Writer B.K. Loren described the New Mexico sky when he wrote, “the bright blue sky and the white clouds ended abruptly, and a precise line of silver-gray intersected the blue.” In 1893, Joseph Henry Sharp (1859 – 1953) visited Taos and took his memory of its crystalline sky to Paris to share with Ernest Blumenschein and Bert G.Phillips. The three artists joined Eanger Irving Couse, W. Herbert Benton and Oscar E. Berninghaus to form the Taos Society of Artists in 1915. Six more artists, including Victor Higgins and Walter Ufer, expanded the Society to twelve.
Like many artists, Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936) photographed his models before picking up a paintbrush, and then he developed the film without modern equipment. Visitors to the Couse-Sharp Historic Site can view Couse’s darkroom and atelier where an expansive shingle glass window, inspired by the ateliers of Paris, allowed the Northern New Mexico light to blanket his studio. In 1888, his work was accepted into the Paris Salon. Two years later he was invited to participate in the Paris International Exposition. At the behest of Blumenschein, Couse relocated to Taos in 1906 to paint mainly portraits and landscapes of Taos. Many were reproduced in Santa Fe Railway promotions and calendars.
Shelves in Couse’s studio display his spectacular collection of Pueblo pots. One of his many nocturne paintings sits on an easel. Beside the easel is the grand oversized pot from the painting. According to Couse’s granddaughter, Virginia Couse Leavitt, many of the objects seen in his paintings, such as a pair of handmade deer hide moccasins and an exquisitely preserved Butterfly Maiden Kachina, were acquired through a curio shop owned by Taos Society painter Bert Phillips.
Couse and Sharp conjoined their personal and creative lives. The families were so close, Ginnie Couse called their neighbor ‘Uncle Henry.’ Sharp’s hearing deteriorated after a swimming accident at a young age. He moved to Cincinnati to live with his aunt and enrolled in art classes at Mcmicken University. Later, he studied in Munich where he learned “direct painting, wet on wet.” The Parisian Impressionists influenced his ability to contrast light and shadow. When Sharp returned from Europe he followed his interest in American Indians to Santa Fe and Taos and Crow Agency, MT to paint Native life on the reservation. Patrons supported him by buying entire collections. One patron reportedly bought 150 paintings. After multiple visits to Taos, Sharp purchased the 1835 Luna Family Chapel adjacent to the Couse family home. When a bank failed that Sharp partly owned he installed the bank’s vault in the chapel.
Couse-Sharp Historic Site Curator and Executive Director, Davison Koenig, remarked that preservation was key, especially with the Couse house. The dining room was kept exactly as it was when the artist died in 1936. The two-and-a half-acre site listed on the National Register of Historic Places includes gardens designed by Virginia Couse and Ben Lujan, Couse’s favorite model from the Pueblo. Virginia creeper grows and the handbuilt stone terraces still stand. Private tours of the gardens, the homes and studios of E.I. Couse and J.H. Sharp are available by appointment only. Two galleries will rotate exhibits of portraits and landscapes by Society artists and works by contemporary Native artists.
The Couse- Sharp Historic site will expand in June 2020 to include the Lunder Research Center for the Taos Society of Artists. Contemporary artists and researchers will have access to archival materials and objects relating to the Taos Art Colony. The Lunder Foundation of Colby College donated an unprecedented $600,000. An additional $1.1 million was raised to purchase an adjacent building to be converted to a museum. A Gala and Auction on June 15th will support programming at the site.
For more information about these artists read Virginia Couse Leavitt’s 2019 book, Eanger Irving Couse: An American Artist 1836- 1936.