Biography

A founding member of the famed Taos Society of Artists, Oscar Edmund Berninghaus captured the nomadic spirit of the American Southwest through the depiction of Native American culture, pioneer ambition, and expansive landscapes. For many years, Berninghaus remained tied between the primary inspiration for his artistic production, the Taos Pueblo tribe of New Mexico, and his native St. Louis, the serendipitous “Gateway to the West.” Berninghaus, born in 1874, showed an early talent for art and discovered its commercial potential in his youth by sketching on-site at local events and selling the drawings to newspapers. At age sixteen he began an apprenticeship at the Woodward and Tiernan Printing Company where he learned technical skills in lithography and engraving. He also attended night classes at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts and Washington University.

Berninghaus first visited Taos in 1899 while working as a commercial artist for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, traveling atop a chair secured to the baggage car by railroad workers in order to get the best views. En route from Alamosa to Santa Fe, he was charmed by a week’s stay in Taos and further convinced of its virtue by painter Bert Geer Phillips, who aspired to bring artists into the area. In the year following this trip, the twenty-five year old Berninghaus held his first solo exhibition at the Frank D. Healy Galleries of St. Louis, where the show of watercolors, oils, sketches, and drawings documented his time in Taos. That same year Berninghaus celebrated his marriage to Emelia Miller. He continued to work as a freelance commercial artist and taught drawing in St. Louis, but took regular sketching and painting trips to Taos. Following his wife’s death in 1913, Berninghaus and his two children continued to travel between the two environments as the school calendar allowed, and son Charles eventually became a painter of the Southwest himself. Berninghaus supported his family with steady patronage from the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, who commissioned Western-themed works for their advertisements. In 1914 the company published the promotional booklet Epoch Marking Events of American History: A Series of Historical Pictures, painted by O. E. Berninghaus. The Busch family acquired a number of his paintings, and in the 1970s donated roughly fifty works to the St. Louis Art Museum. 

In 1912, the same year New Mexico reached statehood, Berninghaus began to align himself with fellow artists Ernest Blumenschein, W. Herbert Dunton, E. Irving Couse, Joseph Henry Sharp, and Bert G. Phillips. Including Berninghaus, these six artists formed the charter members of the Taos Society of Artists in 1915, creating a sales cooperative designed to promote their touring group exhibitions in the absence of local opportunities. Within months of the society’s inception over one hundred artists had made the pilgrimage to Taos. The first such group of note in the American West, the Taos artists’ colony was highly praised and many of its members, including Berninghaus, joined the National Academy of Design. Berninghaus was additionally a recipient of the National Academy’s Ranger Fund Prize in 1925 and the Altman prize in 1926. His success was a unique achievement among the group, given his less extensive and wholly American training in contrast to his peers’ prestigious European salon educations. Berninghaus was also set apart by the extent of his access to the Taos Indian community, which enabled him to observe the kivas of the Pueblo, various dances and rituals, and the nuances of day-to-day life. During a period of expanding commercialization his paintings gave a quiet and intimate reflection of the preservation of tradition, but also made allusions to newer ambitions and the impact of modernization. Nomadic life remained a common theme in the works, ranging between serene horse-bound figures and lively stagecoach travels, all framed by their vast surroundings. Majestic in composition and daring in color, his paintings above all convey the lyrical beauty of the environment.

 

In 1925 Berninghaus made a permanent move to the old adobe house near Taos he had purchased six years prior.  He remarried in 1932 to Winifred Shuler, a courier guide who worked in car tours of the Southwest. In the 1930s the artist’s talent was put to use in public spaces, producing the mural Border Gateways for the Fort Scott, Kansas, post office, and panels in the Phoenix, Arizona, post office and courthouse.  Berninghaus continued to paint into his advanced age using the subject matter that had enthralled him for decades, but now relied on years of accumulated images rather than in-studio models. This later process was befitting of an artist who maintained, “The Painter must first see his picture as paint-as color-as form-and not as a landscape or a figure. He must see with his inner eye then paint with feeling, not with seeing.” [1] Three days after suffering a heart attack, Berninghaus died in Taos at the age of seventy-seven on April 27, 1952. As one who firmly believed the art of Taos to be a defining moment in the conception of American art, the artist’s own works are potent visions of the American Southwest landscape and the lives of its inhabitants.

 

Written by Zenobia Grant Wingate


Footnotes:
[1] Peggy Samuels, Harold Samuels, Joan Samuels, and Daniel Fabian. Techniques of the Artists of the American West. Secaucus, NJ: The Wellfleet Press, 1990. 15.