ART OF THE SOUTHWEST

Oscar Edmund (O.E.) Berninghaus

American, 1874-1952

Biography

A founder in 1898 of the Taos Society of Artists, Oscar Berninghaus excelled at drawing animals and figures in contemporary garb in Southwestern landscapes. Many of his early paintings were Impressionistic, “suffused with color and light”.

 

At 16, he began working in a printing house in St. Louis, where he learned the technical skills required to make lithographs and engravings. At the same time he was working there, he was also attending night classes at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, trying to improve his own artistic skills to a level where he could produce rather than process the commercial work handled in the printing shop. The School of Fine Arts led to the more prestigious Washington University in St. Louis and, in 1899, Berninghaus received his first major commission, a series of pieces for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s travel literature for New Mexico and Colorado. In 1915, Berninghaus became a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists, one of the most important formal groups of American artists ever. Along with Berninghaus, Phillips, Blumenschein, Buck Dunton, E.I. Couse and J.H. Sharp all joined this group, whose aim was to market their artwork in traveling exhibitions, as there were no galleries in Taos to sell their work at the time. The traveling shows were a great success, and galleries in many American cities drew significant crowds to the work of these artists, whose combination of technical, academic skill and a sympathetic approach to the exotic people and landscapes of New Mexico were of great interest to the urban populace of the day.

 

Berninghaus lived year-round in Taos for twenty-seven years, painting hundreds of pictures of the mountains, forests and people of the area. By the end of his career, he was able to paint without visual aids, creating portraits of people long since aged or dead from memory. At 77, he was one of the elder statesmen of the New Mexico art community, whose body of work, in the words of artist Rebecca James, was “a magnificent document of the Southwest, painted as no one else has put down in this country. It is suffused with tenderness, is straight and tough as a pine tree, strong as a verb.” He died in 1952, leaving behind a body of work that is much sought-after today.