Tracks on the Trail signed 'O.E. Berninghaus' (lower right) oil on canvas 25 x 30in overall: 32 1/2 x 37 1/2in
PROVENANCE: With Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York, New York Private collection, Rancho Mirage, California
Oscar Berninghaus was born in St. Louis, Missouri and developed an interest in art through his family's lithography business. In 1898, while on an illustration assignment for McClure's magazine he made the first of what was to become many trips to New Mexico and Arizona. Berninghaus heard of the magnificence of Taos through Bert Geer Phillips. This 1898 visit inaugurated a tradition of spending winter months in St. Louis and summers in Taos. He remained active in both locations for many years.
Berninghaus was a sketch artist for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, employed to depict the landscape of Colorado and New Mexico. In 1912, he joined the founding members of the Taos Society of Artists. Seven years later he bought an old adobe house near Taos overlooking the town and in 1925 settled there permanently.
Berninghaus has a distinctive style of short, quick brush strokes, which give his work a unique texture. 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 and unique to this country". He depicted Indians in a realistic, un-romaticized way, going about their daily lives in New Mexico. As with his fellow Taos painters, he was interested in capturing an authentic look at the vanishing Indian culture.
When Berninghaus succumbed to the effects of a crippling heart attack on April 27, 1952, a 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."
Berninghaus 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 were appropriate to reproduce.