Emil 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.
Bisttram 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
"Whenever 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."
Perhaps 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, New
After 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.
Bisttram 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.
Bisttram 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.
1. Bickerstaff, Laura, Pioneer Artists of Taos,
Sage Books, Denver, 1955, p. 55-68.
2. Coke, Van Daren, Taos and Santa Fe, The
Artist's Environment 1882-1942, University of New
Mexico Press, 1963, pp. 22-23.
3. Luhan, Mabel Dodge, Taos and Its Artists,
Duell Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1947.
4. Pearson, Ralph, The Modern Renaissance in
American Art, Harper, New York, 1954, pp. 81-86.