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Oscar Berninghaus

 (1874 - 1952)
Oscar Edmund Berninghaus was active/lived in New Mexico, Missouri, Kansas.  Oscar Berninghaus is known for landscape and genre painting, illustration.

Oscar Berninghaus

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Oscar Berninghaus
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". (Gerdts 254)

He was born in St. Louis, Missouri and developed an interest in art through his family's lithography business. He attended night classes at the St. Louis School of Fine Art. In 1898, he was on an illustration assignment for "McClure's" magazine, which took him for the first of many times into New Mexico and Arizona. He had heard of the special beauty of Taos and there met Bert Geer Phillips, who was already a resident, and Phillips invited him to return.

This visit began a tradition of spending the winter months in St. Louis and the summers in Taos. He remained active in both communities, and for many years designed the costumes and floats for the Veiled Prophet parade, a famous annual event in St. Louis.

He also did a series of western scenes commissioned by the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association to promote a manly, ruggedness theme in their products and to enhance their image as good Americans, an image that was being attacked by suffragettes. In this capacity and without visiting the area, Berninghaus did a painting titled "Old Faithful, Yellowstone" in 1914, which was used as a calendar illustration in the series.

Berninghaus was a sketch artist for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to depict landscape of Colorado and New Mexico. In 1912, he joined the founding members of the Taos Society of Artists, whose goal was to promote sales of their work in Taos and other markets. In 1919, he bought an old adobe house near Taos overlooking the town and in 1925 settled there permanently.

He did some painting in surrounding states including Phoenix, Arizona in 1931, where he painted a five lunette mural at the Post Office building of the opening of the west.

His style was one of short, quick brush strokes, which gave his work a unique texture. Early in his career, he painted on site, but later from memory, which was described as being extremely accurate. One of the reasons he was committed to the Taos Art Colony was that he believed it was a distinctly American art, something definitive of subject matter unique to this country. He depicted Indians in a realistic, unromaticized way, going about their lives as they actually did in twentieth-century New Mexico.

Michael David Zellman, "300 Years of American Art"
Peggy and Harold Samuels, "Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West"
Peter Hassrick, "Drawn to Yellowstone"
William Gerdts, "American Impressionism"

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Oscar Berninghaus
Born St. Louis, MO, Oct. 2, 1874; died Taos, NM, April 27, 1952. Painter, specialized in western subjects. Illustrator. Muralist. Lithographer. Began working as a lithographer in 1890. Attended night classes in the Art Dept. of Washington University, St. Louis.

Visited Taos regularly then settled there in 1925. Painted several 23 murals for the Federal Works Agency including the enormous 8' x 20' mural, Border Gateways, in the federal courtroom in the Post Office Building in Ft. Scott in 1937. Many of Berninghaus's papers are available in the New Mexico State Library.

Susan Craig, "Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945)"
Samuels, Peggy. Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1976., Peggy. Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1976.; American Art Annual. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1898-1947 14, 20, 22, 24, 26; NMAA files; Who’s Who in American Art. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1936- v.1=1936-37 v.3= 1941-42 v.2=1938-39 v.4=1940-47. 1); Midwestern Artists’ Exhibition (Kansas City: Kansas City Art Institute, 1920-1942 Mines, Cynthia. For the Sake of Art: The Story of an Art Movement in Kansas. s.l. Mines, 1979.) 1925; Clark, Eliot. History of the National Academy of Design, 1825-1953. New York: Columbia University Press, 1954.; Sanders, Gordon E. Oscar E. Berninghaus, Taos New Mexico: Master Painter of American Indians and the Frontier West. (Taos: Taos Heritage Publishing Co., 1985); Bruner, Ronald Irwin. New Deal Art Workers in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. Thesis. University of Denver, 1979.

This and over 1,750 other biographies can be found in Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945) compiled by Susan V. Craig, Art & Architecture Librarian at University of Kansas.

Biography from The Owings Gallery
Oscar E. Berninghaus, born on October 2, 1874, displayed his inclination for art at an early age. Throughout his youth he constantly sketched and experimented with watercolors. At the age of 16 "Bern" as he was called, quit school to work for a lithography company. His job provided him with the technical knowledge of printing, lithography, color separation, poster art and engraving. The exacting needs of this aspect of commercial art would serve the young artist well, for it was his masterful draftsmanship that gave strength to his later creative work.

In order to refine his skills, Bern later attended night classes at the School of Fine Arts in St. Louis. In 1899 Berninghaus received an important commission that would change the direction of his art forever. The Denver and Rio Grand Railroad hired him to come West to sketch and produce watercolors of the mountain scenery, people and villages in order to attract Easterners to their part of the country. It was during this journey that Berninghaus encountered the magic of Taos for the first time. He later recalled, "I stayed here but a week, became infected with the Taos germ and promised myself a longer stay…" Berninghaus was inspired by his brief Taos experience.

He was moved by the special light, feeling the air itself was filled with pigment. He knew he would have to master oils, for only then could he control the texture and mass of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Back in St. Louis, Oscar Berninghaus spent the last few months of the 19th century developing his craft - painting. He had decided to make a career as a painter, and especially a painter of the American Frontier - the Indians, the mountains and life in the West.In 1900, at the age of 25, Berninghaus had his first one man show at the Frank D. Healy Galleries in St. Louis. The show consisted of watercolors, two oils and several sketches and drawings, most of them from his brief visit to Taos.

That same year Berninghaus returned to Taos, this time spending the entire summer, sketching and painting the Pueblo and the Indians. He returned to St. Louis with several paintings, many of which were reproduced in the St. Louis Star Illustrated with an article on the artist. Along with other flattering commentary, the columnist noted that, "Mr. O.E. Berninghaus, although a young man, has gained the reputation as a painter of American Indians. He ranks among the foremost of Indian painters of the country."

Berninghaus continued to return to Taos almost every summer for the next twenty-five years. As early as 1905, his work received critical acclaim in the newspapers of such far away cities as New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Some writers were already comparing him to Frederic Remington. Berninghaus was beginning to realize that for him the Indians of Taos Pueblo were great subjects. He viewed Indians as peaceful and productive people. He became a good friend to the Taos Indians and was one of the few white men allowed into the kivas of the Pueblo. He would learn their rituals and custom, but would paint only what the Indians thought proper. He felt a sense of history and wanted to preserve it accurately for future generations, and at the same time respect that which was sacred to them.

His affection for the Pueblo Indians is obvious in such masterpieces as Autumn Days (1924) which won the St. Louis Artists' Guild prize and Their Son (1924) which was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York.In the summer of 1915 the famous Taos Society of artists was officially organized. Berninghaus was one of the founding members, along with Joseph Sharp, Bert Phillips, Ernest Blumenschein, Irving Couse and Herbert Dunton.

There were no galleries in Taos at the time, thus the Society was formed to promote the sale of paintings by its members through traveling exhibitions. The TSA was an instant success. The shows traveled to all the major art cities in America and received enormous publicity throughout the country. Replacements for sold pictures were being crated up and shipped out of Taos every week.Berninghaus' method of revealing truth through his canvases remained fundamentally the same throughout his long career. His was an attitude of objectivity, both as a craftsman skilled in detailed rendering and as a thinking artist with a distinct philosophic attitude.

The artist was little affected by the trends of the outside world, much like Taos itself. He watched the different art movements come and go: the fauves, Cubists, futurists, Dadaists, surrealists, etc. To Berninghaus they were all valid in their own way. He neither approved nor disapproved, nor did he change his approach because of them. He preferred to remain true to his original style and to his subjects - the Pueblo Indians and his beloved New Mexico landscape.

Author Van Deren Coke wrote of Berninghaus, "There is much to ponder and study in the technical mastery behind this man's seemingly straightforward and easily grasped subject matter. How an artist uses his formal facility to reach various levels of meaning often is misunderstood and overlooked. The simple and clear part of Berninghaus' art also conceals a true psychological understanding of his major subject, the Pueblo Indians.

Unlike some of his associates in Taos, Berninghaus' sophisticated early illustrative style was used as a frame to hold his spectators' attention, while he slowly unfolded his observations of the inner truth surrounding the life of a twentieth-century Taos Indian."In 1925, Oscar Berninghaus moved permanently to New Mexico. At the age of 51, with a great deal of success and recognition to his credit he would finally be able to experience Taos in the winter and early spring. Two years later the Taos Society of Artists was formally dissolved as it had outlived its usefulness. By that time, each of its members had already gained sufficient reputations on their own and no longer needed to exhibit in the group shows.

Berninghaus continued to paint in Taos until the time of his death. For most of the years he painted models from life and landscapes from nature. In later years, however, his repertoire of stored images was so large that he was able to paint from memory as accurately as he used to from sketching.

Oscar Berninghaus died at the age of 77 on April 27, 1952, three days after suffering a heart attack. Following the funeral, artist Rebecca James told a local Taos newspaper. "The body of his work is 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."

Biography from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery
When Oscar Berninghaus succumbed to the effects of a crippling heart attack on April 27, 1952, a certain period of Southwestern Art effectively ended with him. One of the leading figures of the Taos Society of Artists and an artist whose success was hard-won, his passing represented the beginning of the end for the original painters of Taos and New Mexico.  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."

Born in 1874 in St. Louis, "The Gateway to the West," Berninghaus would not have been a likely candidate for laureate of an important American art movement.  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.

On his way south from Alamosa to Sante Fe, Berninghaus made a friend who would turn out to be an important friend and ally for him later in life: Bert Geer Phillips.  Phillips convinced Berninghaus to travel with him to Taos.  Phillips had discovered Taos accidentally during an aborted trip to Mexico with Ernest Blumenschein the year before, and was still in the process of recruiting other artists to come and paint the landscapes of people of the region.  While Berninghaus stayed only a week in Taos the first time, it was the beginning of a fruitful relationship, as he would spend incrementally more time there every year for the next quarter century, before moving there permanently in 1925.

The light and landscape of the region captivated Berninghaus and, even when wintering in St. Louis, the sights and scenes of Taos were his primary subject matter.  This ability to paint what he could not see in front of him, as he did when painting Taos natives from his studio, was both an intellectual conceit and a hard-earned talent picked up on sketching trips.  Berninghaus believed that art was an emotional exercise, not a representational one. "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."  To achieve this effect, Berninghaus took liberties with color and form in his pieces, omitting details when he desired and painting impressionist riffs on the landscape in the background at times.

In 1915, Berninghaus became a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists, one of the more important formal groups of American artists.  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.

It was also a financial boon to many of the Taos artists, who were able to sell many paintings to railroads, travel companies and large corporations in order to fund their fine art endeavors.  Berninghaus was lucky enough to have a major account with Anheuser-Busch, whose steady patronage was a great help to him economically, allowing him to rent space in two different cities and, eventually, to move out of St. Louis entirely.

His relationship with the Pueblo Indians in the area was also a crucial element of his success.  He had access to the Pueblo above and beyond almost every other artist in the area.  He had a number of true friends within the Taos Indian community and was actually allowed within the kivas of the Pueblo, an honor usually not extended to white men.  In exchange for access, the Taos Indians had a degree of control over Berninghaus' compositions, allowing him to paint the dances and rituals they felt it was appropriate to reproduce.

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.  He died in 1952, leaving behind a body of work that is much sought-after today.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, I
Biography photo for Oscar Berninghaus
Oscar Berninghaus was an illustrator whose life and career were completely transformed by his contact with Taos. Unlike most of his fellow artists in the Society, his artistic training was somewhat brief. Berninghaus was born and raised in St. Louis, and in 1893, he obtained a job with a major printing house, learning the skills of draftsmanship and design associated with the lithographic process. He also enrolled in night classes at Washington University where he studied the elements of drawing and composition.

In 1899, he received a commission from the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to journey to Colorado and New Mexico to make sketches for travel literature. On his way south from Alamosa to Santa Fe he discovered Taos, met Bert Phillips, and stayed there a week. He claimed in later life that the experience made him want to become an independent artist, and there is no doubt that on his return to St. Louis, he worked towards that goal. He began painting western subjects in oil and watercolor, and in 1900 spent the first of many subsequent summers in Taos. Like several of the other artists, Berninghaus initially regarded Taos as a picturesque source of inspiration, rather than as a permanent home. By 1913, he was spending half of each year in New Mexico.

Berninghaus once stated "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 an inner eye, then paint with feeling, not with seeing." In every respect, Berninghaus' paintings emphasize what the artist had said concerning the need to achieve an emotional level in one's work. Certainly, the vivid, expressive color and turbulent forms and textures of his work, make him one of the most notable examples of his contemporaries.

ReSources include: The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier, Dr. Rick Stewart, Hawthorne Publishing Company, 1986

Biography from Thomas Nygard Gallery
The son of a lithograph salesman, Oscar Berninghaus was educated in St. Louis grammar schools. Even then he sold spot news sketches to the local newspapers. In the tradition of an earlier era of painters, he began work in lithography in 1889 and as a printing apprentice in 1893. Meanwhile, he attended night classes at St. Louis Society of Fine Arts for three terms. Established first as an illustrator and then as a largely self-taught fine artist, he was in the course of getting his first one-man show in St. Louis in 1899.

That year he was the guest of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad on a junket to Colorado. Intrigued by tales of Taos, New Mexico he made a brief side trip twenty-five miles by wagon to the still-untouched village. He returned to Taos each summer after that staying for longer and longer periods until he settled there permanently in 1925.

A member of the prestigious Taos Society of Artists, he created paintings that were of the Pueblo Indians, the Spanish Americans, the adobes and the mountains, generally with at least one horse. With his practice as a lithographic artist and illustrator, his approach was direct and objective, showing the Indians as they were rather than posed or nostalgic stereotypes.

His technique was to work out of doors, painting on the scene. After he moved to Taos, his style became more modern. His compositions were more complex, his colors richer, and frequently he painted from memory at his easel within his studio.

Known as one of the greatest Taos pioneer painters, his works are highly sought after today and are held by many important private and museum collections including the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, Museum of New Mexico, Philbrook Art Center, City Art Museum St. Louis, Gilcrease Museum, the Eiteljorg Collection and the Anschutz collection.

Biography from Nedra Matteucci Galleries
Biography photo for Oscar Berninghaus

Oscar E. Berninghaus began his career in his native St. Louis as a commercial lithographer. In 1899, as a reward for his hard work in taking night classes at Washington University and at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, he was given a month's paid vacation and provided with free passage to the West by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. While visiting Taos, Berninghaus met Bert Phillips, who became a lifelong friend, and was inspired to join the new Taos artist's colony.

Berninghaus established a seasonal rhythm based on his family's needs, spending winters in St. Louis pursuing a successful career as a commercial artist and summers in Taos painting the Native Americans, their horses and the landscape. These candid paintings of Taos earned him great respect among the other artists. Though residing in St. Louis, he became a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists in 1915 and sent his paintings on tour with their traveling exhibitions. Successful accounts, especially Anheuser-Busch, allowed him to settle in Taos permanently in 1925.

Berninghaus received the 1924 Ranger Fund Prize and the 1926 Second Altman Prize from the National Academy of Design. He also belonged to the National Society of Mural Painters and the Salmagundi Club. Berninghaus' paintings are often set in spring and fall, when the amazing colors of the region are at their strongest. His beautifully rendered paintings offer a vision of Taos unburdened by romantic aspirations.

Biography from The Coeur d'Alene Art Auction
Biography photo for Oscar Berninghaus
Oscar E. Berninghaus, ANA (1874-1952) was born in St. Louis, Missouri and began his art training as an apprentice lithographer. Following that, he worked for a large St. Louis printing firm, attending night classes at Washington University.

In 1899, at the age of twenty-five, Berninghaus made his first visit to Taos, New Mexico. Although his reputation as a skilled illustrator was already established in St. Louis, this trip to Taos was the beginning of his national reputation. He returned to Taos each year for longer and longer visits. In 1912, when the Taos Society of Artists was formed, he was one of the six charter members. In 1919, he bought an old adobe house on the Loma and by 1925, the family had established year-round residence in Taos.

In the mid-twenties, Berninghaus abruptly changed his style, resulting in richer pigmentation, more intricate composition and lending an abstract quality. His paintings reflect a true psychological insight into the life of the twentieth century Indian. He depicted the West in a simple, direct style supported by splendid draftsmanship.The Anheuser-Busch Company of St. Louis, for whom he did advertising art over a period of many years, commissioned him to do a series of historical paintings which they published in 1914. The originals are on display in that company's offices.

Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art
Biography photo for Oscar Berninghaus
Oscar Berninghaus was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where he studied art in night classes. While a young man, Berninghaus first visited Taos, New Mexico, where he would later help found the Taos Society of Artists.

Berninghaus had trained as an illustrator, and his paintings often have the straight-forward look of his commercial work. He painted without romantic embellishment, preferring to depict the Native Americans as they honestly appeared in day to day, 20th century life.

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About  Oscar Berninghaus

Born:  1874 - St. Louis, Missouri
Died:   1952 - Taos, New Mexico
Known for:  landscape and genre painting, illustration