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  • Walter Ufer
    Jul 22, 1876 - Aug 02, 1936
  • The Gateway - Walter Ufer was an American artist based in Taos, New Mexico. His most notable work focuses on scenes of Native American life, particularly of the Pueblo Indians. Walter Ufer is known for Social realist landscape, figure, portrait and Indian genre painting.
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The Gateway
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  • Walter Ufer
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  • 1918
    Oil on canvas
    30 x 30 in. (76.2 x 76.2 cm.)

    The Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago inspired broad national pride as well as a regional movement for artists to represent the wealth of diverse communities comprising the American identity. Regionalist developments and schools of artists in the west, south, and mid-west began sprouting up, each with their own unique palette and manner of capturing the notion of the "American" landscape and its inhabitants.

    Ufer found in New Mexico a wealth of imagery and his first works from Taos demonstrated an immediacy and strength. "These pictures also displayed those qualities that American critics had associated with the 'modern' in painting ever since the first impact of Munich had been felt in the seventies: the rich, painterly surface, broad treatment of details, massing of paint to create substance and suggest tactile qualities, boldness and fluidity of execution and virtuoso brushwork. Ufer thus demonstrated a stylistic affinity to Henri and his followers, whose work often recalled the American pioneers in Munich. In a painting like 'A Daughter of San Juan Pueblo,' his finest painting from this first summer, there is a direct and vital apprehension of personality, a psychological immediacy that is couched in much the same technical terms as a portrait by Henri or Luks or Bellows. The impact, not surprisingly, is similar. It was this quality that would set Ufer's work apart in style and tone from much of the painting in Taos which preceded him." (S.L. Good in Pioneer Artists of Taos, Denver, Colorado, 1983, p. 128)

    Ufer's paintings received much favorable criticism, and a positive reception, beginning with the Martin B. Cahn Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1916. His paintings were twice shown at the Venice Biennale, and in 1920, he became the first of the New Mexico artists to win a prize at the prestigious Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. For him, painting was part of a vision of a regional movement and a part of a struggle for a national art. His modernity had roots in Europe but it evolved out of his experience in the Southwest. Writing about the possibilities of a national art, a concern which had challenged creative Americans from the earliest days of national independence, Ufer noted: "I believe that if America gets a National Art it will come more from the Southwest than from the Atlantic Board. Because we are really different from Europeans, and the farther away from European influence, the better for us. We already have too much of Indian blood within our veins to be classed with Europeans, though we are a white race. They are a mixture over there. But we are a different mixture. The strong beauty that the Southwest holds, connected with what the early Spaniard found here when he conquered these people, is what holds us out here rather than painting fishing smacks in the east or Pacific slope." (Macbeth Gallery, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1928)

    "Ufer, Blumenschein and Higgins certainly had no difficulty in regarding themselves as modern artists in the late teens, for during this period in America artists were able to define modernity in a number of different ways. One...was through realism of the Ashcan variety, the attempt to look truthfully and frankly at contemporary life without idealizing or sentimentalizing it. Another involved the legacy of Munich and the Paris of Manet: fluid brushwork, a unified, 'sensuous' paint surface, the direct creation of form without resort to academic modeling devices." (Pioneer Artists of Taos, p. 16) Like the vigorous compositions and gritty realism of famed Aschan artist George Bellows (fig. 1), Ufer's work offers an honest and spontaneous depiction of American regional life. The composition of The Gateway creates tension and a visually intriguing narrative, inviting the viewer to walk directly into the scene and wander along converging diagonal lines through the archway towards the distant mountains. There is no additional ornamentation in the scene to distract the eye or appeal to commercial taste, rather just a frank and original snapshot into the contemporary life of the American Indian. The freshness of The Gateway is further underscored by Ufer's energized palette and brushwork balanced against the dynamic symmetry of the composition. The undulating shadows seem to bend with the constantly changing light characteristic of the Southwest, and the wispy clouds overhead float off of the picture plane, almost mirroring the foreground spilling out to the viewer to reiterate the harmony of man and nature.

    "Much of Taos painting in fact shared this prevailing mood of fin-de-siecle American art," writes Good, "reaching back as it did to the Barbizon vision of man and nature intertwined, which some Taos painters found perfectly expressed in the life of the Pueblo Indians." The Gateway masterfully embodies a current and relevant American art, a break from a now passé tradition of earlier European and American romantic depictions of man and his environs. Ufer still lends a subtle monumentality and thoughtfulness to his figures, so they exist within their history and culture. "They seem suspended in a sort of elegiac tranquility, evoking bittersweet sentiments of loss and sadness. These paintings, often executed with superb technical means, give the sense of an exalted, refined realm of values, a world at once exotic and safely domesticated, which a powerful American society had subdued and left behind, but still held in redemptive brace." (Pioneer Artists of Taos, p. 14)

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Other paintings by Walter Ufer:

The Fjord
The Fjord
The Garden Makers
The Garden Makers
The Gossipers
The Gossipers
The Hunters
The Hunters
Walter UferWalter Ufer was born in Huckeswagen, Germany. At the age of four, Ufer moved with his family to Louisville, Kentucky, where he grew up. His father was a master gunsmith noted for his fine engraving work. Though Ufer's formal education did not extend beyond grammar school, his promising artistic talent led his father to apprentice him to a commercial lithographer. At age seventeen, Ufer followed his mentor to Germany, working as a journeyman printer and engraver. He soon decided to pursue a career as a painter and enrolled in the Royal Applied Art School and the Royal Academy, both in Dresden.

By 1899 Ufer had returned to the United States to settle in Chicago. He continued his studies at the Art Institute while supporting himself as a commercial lithographer and engraver. In 1911 he married a Danish-born artist, Mary Fredericksen. The couple returned to Europe for two years, traveling extensively and studying with Walter Thor in Munich.

After returning to Chicago in 1914, Ufer, along with fellow artist Victor Higgins, was commissioned by art patron Carter Harrison to paint at Taos. Both men were captivated by the little village and decided to stay. They were invited to join the Taos Society of Artists and became full members in 1917. Though the Ufers travelled extensively, Taos was their home until Ufer's untimely death in 1936.

By all accounts, Ufer was a colorful personality. He was a generous, outspoken man with a sensitive social conscience. During the flu epidemic of 1919, he worked day and night alongside the town's only doctor, ministering to the sick.

Ufer was the first New Mexico artist to win a prize at the Carnegie International. Included among his other numerous awards are the Chicago Art Institutes's First Logan Prize, the Isidor Gold Medal, the Pennsylvania Academy's Temple Gold Medal and the National Academy of Design's Altman Prize, which he won twice. Ufer's brilliant, boldly painted compositions are distinctive images of the Taos Indian surrounded by the magnificent landscape of the region.