On his first trip to New Mexico in 1899, Oscar Berninghaus caught his first glimpse of Taos Mountain and sketched the beautiful Southwestern landscape from his perch on the roof of the train that had brought him there. Years later, after he had established himself as one of the leading painters of the Southwest, he wrote a letter describing the momentous trip: "I stayed here but a week, but became infected with the Taos germ and promised myself a longer stay the following year. This I did each year, longer and longer, then six months here and six months in St. Louis, my home town. Since 1925 [I have] been living here permanently the year round...Fascinated by the people, the Indians and Mexicans, the adobe architecture, the sagebrush, the mountains, they all inspired me as subject matter." (L.M. Bickerstaff, Pioneer Artists of Taos, Denver, Colorado, 1983, p. 87) The little town that Berninghaus visited for the first time that day became the spot to which he would faithfully return each year until he moved there permanently in 1925.
Berninghaus's fine reputation rests both on his skill as an artist and the accuracy with which he recorded the magnificent terrain and way of life in Taos. His career began as a commercial draftsman and illustrator, and throughout his life he stayed true to these roots, painting the expansive landscape with remarkable accuracy and with a sureness of brushstroke and line. A Corner in the Taos Plaza is one of the artist's outstanding descriptions of this remarkably beautiful and compelling part of the Southwest. This painting is a faithful depiction of the place where he arrived on that fateful day in 1899 as described in his letter: "After a hard journey, I arrived in Taos late in the afternoon, the sun casting its glowing color over the hills that gave the Sangre de Christo mountains their name. I found it all as the brakeman had described it and more so, a barren plaza with hitching rail around it, covered wagons of home seekers, cow and Indian ponies hitched to it..." (Pioneer Artists of Taos, pp. 86-87)
Santiago Bernal, the featured model in the present painting, appeared frequently in Berninghaus' most complex canvases, including Hunter of Taos (1926) and October-Taos (circa 1925). In connection with another painting from the same period, Santiago, The War Chief, (circa 1930, Harwood Museum of the University of New Mexico, fig. 1) the artist remarked, "It is seldom that I paint a portrait but there is such an appeal in Santiago that I decided to paint him alone." His respect and genuine admiration for his model, friend, and for all the local American Indians, is clear in the present painting; here Santiago is featured prominently with great dignity, even reverence.
In a 1927 letter to a newspaper Berninghaus wrote: "I think the colony in Taos is doing much for American Art. From it I think will come a distinctive art, something definitely American--and I do not mean that such will be the case because the American Indian and his environment are the subjects. But the canvases that come from Taos are as definitely American as anything can be. We have had French, Dutch, Italian, German art. Now we must have American art. I feel that from Taos will come that art." (as quoted in Pioneer Artists of Taos, p. 98)
This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work being prepared by Kodner Gallery.