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  • Walter Ufer
    Jul 22, 1876 - Aug 02, 1936
  • Making Ready - 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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Making Ready
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  • Making Ready

  • Walter Ufer
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  • 1917
    Oil on canvas
    30 x 36 in. (76.2 x 91.4 cm.)

    When Walter Ufer arrived in Taos in 1914, fresh from his studies in Germany, he brought with him a European manner of painting and an active social conscience. With these tools he fashioned an art that was rooted in tradition and nurtured by an extraordinary physical and artistic climate. From this combination of factors flowed an energetic personal style which was firmly descriptive, yet by its scale and dramatic scope brought the viewer into a direct confrontation with the subject.

    Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1876, Ufer was encouraged by his father from a young age to develop his drawing talents and was apprenticed to a commercial lithographer following grammar school. A former employee of that firm subsequently invited Ufer to come to Germany to join a firm of lithographers there, and Walter traveled to Hamburg in 1893. He remained there for a year before settling in Dresden where he studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Ufer would return to Europe frequently over the next several years but set up a more permanent residence in Chicago in 1900 where he was an instructor at the J. Francis Smith School and later was employed by the advertising department of Armour & Co. During this time Ufer was commissioned to paint many portraits of prominent members of Chicago society, including Mayor Carter H. Harrison, who would become Ufer's chief patron. It was Harrison who encouraged the artist to go to New Mexico to paint.

    "Ufer was a mature, disciplined painter by the time he arrived in New Mexico. The new environment wrought one almost immediate change in his style: the extraordinary, much-celebrated light had a revolutionary effect on his dark Munich-derived palette. Munich in its classic phase had stood for rich, somber tones that harked back to Courbet and before him to the Spanish and Dutch masters...most of Ufer's pre-Southwest portraits are muted and restrained in their coloration. Ufer's very first works in New Mexico, created in the summer of 1914 convey a sense of excited discovery in their use of bright greens, purples, blues and reds, and a sensuous enjoyment of the almost violent Southwestern contrasts of sunlight and shade which became a lasting characteristic of his work." (S.L. Good in Pioneer Artists of Taos, Denver, Colorado, 1983, pp. 127-28)

    Ufer, in his struggle to find a compelling personal style while respecting the academic tradition, found a sympathetic subject in the Taos Indian gravely pursuing his chores. Whether engaged in time-honored activities like farming or in the new jobs of house servant or assistant to the auto mechanic, his figures move through the landscape at a measured pace, sharing the inevitability and authority of the surrounding environment. Behind the matter-of-fact quality of Ufer's canvases, such as Callers (circa 1926, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., fig. 1) and Making Ready, lies a passionate commitment to both the Indian cause and the cause of American artistic independence and contemporary aesthetic theories.

    At his best, Ufer is a modern painter, and there are ready reminders of the lessons of Manet and C├ęzanne in his emphasis on the picture surface which unites the discontinuous and separately observed details of the visual world into a cohesive image. In describing his working method, Ufer noted: "I choose my motifs and take my models to my motifs. I design the painting there. I do not make any small sketches of my models first (the traditional academic approach) but put my full vitality and enthusiasm into the one and original painting." (as quoted in P.J. Broder, Taos: A Painter's Dream, New York, 1980, p. 225)

    Making Ready tells of an intensely felt and closely observed world. Ufer reveals this intensity through the vigor of his brushstroke, the saturation of color and the rejection of easily decorative effects. The composition is pared down to minimal planes of light and shadow, with broad areas composed in animated washes of color that saturate the canvas with luminosity and texture. Ufer's fluid curvilinear draftsmanship unites the scene and stimulates the eye with a constant current of energy in an otherwise static snapshot of everyday life. Ufer understood the importance and interest in paint surface and the picture plane that derived from exposure to the 1913 Armory Show. He had, in effect, one foot in the nineteenth century and one foot in the twentieth.

    Adamant about working en plein air, Ufer was known to have said that "studio work dulls the mind and the artist's palette." (El Palacio 8, Nos, 7-8: 235, July 1920, as quoted in Pioneer Artists of Taos, p. 151) In addition to his adept use of light, Ufer has conscientiously detailed the figures and setting, paying careful attention to the natural everyday dress and appearance of the Taos Indians in their environment. Sensitively aware of how his predecessors had rendered similar scenes, Ufer felt he was in a unique position to capture an authentic contemporary glimpse of an evolving life of the Taos Indian. In so doing, he reveals a drama in the ordinary and creates a monumental composition from the seemingly mundane. Ufer commented, "I paint the Indian as he is. In the garden digging--in the field working--riding amongst the sage--meeting his woman in the desert--angling for trout--in meditation...the Indian is not a fantastic figure...He resents being regarded as a curiosity." (as quoted in Pioneer Artists of Taos, pp. 128-29)

    Ufer has rendered the present work with a mastery of light and accuracy that both plays tribute to the customs of his American Indian subjects and expresses a reverence for the land where that artist and subject both live. The distinctly southwestern desert light that pervades the scene lends a sense of overall calm. Ufer has skillfully highlighted the contours of each figure with fluid strokes of light and color and thoughtfully rendered the long shadows of the horses and the adobe wall to lend immediacy to the narrative. Walter Ufer was a modern painter in a realist mode. Those qualities of modernity and realism have characterized much of the best of American painting from Homer to Hopper. The 1923 Corcoran Gallery exhibition introduction commented: "It is important to the country that this work be produced and seen. It is more important that America has again produced an artist."

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Other paintings by Walter Ufer:

Luzanna Lousuanna Lujan and Her Sisters
Luzanna Lousuanna Lujan and Her Sisters
Maize Harvest (Maisernte)
Maize Harvest (Maisernte)
Man with Olla
Man with Olla
Manuel La Jeunesse
Manuel La Jeunesse
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.