J.N. Bartfield Art Galleries, New York, NY, 1991
Private collection, California, 1992
J.N. Bartfield Art Galleries, New York, 2011
Private collection, Colorado, 2012
Many of Oscar E. Berninghaus’ greatest paintings can be isolated down to two themes: the harvest and the hunt. The artist, whose first experience in Taos in 1899 was colored by the resilience and industriousness of the Taos people, would come to see his subjects as abundant providers, as opposed to static images of long-ago warriors. He saw their hard work and oneness with the land as their greatest strengths. That is reflected in several important pieces, including Ceremony of the Rabbit Hunt, The Rabbit Hunter, Too Old for the Rabbit Hunt and here with The Hunters, Taos, showing a Native American figure calmly posing within a stand of aspen trees, their bruised and cracking trunks creating a natural tapestry that initiates a quiet tension within the scene. Key details in the painting—the light-colored bow, the faded blanket wrapped around the figure, the unique way the quiver is wrapped around the man’s upper torso and arms—visually link the work to A Hunter of Taos Pueblo, the 1926 painting that won Berninghaus the Altman Prize at the National Academy of Design. Both works also appear to use the model Santiago Bernal, a frequent subject for the painter.
Many of the hunts in Taos were tied to ceremonies in the pueblo. “By the 1920s and 1930s the Indians hunted deer, turkey, bear and antelope, but the search for wild game was no longer the romantic adventure of days gone by. The ‘hunt’ was still celebrated, however, in the deer and buffalo dances and other colorful rituals,” writes Gordon Sanders in Oscar E. Berninghaus: Taos, New Mexico—Master Painter of American Indians and the Frontier West. “These dances are actually Indian prayers from the days when Indians and animals spoke the same language…days long ago when the deer told the Indian how to perform the ceremony to gain power over him so that he might take the deer’s flesh for food and his skin for clothing. For many years the Indians would allow no outsiders to view their dances for fear the strangers would destroy the effectiveness of the ceremony. In the 1920s, with government programs and other sources for their food supply now available, they began to welcome others to witness their colorful dances. The Indians have preserved their hunting skills in the rabbit hunts, which usually take place on the day preceding major ceremonials. These hunts were favorite subjects for Berninghaus, and he has left us a wealth of canvases depicting this Indian custom.”
The artist himself commented on the hunters in Taos in an undated letter to an Arizona art dealer: “From my studio window I have a view of some 30 miles across sagebrush, foothills, with the horizon lined with distant mountain ranges. Every now and then I see clouds of dust blown skyward by whirlwinds—this is a common sight these warm and dry days. Looking out now, I see one and it comes nearer and nearer. It is not caused by the wind, but as it approaches I see that it is a band of horsemen, a hunting party of Indians out on the ceremonial rabbit hunt—a hunt which takes place the day before each fiesta dance day. These rabbits are hunted with the aid of bows and arrows, clubs and dogs—no firearms are used, such is their reverence for the days when their forefathers had only such means of procuring their daily food. The band comes on, full speed past my studio, gives a cheerful yell—all mounted on their ponies, some white, some pintos, some buckskins, helping to make the sight colorful, picturesque and animated.”
Although some hunting scenes are filled with more action, it’s the lack of action and movement that gives The Hunters, Taos it’s unmistakable power as the figure stands, seemingly lost in thought amid the beauty of Taos’ forests.
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Please note that the first unframed photo is most accurate for color. Framed photographs are to show the frame and are not color corrected to the painting.
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