Organizations* : ANA, Taos SA
In the tradition of an earlier era of painters, Berninghaus began work in lithography in 1889 and continued his career as a printing apprentice in 1893. Meanwhile, he attended night classes at the St. Louis Society of Fine Arts for three terms. Established first as an illustrator and then as a largely self-taught fine artist, he had his first one-man show in St. Louis in 1899.
That year he was the guest of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad on a junket to Colorado. Intrigued by tales of Taos, New Mexico, Berninghaus made a brief side trip twenty-five miles by wagon to the still-untouched village. Impressed, he established a seasonal rhythm based on his family’s needs, spending winters in St. Louis pursuing a successful career as a commercial artist, and summers in Taos painting. His candid paintings of Taos earned him great respect among his peers; though residing in St. Louis, he became a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists in 1915 and sent his paintings on tour with their traveling exhibitions. Berninghaus returned to Taos each summer, staying for longer and longer periods, until he settled there permanently in 1925.
His paintings reflect a true psychological insight into the life of the twentieth century Indian. Berninghaus did not romanticize or pose his subjects. Rather, he depicted the West in a simple, direct style supported by splendid draftsmanship. After he moved to Taos, his style became more modern. This change in his work resulted in richer pigmentation, more intricate composition and lent an abstract quality to his paintings.
Despite the change in his style, Berninghaus was little affected by the trends of the outside world, much like Taos itself. He neither approved nor disapproved of the changing art trends, nor did he change his approach because of them. He preferred to remain true to his original style and to his subjects – the Pueblo Indians and his beloved New Mexico landscape.
Berninghaus continued to paint in Taos until the time of his death. For most of his years he painted models from life and landscapes from nature. In later years, however, his repertoire of stored images was so large that he was able to paint from memory as accurately as he used to from sketching.
Oscar Berninghaus died at the age of 77 on April 27, 1952, three days after suffering a heart attack. Following the funeral, artist Rebecca James told a local Taos newspaper. “The body of his work is 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.”