Oscar Edmund Berninghaus was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1874 and began his artistic career at an early age. By age 10, the young artist was already an accomplished sketcher of local scenes. A couple years later, Berninghaus graduated to watercolors. With the consent of his parents, the young pupil left school at age 16 and worked as an errand boy for the lithography company, Compton and Sons of St. Louis, where he gained technical knowledge of printing, lithography, poster art, and engraving. Although largely self-taught, the young apprentice attended night classes for three terms at the School of Fine Arts at Washington University. Later, in 1918, Berninghaus was appointed to the Advisory Board of the university’s School of Fine Arts.
In 1899, Berninghaus made his big break with a commission from the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to sketch and produce watercolors of the scenery of Colorado and New Mexico for publications back East. It was during this trip West that the young artist had his first encounter with Taos. Thus would begin a 20 year pattern of painting and sketching in Taos in the summer, while continuing to pursue his commercial career in the winters in St. Louis, where his studio shared the same building as Charles Russell’s. Berninghaus had his first one-man show at the Frank D. Healy Galleries in St. Louis, many of the works inspired by his Taos visits. Throughout the beginning of the 20th century, Berninghaus quickly achieved fame as both an illustrator and artist, gaining a reputation among the foremost painters of American Indians, with some writers comparing him to Frederic Remington.
In 1912, Berninghaus and his friend, artist Bert Phillips, formed the Taos Society of Artists, along with Joseph Sharp, Ernest Blumenschein, Irving Couse, and Herbert Dunton. The Society promoted the sale of paintings by its members with travelling exhibitions to major galleries in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. By the time the group disbanded in 1927, its efforts had helped transform Taos into one of the great art centers of the world.
In addition to Southwestern scenes, Berninghaus also painted historical subjects. In 1920, he completed a series of lunettes for the new Missouri State Capitol. For the De Lore Baryta Company, the artist produced an illustrated booklet about the company’s mining operation. Commissioned by the New Deal program, Berninghaus spent many years of the 1930s working on several mural projects, producing a number of historical works for post offices and other public buildings. Other Berninghaus patrons of the period include Anheuser-Busch and Boatmen’s Bank.
In 1924, Berninghaus received the Ranger Fund Prize and the 1926 Second Altman Prize from the National Academy of Design, where he was elected an associate member the same year.
By 1925, Berninghaus settled permanently in Taos where his relationships with the Pueblo Indians contributed to much of his success. The artist often painted American Indians in a realistic, un-romanticized way, living their everyday lives in 20th century New Mexico. His paintings had a unique texture, achieved through his use of short, quick brush strokes in an impressionistic manner. Captivated by the light and landscape of the Southwest, his compositions became more complex and his colors richer after becoming a permanent resident of the region. A dedicated artist, Berninghaus spent much of his waking hours near an easel. Three days after having suffered from a heart attack, Oscar Berninghaus died in 1952.