Joseph Sharp. E. Irving Couse. W. Herbert Dunton. Ernest Blumenschein. O.E. Berninghaus. Bert Phillips. Anyone who knows of the founders of the famous Taos Society of Artists (TSA) has heard these names. Catharine Carter Critcher? Not a name so well known. Critcher was a portrait painter from Virginia who became the first and only woman member of the selective group of Taos masters.
Born just after the Civil War in 1868 to an aristocratic family, Critcher was the youngest of five siblings. She loved climbing trees and horseback riding. She was called to the arts at a young age and was encouraged by her parents. But by the time she reached college, Critcher had rejected traditional higher education.
"Ever since I can remember, I wanted to draw and paint," Critcher said in a1948 interview for the Jefferson Republican provided by Taos Art Museum at Fechin House Director V. Susan Fisher. "Of course, I had the necessary education, but I was not interested in college — I just wanted to study art."
Her dogged persuasion of her parents to allow her to study in New York paid off. With their blessing, she spent a year at Cooper Union and then migrated a little south to the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C.
During a time in our country when men were the bread winners, had career goals, were the sole lawmakers and defined culture, and women were expected to make a home and raise children, Critcher was focused on her training in the neo-classical tradition of portraiture. The natural observer accumulated many awards along her journey.
"Catharine captured an outside likeness that she used as a portal to the inside of a subject's inner-lying nature," expressed Fisher. "It came natural to her. It was her motivation. She was fascinated by people around her and she expressed that nonverbally through art."
At the age of 27, Critcher embarked on a professional career starting with painting portraits of prominent Virginia families. In 1904, she jumped the pond to study in France at Académie Julian, taking courses from Jean-Paul Laurens and Charles Hoffbauer.
This era in the beginning of World War I was important in the burgeoning art movement. It was a fruitful time for the arts in America and Europe. Critcher had the initiative and drive to make her own money, and saw this movement as a good time to stick her neck out there into a sea of male artists — hoping not to get bitten. Really, she was already making a name for herself among her male peers. It was, as Fisher stated, a time of growth, maturity and confidence for Critcher.
Just one year after arriving in France, she started Cours Critcher (Critcher Course) while still a student in her 30s. The reasons were to make money and help American students adjust to the requirements of study in France. Even though her father, a prominent judge, was supportive of his daughter, Critcher was determined to make it on her own.
"Of course I had very little money," Critcher continued in the 1948 interview. "I opened a class in art, employing two Frenchmen — artists — as my assistants. They spoke very little English and I acted as their interpreter and conducted the class."
She made a living off the classes for four years during the winter months. In the summer, she conducted tours for Americans visiting Europe to supplement her income.
Also during this time, Critcher was the first Honor Student at Académie Julian. All of her entries into the prestigious Paris Salon were accepted for exhibition, and she was elected the president of American Women Painters group in Paris. Regarding the latter, female artists felt they needed to bond, Fisher explained, "to face challenges — few women's works were accepted into exhibitions." Not to mention, this was the turn of the century when men were drawing from real life in their art, like using nude models. That, however, was deemed inappropriate for women to draw, let alone be in the presence of.
In Critcher's time, artists became known by competing in international salons and in American juried academic exhibitions, of which she was routinely exhibited and honored. Even famed master Edgar Degas once said of Critcher's work, "Who would have thought a woman could paint like that."
Upon retuning to the U.S. at age 41, Critcher was still just remotely accepted. But she kept looking for work painting portraits. It was her love. All people were her muse. She painted a number of notable individuals such as bishops, military officers and politicians, including President Woodrow Wilson.
A new love — an instant intrigue — entered her life in 1920. The TSA was actively circulating exhibits around the country because it was difficult to sell their work just in Taos. The exhibits gave their art a more expansive audience and list of potential buyers. The TSA men popularized the view of the West in their paintings.
"It was really a campaign to glorify the West and show it as not so scary," Fisher said.
Critcher sees the TSA art at an East Coast exhibit and is smitten by it. She traveled to Taos alone — without any outside financial backing — to see the birthplace and inspiration of the TSA for herself.
"Taos is unlike any place God ever made, I believe, and therein is its charm, and no place could be more conducive to work; there are models galore and no phones. The artists all live in these attractive, funny little adobe house away from the world, food, foes and friends," as Fisher quoted Critcher during a Taos Art Museum presentation about the artist.
In 1922 — her second summer of coming to Taos — with an introduction letter in hand written by fellow painter C. Powell Minnigerode to TSA members Victor Higgins and Walter Ufer, Critcher finally got the "in" she needed. The fact that they became aware of Critcher's work, gave her any advice she sought and wanted to continue on a mission of building a national audience, TSA's Berninghaus and Phillips nominated her for membership on June 29, 1924.
That same year on July 12, 56-year-old Critcher was chosen as the 10th active member of the TSA, as recorded in the book, "The Taos Society of Artists," edited and annotated by Robert R. White. After which, to her friend Powell, Critcher wrote, "You will be pleased, I know, to hear that a letter just rec'd [sic] from Mr. Couse informs me that I have been unanimously elected to active membership in the Taos Society of Artists. It is nice to be the first and only woman in it. I am feeling very good about it."
In 1924, World War I was over, prohibition was the law of the land, women had gained the right to vote and the emergence of the "flapper" culture influenced young women to be more free and independent — a fuel of the so-called “sexual revolution.” While TSA meeting minutes reported a "unanimous" decision, given the sheltered and limited gender role still imposed on women, was there much debate about welcoming the first female into the inclusive group of artists?
"I rather suspect it wasn’t a big controversy," Fisher commented. "She already had a great reputation and they were looking to expand their impact."
Fisher is likely on to something. According to Dorothy Berninghaus Brandenburg — daughter of Oscar Berninghaus — the following was written for her daughter, Barbara Brenner, who was gathering information in 1970 and was used in articles about Oscar Berninghaus:
"Critcher was a good friend of all of the Taos group and in particular of my father, Oscar E. Berninghaus, one of the founders of our Taos Society of Artists. Such a lovely lady she was, quite nice looking and so very gracious. I often wonder how she got along with some of those old boys in the Society because they were pretty positive and pleased with themselves, and to 'take in' a woman in their group was quite a consideration. I recall Catharine as having a very deep voice, her complexion very natural, her hair graying and a bit unkempt, and her clothes were unimportant to her I am sure. Those things impressed me more at my age than her capabilities as a painter. She was so very kind to me and liked to help in the kitchen when she came to have lunch, but I was learning at the time and preferred my own way so would send her back to my father to enjoy a before lunch cocktail."
For nearly 10 years, Critcher returned to Taos every summer from Washington, D.C., to paint portraits of Spanish and American Indian natives. This is when her style, her technique, really developed. Back in Washington, she was painting commissioned portraits of blue-blooded clientele, which were all about their vanity. In Taos, Critcher could explore the essence of a person instead of focusing on their shell. Some of the first portraits she completed in Taos were a series of Indian Chief Light Lightning.
"She was not moved by romanticizing the West or Indians," Fisher explained. "She rejected all of that. She wanted to understand Pueblo people because they were so foreign to her and she was attracted to that."
The TSA disbanded in 1927. Critcher remained successful throughout her later years, but according to Fisher, she outlived her money and died in 1964 at age 95 in a Virginia nursing home. She taught art until age 72. She never married, never had children. Instead, Critcher bucked the traditional norm — broke the mold of what it meant to be a successful woman — and devoted her life to her art.
Critcher's portraits are hard to find in collections. However, her portrait titled "The Hunter" has a permanent home at the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House.