© Laura Walker

Emil Bisttram (1895–1976)

James Emil Bisttram was an American artist who lived in New York and Taos, New Mexico, and was known for his modernist work.

Bisttram was born in Hungary, near the Romanian border, in 1895. When he was 11 years old, his family immigrated to New York City. Emil grew up in the tenement buildings that had become the destination for so many Eastern European immigrant families. He was a talented artist, and after a few years began his schooling at the National Academy of Art and Design, then Cooper Union, Parsons, and The Art Student’s League. He began teaching soon after completing school, first at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, and then at the Master Institute of the Roerich Museum.

Bisttram first visited Taos in the summer of 1930. He later fell in love with the scenery and moved there. In 1931 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study mural painting. The fellowship enabled Bisttram to travel to Mexico where he studied mural painting with the world famous muralist Diego Rivera. Numerous mural commissions were to follow throughout his career (the Department of Justice in Washington D.C., The Taos County Courthouse, New Mexico, and the Federal Courthouse in Roswell, New Mexico.) In 1938, Bisttram founded the Transcendental Painting Group with Raymond Jonson and several other Santa Fe artists.

In 1952, Bisttram co-founded the Taos Art Association, and later in 1959 won the Grand Prize for painting at the New Mexico State Fair.

In 1970, Emil Bisttram served as a judge and monitor for a state-wide arts grant competition for art to be placed in the newly constructed County Courthouse building, designed by architect Bill Menningbach of Taos. Ken Drew, a local sculptor, won the competition. Bisttram oversaw the project for the next two years, and in June 1972 Drew completed the installation. Then-Senator Joseph Montoya and other dignitaries from Santa Fe officiated at the dedication ceremonies. In 1975, his birthday, April 7, was declared “Emil Bisttram Day,” a New Mexico state holiday.

His work can be found in the following public collections:

New Mexico Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Phoenix Art Museum
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art

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