In New Mexico, especially if you’re an art historian, the names Bert and Ernie may not put you immediately in mind of the popular Sesame Street characters as readily as they will the names of painters Bert Phillips (1868-1956) and Ernest Blumenschein (1874-1960). The artists, two of the founding members of the Taos Society of Artists, arrived in New Mexico in 1898. They were here on the advice of their friend and contemporary, painter Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953), whose passionate descriptions of New Mexico inspired them to visit. But they were only passing through, traveling by horse-drawn wagon from Denver en route to Mexico. Outside of Taos, so the story goes, a wagon wheel broke on rough ground. The two artists, forced to stop in town for a blacksmith, remained, seduced by Taos’ scenic landscapes, humble people, and rustic lifestyle. Phillips went on to make Taos his permanent home, and Blumenschein, who initially stayed for only a few months and later spent his summers in Taos, moved there permanently in 1919. But the adventure of the wagon wheel became a defining moment in the founding of the Taos art colony. “I only exist because the wagon wheel broke,” Margo Beutler Gins, Taos resident and Phillips’ great-granddaughter, told Pasatiempo.
In addition to Phillips and Blumenschein, the founding members of the Taos Society of Artists, known as the Taos Six, included Sharp, E. Irving Couse (1866-1936), Oscar Berninghaus (1874-1952), and William Herbert “Buck” Dunton (1878-1936). The Taos Six is the subject of a new, primarily photo-based exhibit at the E. L. Blumenschein Home and Museum in Taos. Founding Visionaries: The Taos Six and Their Families, opening Friday, Aug. 5, features rare and never-before-seen photographs and artwork, some of which comes from the collections of the Taos Society members’ living relatives. “There are actually five of us, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who live here in Taos,” said Beutler Gins. “Virginia Couse, who of course is Irving Couse’s granddaughter, lives here. Barbara Brenner, who is Berninhaus’ granddaughter, is here. On my side of the family, I am the only one left that was born in Taos.” Beutler Gins is also president of the board of directors for Taos Historic Museums, which oversees the Blumenschein Home as well as the Hacienda de los Martinez, a late Spanish colonial structure built in 1804 that marked the end of the Camino Real, linking Northern New Mexico to Mexico City. “We’re an individual entity, a nonprofit,” she said. “I would like these museums to be self-sustaining for generations to come.”
“When Bert and Blumy first got to Taos, they rented a room in what became R.C. Gorman’s gallery at the end of Ledoux Street,” Beutler Gins continued. Phillips married Rose Martin, sister of physician and art patron Thomas “Doc” Martin. Blumenschein, meanwhile, returned to Paris to study again at the Académie Julian — his second time attending the school — where he had first met Phillips and Sharp in 1894. This time, he met artist and illustrator Mary Shepard Greene and married her in 1905. They moved to New York City in 1909 to raise their daughter Helen. On their regular visits to New Mexico, according to Beutler Gins, the Blumenscheins stayed in four of the rooms of an 11-room home they shared with two other families, but they eventually acquired all the rooms for themselves. A portion of the house, located near the Harwood Museum on Ledoux Street, dates to 1797, making it among the oldest structures in Taos. The house’s layout has remained virtually unchanged since 1931.
The exhibit offers a glimpse of how the Blumenscheins lived. Personal belongings, paintings, photographs, and other ephemera that belonged to the family compose much of what is on display. A selection of Mary Blumenschein’s illustrations based on tales from The Arabian Nights fills one wall. Most of the Taos Six had backgrounds as illustrators, including Ernest Blumenschein. When they were living in Paris, Ernest and Mary even collaborated on illustrations for U.S. publications. Ernest designed covers for stories by American novelist Jack London. Mary’s work appeared in Collier’s and The American Magazine, but she was also an accomplished oil painter and portraitist. “Mary Greene Blumenschein was actually better, in my opinion, than Ernest Blumenschein,” said Beutler Gins. “But because of the time and the way society worked, when they finally moved to Taos, he insisted that she not paint.”
It took some convincing from Ernest to get his wife to relocate to Taos on a permanent basis. In terms of modern conveniences, Taos in the early 20th century was primitive. Their home was the first one in Taos to be wired for electricity.
“Blumy was a little cranky,” Beutler Gins said, again referring to Blumenschein by his nickname. “Mr. Couse kind of looked like Santa Claus, and he had that personality. He was jolly and happy. And he was a great artist. Sharp was completely deaf. He probably had the best mind for business. The Taos Society of Artists was a business venture.” There were no formal galleries in Taos, and artists opened their studios and organized group shows in order to get their work seen. But they stood to gain little or no money from sales of artwork unless they maintained connections in other cities, shipping works by train to venues in big cities like New York and Chicago. “For about five years, they did very well — and what I mean by ‘very well’ is that they were making a living.”
The Taos Society of Artists may not have had the national impact of the Hudson River School, but the group is no less iconic, particularly in terms of its regional themes. “The Hudson school is truly American,” said Beutler Gins. “And I believe the Taos Society of Artists is not as significant, but maybe second or third in American art.” Focused interest by art historians on 20th-century modernism in New Mexico bears this out. The Taos Society laid the groundwork for a series of significant historic moments that followed, including the arrival of the Taos Moderns, several of whom founded the Transcendental Painting Group. “One of my missions here is to make sure their legacy is preserved,” Beutler Gins said. “They were important to what came after — which is Georgia O’Keeffe, which is Emil Bisttram.”
Founding Visionaries’ emphasis on family life — a story told through photographs — reflects aspects of Beutler Gins’ own family heritage and upbringing. “Mary Blumenschein was very good friends with my grandmother, Margo Phillips Beutler. I knew their daughter Helen as a child. She was a good printmaker. Every one of us who grew up in Taos, we all knew how to hunt, fish, shoot a gun, ride a horse. For my generation, and I was born in ’61, that was just our way of life. But what’s dear to my heart is the original Taos Six. My great-grandfather sat on the first board at the Harwood Museum. What I find special about this particular location is that this is where the families are, at least those of us who are left.” ◀