Oscar E. Berninghaus

(1874 - 1952)

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A central figure of the Taos Society from its inception to its demise, Oscar E. Berninghaus was, unlike most of his Taos Society colleagues, a largely self - taught artist.  Berninghaus used his powers of observation, born primarily from his background in illustration, to record his surroundings with a journalistic sense of accuracy.  His diligence and attention to detail resulted in a realistic body of work that documents both the changes Pueblo culture underwent in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and the picturesque appeal of the region and its inhabitants.  

Born on October 24, 1874, in St. Louis, Missouri, Berninghaus developed an interest in watercolor as a child through his father’s lithography business.  During his time spent sketching the bustling Saint Louis riverfront, the young Berninghaus heard wild tales of western adventure from cowboys and trappers passing through.  By the age of twelve, he was an accomplished watercolorist with a head for business, and often sold his sketches of local scenes to newspapers and curious tourists.   In 1890 he quit school in favor of a job with the lithography company, Compton and Sons, where he acquired a technical knowledge of printmaking and engraving.   Three years later he joined the firm of Woodward and Tiernan, then one of the largest printing companies in the world.  He also enrolled in night classes at Washington University, and continued to paint and sketch in his spare time.  Despite his lack of European training (unlike his contemporaries Blumenschein, Phillips, Couse, and Sharp, Berninghaus never studied in Paris), these experiences, together with his own sense of self-discipline, instilled in him a lifelong respect for the academic principles of three-dimensional space, composition, and a convincing representation of human movement.   

Due to his rapidly growing reputation, in 1899 Berninghaus was hired by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to sketch the landscape of Colorado and New Mexico for propagandistic purposes.  Upon arriving in Taos, Berninghaus was captivated by the dominant Indian culture, as well as the austere landscape and the intense colors imposed upon it by the late afternoon light.  He also befriended Bert Phillips, a permanent resident since his accidental arrival in Taos the year before.  Although Berninghaus initially spent only a week in Taos, he returned nearly every summer.  These visits soon turned into six-month stays, and he finally settled there permanently in 1925.   For Berninghaus, Taos was a conduit for what he felt was a uniquely American expression: “We have had French, Dutch, Italian, and German art.  Now we have American art.  I feel that from Taos will come that art.”  

One of the six founding members of the Taos Society of Artists, Berninghaus was present at the historic first meeting in July of 1915, where he was elected temporary chairman. Berninghaus’ penchant for order and harmony, a chief quality of his work, also served the

Society well. During its twelve-year existence, Berninghaus spent more time in the difficult and painstaking office of Secretary than any other member.  Among his other contributions was a national reputation which added to the Society’s prestige; his continued association with Midwestern and eastern organizations including the Society of Western Artists, the Salmagundi Club, and the National Academy of Design made Berninghaus one of the more financially and critically successful members of the Taos Society of Artists.