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Bert Geer Phillips

(1868 - 1956)

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Biography

Bert Phillips’ penchant for rural, pastoral settings can be traced to his earliest known paintings, executed during his student days in New York.  While studying in Europe he likewise gravitated towards the Barbizon School, which emphasized the morality believed to be inherent in an agrarian lifestyle. These tendencies carried over to Phillips’ work in Taos as well.  Painted in traditional dress and shown relaxing, dancing, or engaged in ritual pursuits, Phillips’ Indians lead a romantic, ideal existence untouched by time or anglo civilization. 

Bert Phillips was born in the industrial town of Hudson, New York in 1868.  He later recalled of his childhood that he could always be found with a brush in hand, and when George McKinstry opened an art studio in Hudson around 1884, Phillips was among the first to enroll.  Other early influences on Phillips were the tales of Indians and western adventure found in James Fenimore Coopers’ Leatherstocking Tales, and the exploits of the famous Indian agent Kit Carson.  At the age of sixteen, Phillips left home for New York City, where he studied at the Art Student’s League and the National Academy of Design before leaving for England in 1894.  From London he soon went to Paris to study at the Académie Julian, where he befriended Ernest Blumenschein and Joseph Sharp.  After his return to New York in 1896 Phillips rented a studio with Blumenschein, who convinced him to journey West in the summer of 1898.  The artists made their way to Denver, where they outfitted themselves with horses, a wagon, camping and art supplies, and a large Navy revolver, and then headed for Mexico.  When they broke a wagon wheel on the rough terrain of northern New Mexico, Phillips waited with their equipment while Blumenschein set out on horseback to have the wheel repaired in nearby Taos.  Blumenschein returned three days later, and the two continued on to Taos, where they sold their wagon, harness, and remaining horse, and “pitched into work with unknown enthusiasm.”[1]  Although Blumenschein returned to New York three months later, Phillips decided to stay permanently.

Phillips was intrigued by the rough history of Taos, which had been home to his boyhood hero Kit Carson and legendary conflicts such as the Taos rebellion and massacre of 1847.  Phillips’ ambition  to live the western adventures he had read about might have been among the causes of a struggle that ensued after he and a friend refused to remove their hats during a religious ceremony on the plaza.  The incident resulted in the death of the sheriff and increased tension between the anglo and Hispanic residents of Taos.  Phillips, however, was excited by the dangerous turn of events, as he enthusiastically related in a letter to Blumenschein: “I began to feel as if this was real ‘border life,’ and only wish old Kit Carson was here with us.”  

In addition to real adventure, Phillips found an unlimited source of subject matter in the mountain landscape and colorful Indian culture which surrounded him in Taos.  In 1899, he married Rose Martin, the sister of the local doctor, and began corresponding with Blumenschein in New York about forming an art colony.  Always willing to make arrangements for visiting artists, Phillips played an instrumental role in the growth of Taos as an artistic center, and was a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists in 1915.  His taste for drama may have also been the source of the romantic, poetic nature of much of his art.  To Phillips, who spent more years in the town than any other member of the Taos Society,  Taos was a place where “a distinctive American art idea should develop on a soil so imbued with romance, history, and scenic beauty.”