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Walter Ufer

(1876 - 1936)

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Biography

One of Walter Ufer’s many contributions as a member of the Taos Society was an honest, tactile representation of Pueblo life and culture - the result of his German heritage and training, his affinity with contemporary American Realism, and his sensitivity to the tension inherent in the gradual absorption of one culture by another.  Ufer was both a humanitarian and political radical whose belief in labor rights and security extended to artists.  Less romanticized than those of Couse or Phillips, Ufer’s Taos pictures often contain subtle social commentary that may be explained in part by his egalitarian views.     

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1876, Ufer’s father was a German emigrant who apprenticed his son to a local commercial lithographer after recognizing his nascent talent for drawing.  Ufer left Lexington (which he thought a “dull tobacco and whiskey town”) for Germany in 1893, where he studied in Hamburg and at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden.  Although he was to make several more excursions to Germany over the next twenty years, Ufer settled in Chicago in 1900, the cosmopolitan outlet of the midwest.  There he earned a living by working in advertising and teaching art at the J. Francis Smith School.  In 1911 Ufer returned to Germany for two years of further study at the Royal Academy in Munich, where he worked alongside Victor Higgins and Martin Hennings, both fellow artists from Chicago. 

Ufer returned to Chicago in 1913, where he initially struggled to make his way as a professional artist.  Fortunately, his work soon attracted the attention of Carter H. Harrison, who was then serving his fifth term as Mayor.  Harrison bought two works at Ufer’s first one man sale, and encouraged Ufer to visit New Mexico.  Towards the end of the summer of 1914, Ufer left for Taos, where he became acquainted with Buck Dunton, Bert Phillips, and Joseph Sharp.  When he returned to Chicago later that year, he was full of enthusiasm for Taos, and initiated a correspondence with his future associates in New Mexico. During this visit Ufer also gained the patronage of Oscar Mayer and Charles Herrmann, both of whom would become important collectors of his work.  The following summer he brought his wife, Mary, with him, and as his summers in New Mexico lengthened, so did his associations with the Taos Society members.  In August of 1916 he was invited to show with the Taos Society in a Santa Fe exhibition, and at the annual meeting on July 15, 1917, he was elected to membership along with Victor Higgins. An active member until the Society’s demise in 1927, Ufer was strongly associated with the group and painted southwestern subjects almost exclusively after 1919. 

The effect New Mexico had upon Ufer is discernable in his light-filled palette, and strong use of shadow.  His Taos scenes reflect a genuine interest in the predicament facing Pueblo culture as it headed towards a crossroads.  Often shown in western dress, Ufer’s Indian subjects are depicted as succumbing to the forces of modernization without enjoying the benefits - a form of social realism forged from his political agenda of solidarity, his German education, and his commitment to recording the painful effects of such a difficult transition.