1998 Centennial of the Taos Art Colony

The Taos art colony can point directly to its beginning
a famous vehicular mishap!

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September 3, 1998 marked the 100th anniversary of the “Broken Wheel,” that singularly fortuitous accident in 1898 that led to the establishment of Taos as one of America's premier art colonies. However, the story has a prologue. In 1893, American artist, Joseph Henry Sharp made a brief visit to Taos. Two year later, while studying painting in Paris, Sharp met and became friends with two other young American art students: Ernest L Blumenschein and Bert G Phillips. Sharp told Blumenschein and Phillips about the Hispanic village of Taos, the nearby Taos Pueblo Indians, the brilliant light and the spectacular landscape. Blumenschein later wrote "I remember being impressed as I pigeon-holed that curious name in my memory with a hope that someday I might pass that way."

On his return from Paris in 1896, Blumenschein was commissioned by McClure's Magazine to do a series of illustrations in Arizona and New Mexico. The Southwest so captivated him that the next year he convinced his friend and New York studio mate Phillips to join him in a sketching and painting trip from Denver to Mexico. The two young artists spent the summer of 1898 painting and camping in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, slowly working their way south.

When it came to life in the Wild West, however, Phillips and Blumenschein were total greenhorns. At the beginning of their trip they did not even know how to harness the horses, although neither would admit it. After purchasing three horses and a light carriage in Denver, the two artists carefully watched the livery men as they hitched up the surrey in hopes of later being able to accomplish the task themselves. Small wonder that they ever made it to New Mexico, for their ignorance of the harnessing process nearly caused a runaway just outside Denver, and later cost them a horse when the creature strangled itself trying to reach water while they slept! Their buggy, which was never intended for anything but city use, was constantly breaking down. Blumenschein later wrote "We broke double trees and single trees by the dozen."

Wagon Wheel

Bert Geer Phillips
Blumenschein Family Archives
Original Print

The frequent repairs in blacksmith shops along the way nearly depleted their meager cash reserves. Finally, when they neared Walsenburg, Colorado, they met a Hispanic family who taught them self-reliance, showing the two greenhorns how to fashion repairs with baling or utility wire—to this day an important material for surviving in northern New Mexico.

On September 3rd, while driving the storm-rutted roads of northern New Mexico just south of the village of Questa, the wheel on their surrey slipped into a deep rut and broke. The men tossed a three-dollar gold piece to see who would carry the wheel to the nearest blacksmith for repair. Blumenschein lost the toss, and at 4:00 pm began the twenty-mile trek to Taos with the broken wheel. Neither Blumenschein nor Phillips could have known then that this singular event would initiate a great experiment in American art.

Following the wheel's repair, the two artists settled down to paint the landscape and people of the Taos Valley. Blumenschein stayed in Taos only a few months, then returned to New York. Phillips, however, made Taos his home from that time forward. Blumenschein and Phillips spread the word about the incredible beauty of Taos and urged other artists to come and see for themselves. Shortly thereafter, many artists came and saw, and others came and stayed.

In July of 1915, Sharp, Blumenschein, Phillips and fellow Taos artists Oscar E Berninghaus,
E Irving Couse
and W Herbert "Buck" Dunton created the Taos Society of Artists (TSA). Article III of the TSA's constitution clearly states the reason for its creation:

This Society is formed for educational purposes, to develop a high standard of art among its members, and to aid in the diffusion of taste for art in general.

To promote and stimulate the practical expression of art—to preserve and promote the native art.

To facilitate bringing before the public through exhibitions and other means tangible results of the work of its members. To promote, maintain and preserve high standards of artistic excellence in painting, and to encourage sculpture, architecture, applied arts, music, literature, ethnology and archaeology solely as it pertains to New Mexico and the States adjoining.1


E Martin Hennings (1886-1956)
"Chamisa In Bloom"
Oil / 30" x 36"

The Society primarily served to promote the member artists' work through annually-organized traveling exhibitions to several major American cities. These exhibitions brought considerable attention to both the artists and Taos, and attracted other artists to the area in ever-increasing numbers. The Taos Society of Artists grew to include nineteen members and associate members. Joining the original six active members over the following eleven years were Walter Ufer, Victor Higgins, Catherine Critcher (yes, a woman artist!), E Martin Hennings and Kenneth Adams. Associate members included already prominent New York artists Robert Henri and John Sloan, in addition to Julius Rolshoven, Albert Groll, Randall Davey, BJO Nordfelt, Birger Sandzen and Gustave Baumann.

In 1918, the Society installed two honorary members, anthropologist/archaeologist, Edgar L Hewett, founder of Santa Fe's School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico, and paleontologist Frank Springer, also with the School of American Research. The Taos Society of Artists was active until March 1927 when it was officially disbanded. Art historian, Dr Robert White notes: "It seems that for most of its members, the Society had outlived its usefulness and maintaining it had become a burden." However, by that time Taos was emerging as a significant American art colony and art was becoming a vital part of northern New Mexico's economy.

For most of the early part of the twentieth century, artists in Taos sold their work in the East or through their studios — no art galleries existed in the community at the time. Interestingly, Bert Phillips is credited with starting the first curio shop in Taos, in 1899. Phillips exhibited, sold and traded Native American and Hispanic art, and most likely also marketed his own paintings there as well. Starting in 1923, the newly-established Harwood Foundation exhibition gallery provided the growing number of artists in the community with a venue for the sale of their art. Soon curio shops and hotel stores also offered fine art for sale. In 1933, artist Emil Bisttram opened the first gallery in Taos devoted exclusively to fine art. Unfortunately the gallery did not succeed. Only after World War II did commercial galleries become an integral part of the Taos art scene.

Today, seven museums and nearly 80 galleries in the Taos community showcase the work of several hundred Native American, Hispanic and other American artists. The museums, galleries, artists, art schools and associated commerce support a substantial proportion of the economies in Taos and the region. Over the last 100 years, Taos has evolved into an important art market. More importantly, Taos, one of this country's most beautiful places, continues to fascinate, inspire and lure artists.

1Robert R White, Editor and Annotator, The Taos Society of Artists; University of New Mexico Press remote 1983: page 17.

Thanks to Skip Keith Miller and Elizabeth Cunningham

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos
- Volume 12

Related Pages

How the Santa Fe Art Colony Began article

Women Artist Pioneers of New Mexico article

Collector’s Resources

Santa Fe

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
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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