How the Santa Fe Art Colony Began

Today's arts tapestry in Santa Fe has a rich history

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When "Anglo" artists began to settle in the Santa Fe area in the opening years of the twentieth century, they discovered a mother lode of images, esthetics and amenities. The main draw was the landscape. It was, and is, a matchless blend of shape, color and light. Its proportions are majestic, yet its scale is human.

These artists were charmed by the native inhabitants, who had lived in the surrounding pueblos for centuries. Their culture was beautiful to see and to paint, and their own artistic heritage was evident in pottery, weaving and architecture. A more recent society, the Spanish colonists who had settled the area in the sixteenth century, had brought in their own European traditions of furniture, wood carving, embroidery, tinwork and painted embellishments.

Finally, there were the Taos Founders who had arrived at the end of the nineteenth century. They formed a cohesive group of educated Easterners in a tiny, remote village seventy miles north of Santa Fe. They preceded the early Santa Fe artists by only a couple of decades. In many ways, their arrivals overlapped, for there was much cultural interchange between the village of Taos and the provincial capital of Santa Fe, and many artists visited both places before settling in one or the other.

Both groups consisted largely of artists who already had a considerable reputation before they came West. They were not entirely cut off from their Eastern markets, for many of them divided their time or made annual trips, thus importing New Mexico to the East Coast as well as exporting their talents to the frontier. John Sloan, one of several who had exhibited at the famed Armory Show of 1913 in New York, established a home on Garcia Street off Canyon Road and spent every summer for twenty years, while continuing to teach in New York in the winter.

Santa Fe Art Colony: Group at La Fonda

Art Gallery at La Fonda in the Spring of 1933
L to R: Carlos Vierra, Datus Myers
Sheldon Parsons, Theodore Van Soelen
Gerald Cassidy, Will Schuster.
Museum of New New Mexico remote

Randall Davey, another Armory Show exhibitor, established a permanent residence high up Canyon Road where it enters the wilderness. He left it to the Audubon Society, where today's visitors may enjoy exhibits and nature trails in a spectacular setting. He, too, had taught in New York as well as Chicago, but he found a position at the University of New Mexico. He started every class with a rousing discussion of the road conditions between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and was especially interested to know if any of his students had managed a better driving time than he. Few ever did.

For many of the early artists, there were significant advantages to the dry desert climate. It gave Carlos Vierra, Sheldon Parsons, Gerald Cassidy, Theodore Van Soelen and a considerable number of others a major second career, their first one having been jeopardized by tuberculosis and other maladies contracted back east. Another amenity was the simple, gracious lifestyle that almost anyone could afford. Above all, there was the company of like minds. Such camaraderie was very satisfying for artists whose purpose was serious. And they were serious, if only by virtue of their acceptance of the isolation and simplicity they found in Santa Fe.

Santa Fe Art Colony: Schuster

Will Schuster painting a mural
in the patio of
The Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe
Museum of New New Mexico remote
Photo: R.H. Dawson

There were many such Edens in early twentieth century America. None of them had exactly the same charm, but charm alone was not the factor that created Santa Fe's art colony. The one element that tipped the balance was the Museum of New Mexico. The Museum was headed by Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, who was an artist as well as an archaeologist. He and his farsighted colleagues set up a support system aimed at attracting and keeping fine artists.

Studios were created in several rooms in back of the patio at the Governor's Palace, which by then was Museum headquarters. This afforded newcomers a place to get straight to work even as they looked for quarters for themselves and, frequently, for their families. Exhibition of their work was a matter of arranging shows right at the Museum. In those days, there was very little gallery or dealership activity, and artists would simply hang their paintings in order to show their colleagues and community what they were doing. Some of the work was purchased by local or visiting collectors and some of it was sent to galleries back East. In this manner, the artists were able to make a living.

In 1917, the Museum of New Mexico opened its Museum of Fine Arts on the northwest corner of the Plaza. No effort was spared to make the building elegant, expansive and, above all, authentic. The first exhibit, mostly donated by the pioneering local artists, became the core of the Museum's distinguished collection.

In the early twenties, the Santa Fe art colony enjoyed its first period of real greatness. One of the all time benchmarks, Los Cinco Pintores (the five painters), came together at that time. This was a group of five artists: Jozef Bakos, Fremont Ellis, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash and Will Shuster. A more diverse array of artistic style would be hard to imagine, and they only showed together for a few years. But their friendship was ongoing. They built adjacent houses on Camino del Monte Sol with the help of Frank Applegate, an artist and archaeologist who had already purchased a tract of land and built his own residence. The Cinco Pintores were among the most colorful fixtures of the early Santa Fe art scene, becoming known as "the five little nuts in the five adobe huts." The tag was more indulgent than derogatory, for the artists exerted an influence that was out of proportion to their numbers as well as their modest means.

Some of the New Mexico art contingent worked in traditional styles, while others kept abreast of world developments. A vigorous Modernist movement developed in New Mexico, with Cubist and Abstract elements infusing canvases with Southwestern themes and, sometimes, supplanting them altogether. Hewett's evenhanded policy of exhibiting all serious work at the Museum, particularly that of Raymond Jonson, ultimately led to his ouster as director.

It was too late. As the art colony developed further, it became evident that diversity was here to stay. A fledgling Modernist was William Lumpkins, a youngster who came to town in the 1930's, fresh out of the University of New Mexico. He went on to become the only person ever to receive a Governor's Award in both art and architecture. Today, in his late eighties, he continues to paint and exhibit. He may be seen out and about, fraternizing with other artists in the time-honored tradition. His presence is reassuring, for much of the art colony and all it stood for has changed beyond recognition. The distances from the great cities have been closed by modern transportation and telecommunication. The trappings of commerce have turned Santa Fe into a theme park about itself.

Yet, through it all, the art colony lives because the art itself remains the central focus. Change is inevitable and even desirable, and the freshest ideas in no way negate the ones that came before. Nostalgia for today will become the sentiment of tomorrow. Finding the true gems among the tinsel, and knowing that they will form the text of the future, is the Collector’s greatest reward.

Thanks to Suzanne Deats who has also authored for The Collector’s Guide Online
a series called Art 101 article

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 11

Related Pages

Artists of the Santa Fe Trail article
Early American Modernists in New Mexico article
E.I. Couse Historic Home in Taos article

How It Began:
The Santa Fe and Taos Arts Communities
Historic Houses and Sites in Taos article

Collector’s Resources


The Albuquerque Museum | 505-243-7255

Santa Fe

Aaron Payne Fine Art 213 East Marcy Street | 505-995-9779
Addison Rowe Gallery | 505-982-1533
Gerald Peters Gallery + Peters Projects | 505.954.5700
Nedra Matteucci Galleries | 505-982-4631
The Owings Gallery | 505-982-6244
New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors | 505-476-5200
Windsor Betts Art Brokerage House rem 136 Grant Avenue | 505-820-1234
Zaplin Lampert Gallery | 505.982.6100


Taos Art Museum at Fechin House | 575-758-2690


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