In the United States of the early twentieth century, a period of extraordinary artistic and literary activity and experimentation, Taos, New Mexico, emerged as one of the country’s most vital artists’ communities. The area became a gathering place for networks of painters and artists who took inspiration from the southwestern landscape and the Native American cultures that had inhabited the region for centuries. Many came to the Southwest in search of spiritual enlightenment or an escape from the increasing industrialization of American cities. Taos, “that strangest of American places,” as Mabel Dodge Luhan once wrote, and the whole southwestern region of the United States, supported formal artists’ colonies and informal communities of writers and painters, and aided in the development of American literary and artistic culture throughout the century.
In 1898, painters Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips settled in Taos after their carriage broke down nearby. There they founded the artists’ colony that was to become a nationally known community of American painters. In 1915, area artists formed the Taos Society of Artists in an effort to more effectively market their work in the eastern United States; by this time, however, the community was already coming apart under the strain of many strong and conflicting personalities. A new, formidable personality entered the Taos landscape in 1917, when Mabel Ganson Dodge Stern arrived there with her husband, painter Maurice Stern. Another artists’ community, one that included a shifting collection of some of the most important painters among the American Modernists and some of the most well-known writers of the period, grew up around her. Thus, Taos, or “Mabeltown” as D.H. Lawrence called it, remained a center of artistic activity in the region and in the United States.
Not long after her arrival in New Mexico, Mabel Stern divorced her husband, married a Taos Indian named Tony Lujan, and changed her name to Mabel Dodge Luhan, adopting an Anglo version of her new husband’s name. Already a major influence in the artistic and intellectual communities in New York City and in Europe, Luhan was to become a central figure among a new community in Taos. This second generation of artists in the region included many painters and writers who came at Luhan’s urging and stayed for weeks or months at her home, a sprawling complex of adobe buildings known as Los Gallos. Some eventually owned their own homes in the area, permanently relocating from New York (as Luhan had), the American Midwest, and abroad.
Though the women who visited Los Gallos or otherwise found their way to the Southwest included well-known figures in American arts and letters such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Willa Cather, lesser-known women also forged significant careers in the region. They were not part of a formal group or colony, but painters Dorothy Brett, Rebecca Salsbury James, and Mary Foote, writers Mary Hunter Austin and Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, and poet and editor Alice Corbin Henderson crossed paths and formed a loosely constructed artistic community in the region. Another more geographically distant artist, California photographer Anne Brigman, shared artistic influences and elements of a common aesthetic sensibility with some of the women in New Mexico. Not least of these similarities was an attentiveness to the regional landscape, a curiosity about and love of the natural world, and an interest in artistic innovation and experimentation.
The women in this group relocated to the Southwest from all over the United States and, in the case of Dorothy Brett, from the court of Queen Victoria in England. They came for varied reasons, of course, but many sought self-determinism, artistic independence, and freedom from the socially prescribed roles women were expected to occupy elsewhere. Sergeant and Henderson came under doctors’ advice, hoping the dry climate would improve their poor health; some wanted refuge from other difficulties in their lives, family demands, or overbearing husbands. Some came simply because Mabel Luhan invited them.
The women whose lives and work are considered here were all profoundly awed and inspired by the landscape of the American Southwest and the lives of its inhabitants. Luhan wrote Winter in Taos, which many believe to be her best book, about an average day in the life she and Tony shared at Los Gallos. Some of O’Keeffe’s most easily recognized paintings are of the New Mexican landscape and the sun- and sand-washed bones she found in the desert; Brett is best known for her Ceremonials, paintings of Native American dances and rituals. Rebecca Salsbury James made the first of her reverse-glass paintings, the technique that was to become her signature, at Mabel Luhan’s home in Taos.
Rebecca Salsbury James, Alice Corbin Henderson, and Willa Cather took the varied spiritualities they found in the landscape and its residents as a subject of their work. Anne Brigman peopled her landscape photographs with women depicting mythical and mystical beings; Mary Hunter Austin’s books exploring the southwestern landscape, her place in it, and its relationship to her writing have made her an important American nature writer. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant wrote often of New Mexico’s Native American communities; she also profiled the region’s artists and writers in her work. For some, the region inspired political action as well as artistic production. Austin, Henderson, and Luhan, along with Sergeant, were moved by the plight of the Taos Indians to become politically active on their behalf, helping to secure their land against federal laws that would divide tribal lands among white residents of the region.
(Download PDF of the full chapter from the catalog Intimate Circles: American Women in the Arts.)