreat and eventual home. Of the artists who followed them, only a select number were nominated and elected into the exclusive "Taos Society of Artists" that formed in 1915. In addition to Blumenschein, Sharp and Phillips, the additional founding artists were Oscar E. Berninghaus, Eanger Irving Couse, and W.H. "Buck" Dunton. The group expanded their number in a few short years, all the while exhibiting their Southwestern works around the country, helping to publicize the beauty and drama of Taos until their dissolution in 1927.

In contrast, when the young artist Carlos Vierra arrived in Santa Fe he was not looking for inspiring subject matter, but rather, medical attention. After being struck with severe respiratory disease in New York City, he traveled to the Southwest and soon checked himself in at the local sanatorium in downtown Santa Fe. The Southwest had become known as a place of final resort for the so-called "lungers," people afflicted with tuberculosis and other dire respiratory illnesses for which there were no cures. Santa Fe was blessed with the clear, dry air of its high altitude location at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. According to Vierra's letters to family members, he had no intention of remaining in Santa Fe longer than was absolutely necessary. He did not like the place, but he did need to regain his health. Oddly, once his condition improved, he stayed.

Carlos Vierra remained in Santa Fe until his death in 1937. For his work in the city he utilized his adaptable talents and developed skills in photography, architectural design and construction, in addition to his painting. He laid the groundwork, perhaps, for other artists who would eventually arrive in Santa Fe and would also adapt their skills, broaden their creative potential, to support themselves in this modest town of less than 10,000 people. The earliest artists to follow Vierra were Kenneth Chapman, Gerald Cassidy, Sheldon Parsons, the modernist Paul Burlin, and later William Penhallow Henderson. All but Burlin were drawn to the region because of respiratory disease.

Chapman developed tuberculosis in Chicago around 1898 and moved first to Las Vegas, New Mexico, before he arrived in Santa Fe in 1909. Similarly, Cassidy ventured to the Southwest from New York City before the turn of the century and when his health improved, he remained in the West. By the time New Mexico became a state in 1912, he decided to set up his studio in Santa Fe, the new capital city. Parsons was deathly ill when he arrived on the train from New York City with his twelve-year old daughter in 1913. William Penhallow Henderson came with his family to Santa Fe in 1916 so that his wife, Alice Corbin, could receive treatment for her tuberculosis at Sunmount Sanatorium. Only Paul Burlin, following his participation in New York's ground-breaking Armory Show of international avant-garde art in 1913, purposefully selected Santa Fe as the place to explore ideas for his artwork.

Unlike Taos then, the vast majority of Santa Fe's early artists were drawn for reasons other than "inspiration." But once they stayed, their enthusiasm for the town and the region grew beyond compare.

What helped to bring the two groups of artists together was the Museum of New Mexico, which was originally housed in Santa Fe's Palace of the Governors. Though the initial impetus for the museum was New Mexico history, since its founding in 1909 the museum also showcased art exhibits by regional artists. Art began to play a large role in the museum’s activities. The first such exhibit held at the Palace displayed the work of Warren E. Rollins in June of 1910. From that day forward the number of exhibits increased steadily. The very first issue of El Palacio, dated November 1913, included a notice about an exhibit of paintings by Ernest Blumenschein.

By the next October, 1914, El Palacio reported: “Three notable art exhibits were held in the Palace of the Governors, emphasizing the stress that the Museum of New Mexico places upon the development of art in the Southwest.” The first of these exhibits displayed paintings from private local collections including Couse, Phillips, Sharp, Blumenschein, Cassidy, Vierra, and Chapman. There was also a solo Blumenschein show featuring fourteen paintings. In addition, the issue noted that Joseph Henry Sharp had donated two paintings to the museum, one of which was “declared by connoisseurs to be almost priceless.”

Just two months later, it was declared in El Palacio that "non-progressive is the state or large city these days that does not possess an art museum or art gallery of some kind, open to the public. It is generally the first place the tourist seeks and that is the spot attracting most of the people at home, exerting a great influence in moulding the ideals and aspirations of the young." The exhibition of art was seen as a valuable resource to the city, its leaders now aware of its status as a U.S. state capital, and plans for a dedicated building for the display of art were already underway. Once the new building was constructed and inaugurated in November, 1917, as the museum's "Art Gallery" (now called the New Mexico Museum of Art), the number of artists drawn to both Taos and Santa Fe grew significantly. Santa Fe's Art Gallery became a catalyst for art in New Mexico and the rest is history, as they say.

By Stacia Lewandowski


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