In 1922 Walter Ufer rendered a painting that depicts the Taos, N.M., artist at work in a studio, surrounded by Indian artifacts, studying an unfinished landscape with brush and palette in hand. His long-suffering wife Mary sits reading a book in a corner, while the faint ghost of an Indian leans against his easel. Titled Fantasies, it shows Ufer at work amid the subjects he held dear.
“It is a painting that compels the viewer to think about the image of the artist, his relationship to his subjects and the creative process,” says Sarah E. Boehme, curator of the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas. “When viewers notice the apparition of the Indian figure, they become intrigued and engage with ideas about what it means.”
Born to German immigrants (his father was a gunsmith and engraver), Ufer grew up in Kentucky, apprenticed in lithography in Louisville and returned to Germany to study art. While abroad he met artists Joseph Henry Sharp and Ernest Blumenschein, and after settling in Chicago, he journeyed to Taos in 1914. Sharp was already living there, and Blumenschein was spending summers in what had already become a thriving art colony.
“Ufer found in Taos a setting that provided subjects for his paintings that were both exotic and yet very American,” Boehme says. “He responded to the extraordinary landscape and beautiful atmospheric light that he would come to portray with intensity….Ufer had an environment in which his temperament could flourish.”
There was another reason for moving to Taos. “In a practical sense,” Boehme explains, “Ufer first went to Taos because he had patrons who sent him there. Carter Harrison Jr., mayor of Chicago, encouraged him to go to New Mexico, and Harrison formed a syndicate to buy Ufer’s paintings.”
Ufer was drawn to American Indians and enjoyed painting them engaged in everyday life—harvesting corn (Indian Corn—Taos), carrying water (Coming From the Spring), making adobe (Builders in the Desert) or crossing the beautiful northern New Mexico landscape (Summer in Taos and His Kit). He also expressed sympathy with their plight. “The Indian has lost his race pride,” he once said. “He wants only to be an American. Our civilization has terrific power. We don’t feel it, but that man out there in the mountains feels it, and he cannot cope with such pressure.”
New Mexico artist William Haskell points to Ufer’s European training as a key to his unique work. “He was able to develop his recognizable style by combining his classical 19th-century German training with American realism, and by the use of dynamic shapes and intense light, to leave an important legacy that continues to influence many artists.”
In 1917 Ufer was accepted into the newly formed Taos Society of Artists, and three years later he became the first Taos artist to win a prize at the Carnegie International. Other honors followed.
So, how does his work stack up against that of other Taos artists?
“Ufer has become known for his portrayals of the contemporary Indian,” Boehme says. “In comparison with the other Taos artists, he did not often portray the romanticized and historicized Indian subject but instead depicted scenes that reflected current situations. He also incorporated social themes into some of this paintings.”
Ufer’s success, however, proved short-lived. The Taos Society of Artists disbanded in 1927, and the stock market crash of 1929 hurt the art scene. Ufer continued to paint, but with his success diminishing and debts mounting, he began drinking heavily. On July 30, 1936, his appendix ruptured, and three days later Walter Ufer was dead. He was 60 years old.
“He remained faithful to representation in art,” Boehme says, “and yet was a modernist in his vision and composition.” WW
Johnny D. Boggs, a special contributor to Wild West, writes award-winning fiction and nonfiction from Santa Fe, also home to many art galleries. Originally published in the December 2015 issue of Wild West.