Bisttram was born in Hungary, near the Romanian border, in 1895.
When he was 11 years old, his family immigrated to New York City.
Emil grew up in the tenement buildings that had become the destination
for so many Eastern European immigrant families. He was a
talented artist, and after a few years began his schooling at the
National Academy of Art and Design, then Cooper Union, Parsons, and The
Art Student's League. Most of his studies were completed through
night courses, as he was working as a commercial artist to support
himself. His eagerness to study would translate to a love of and
great skill for teaching. He began teaching soon after completing
school, first at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, and then
at the Master Institute of the Roerich Museum.
first visited Taos during the summer of 1930. He went initially to
escape the hardship of life in New York following the stock market
crash. His first visit, however, was nearly his last. While enthralled
by the beauty of New Mexico, Bisttram was endlessly frustrated by his
first attempts at painting there:
I tried to paint what was before me I was frustrated by the grandeur of
the scenery and the limitless space. Above all a strange, almost mystic
quality of light."
frustrated by what may be perceived as his own limitations as an
artist, Bisttram returned to New York. If indeed he was
frustrated at that time, it couldn't have lasted long, as the very next
year he won a Guggenheim fellowship to study mural painting. The
fellowship enabled Bisttram to travel to Mexico where he studied mural
painting with the world famous muralist Diego Rivera. Numerous
mural commissions were to follow throughout his career, including
murals for the Department of Justice in Washington D.C., The Taos
County Courthouse, New Mexico, and the Federal Courthouse in Roswell,
his time with Rivera was through, Bisttram returned immediately to
Taos, and that same year founded the Taos School of Art, of which he
would remain the director for the rest of his life. Bisttram came
to be much admired as a teacher. He was an extremely articulate
individual, and was as skilled at explaining concepts of composition,
drawing and painting as he was at applying those concepts to his own
paintings. The school was very well attended, particularly during
the summer months. Further demonstrating his skills as an
administrator, the following year Bisttram started the first commercial
art gallery in Taos, the Heptagon Gallery.
first came to Taos as a representational painter. His canvases show
stylized renderings of Native American dancers, portraits of natives
and Mexicans, as well as depictions of local architecture.
However, he began to experiment with non-objective (ie. Abstract) forms
in his paintings. He became heavily influence by the work and
philosophy of the painter Wassily Kandinsky. Indeed, in many of
Bisttrams canvases, the influence of the Russian is evident in the
bright colors, and abstract forms that he began to employ. In
1938 Bisttram, along with Raymond Johnson and several other painters,
founded the Transcendental Painting Group in Santa Fe, New
Mexico. The aim of the group was to work to bring painting beyond
the appearance of the physical world. Work of this type had begun
in Europe at least two decades previously, but this was something new
to America. Despite the stated goal, Bisttram often maintained elements
that were at least semi-representational in his canvases.
continued to be extremely active in the artistic growth of New Mexico
for the rest of his life. In 1952 he co-founded the Taos Art
Association, and in '59 won the Grand Prize for painting at the New
Mexico State Fair. Also in 1959, a retrospective of his work was
held at the Harwood Art Museum in Taos. As a final honor, and tribute
to one who done so much for the artistic community and the identity of
New Mexico as a whole, in 1975 April 7th was declared "Emil Bisttram
Day," a New Mexico state holiday. The next year, 1976, Emil
Bisttram died at the age of 81.
Bickerstaff, Laura, Pioneer Artists of Taos, Sage Books, Denver, 1955,
Coke, Van Daren, Taos and Santa Fe, The Artist's Environment 1882-1942,
University of New Mexico Press, 1963, pp. 22-23.
Luhan, Mabel Dodge, Taos and Its Artists, Duell Sloan and Pearce, New
Pearson, Ralph, The Modern Renaissance in American Art, Harper, New
York, 1954, pp. 81-86.