Born in Germany to parents who had immigrated the next year to Louisville, Kentucky, Walter Ufer became one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists and achieved much distinction as a painter of Pueblo Indian genre. He was a complex, enigmatic personality, claiming that he was born in Louisville rather than Germany and suffering chronic alcoholism. During periods of sobriety, he painted powerful canvases of New Mexico Indian genre, especially of the Taos Pueblo.
He showed early art talent and was encouraged by his father, a master gunsmith and by his teachers. After grammar school, he apprenticed to a lithography firm where he learned basic design principles. He spent seven years in Europe and earned his formal art education at Germany’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts where he became friends with American artists, Joseph Henry Sharp and Ernest Blumenschein.
In 1911, he married Mary Fredericksen, an artist, and in 1913, they painted in Paris, Italy and North Africa before going to Chicago. To make a living, he worked as a commercial illustrator in Chicago, and his first patron was the mayor, Carter Harrison, who arranged in 1914 for Ufer to go to Taos, New Mexico and to return several more times at his expense. Sharp and Blumenschein were already painting there, and they welcomed Ufer.
However, Ufer was not comfortable in his subservient relationship with Harrison and said unkind things about him behind his back. But lucky for Ufer, he took Harrison’s advice to paint the Indians as he saw them in Taos and not depict romanticized subject matter from the past as he had learned in European academies.
Years later, Ufer described his work in a way that would have pleased Harrison: “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” (“American Art Review” (6/99).
In 1917, he became a Taos resident for the remainder of his life and a member of the Taos Society of Artists, formed by others including Sharp and Blumenschein to promote sales of their art. He also painted in surrounding states including Arizona as early as 1905 where he sketched the Grand Canyon.
Between 1916 and 1926, Ufer earned several prestigious awards including membership in the National Academy of Design in New York and recognition by the Art Institute of Chicago. During that time, his paintings were added to permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. Throughout most of the last twenty years of his painting career, he had a very generous patron, William Henry Klauer, a wealthy businessman from Dubuque, Iowa, who provided him with the critical financial safety net to continue painting.
Ufer was highly political and dedicated to eradicating social injustice. He was an active socialist, close friend of Socialist Leader Leon Trotsky, and he frequently joined picket lines of striking workers. Not surprisingly his paintings often depicted socially oppressed Pueblo Indians, unromanticized in every day life.
His personal life was troubled by chronic alcoholism and indebtedness. Although his paintings sold well in the 1920s, their market dropped with the Stock Market crash, and their value did not increase until long after his death in 1936.
Dean Porter, “Taos Artists and Their Patrons”
Peggy and Harold Samuels, “Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West”
“American Art Review”, June 1999