Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bettina Steinke On Her Own Terms


By Terry Howell Stanley
Edited by Luana Luconi Winner
The Art of the Portrait Journal
Issue No. 34, 4th Quarter 2006

Bettina at the easel, 1940
The Oklahoma Journal Record dubbed Bettina Steinke the “acknowledged Grande Dame of portrait painting” on the occasion of her retrospective exhibition (at the Cowboy Hall of Fame) in 1995. What else would you call an artist whose first commissioned assignment resulted in two paintings that are now part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection? In talking to Bettina’s peers and protégés, tags of “mentor”, “critic" and “teacher” were often heard, but the common thread in all of the conversations was an almost overwhelming sense of love and admiration. It quickly became evident that any profile of Bettina needed to address the person as well as the artwork in order to do her justice.

            Bettina Steinke had the DNA of an artist: Her father, William (“Jolly Bill”) Steinke, was an editorial caricaturist (and later a popular children’s radio show host) who nurtured her talent and encouraged her to pursue her dreams.  She attended Fawcett Art Institute in New Jersey, Cooper Union and the Phoenix Art Institute (both in New York City) over the course of six years. 


Her first commission in 1937 was to produce portraits of 107 members of the NBC Studio Orchestra in New York for a 10th Anniversary promotional book.  She produced the charcoal portraits in a tiny studio set up at NBC where the musicians would pose for her, but painted a portrait of the orchestra’s conductor Arturo Toscanini from a space near the stage as he worked.  This portrait, full of life, energy and movement is now part of the National Portrait Gallery collection (along with Bettina’s portrait of Ignace Paderewski, another conductor of the Orchestra and widely known at the time as the greatest pianist who ever lived).

Bettina, drawing in charcoal.
During the next ten years, Bettina worked as a portraitist and illustrator in New York City, gradually gaining notoriety in a business dominated by men and a society which actively discouraged women from pursuing careers, particularly in the “wild” arts.  During WWII, she did work for the War Department and even toured military hospital installations where she did bedside sketches of injured soldiers that were then sent home to their families.

In 1943 Bettina became acquainted with a photographer named Don Blair. They corresponded regularly until 1946 when she went to visit him in Aruba where he was working at the time: During that visit, they were married and began a lifelong synergistic method of working that allowed each to excel in their respective mediums with the assistance of the other. For Bettina, that meant that when her portrait subjects, (such as Dwight D. Eisenhower), were unable to sit for the entire portrait-making process, Bettina would have an initial meeting with the individual, spending a day with them, talking to them, getting his/her ideas for the portrait and doing some preliminary sketches and color notes. Don would take several rolls of candid photos from which Bettina would finish the painting.  She preferred to go to the subject and meet them in their natural environment: Occasionally this meeting would be done in her studio, but she felt that the person might be somehow inhibited in that unfamiliar surrounding.  She would take about six to eight weeks to complete a portrait commission.

Don and Bettina established their base of operation in Oklahoma. They lived modestly and traveled the world for their work.  In 1955, they moved to Taos and in the early 60’s, they opened a gallery there. Bettina began what would become a lifetime of mentoring with a group of young male artists. In 1970 the Blairs migrated to Santa Fe, where they stayed until their deaths. Bettina’s work focused on commissioned portraits and paintings of Native Americans and the Southwest culture, with only the odd illustration job being accepted if a project piqued her interest.


Bettina and Don Blair
Bettina was an avid correspondent with both protégés and friends.  The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (NCWH) holds a huge collection of her letters, business and personal papers that document the growth of her reputation as a national presence in the visual arts and her wide circle of friends.

Besides winning public acclaim for her work, it was acknowledged through awards and prizes in competitions she entered. In 1978, Bettina was awarded the prestigious Prix de West prize for her painting “Father & Daughter at the Crow Fair.”  The National Cowboy Hall of Fame (NCHF) hosted the definitive retrospective of her career in 1995, when her sight and health were deteriorating. The Society of Portrait Artists’ John Singer Sargent Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to her in 1996.

The art of Bettina Steinke now graces private collections throughout the world and is included in important museum collections as well, including the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK, The National Academy of Western Art (of which Bettina was a founder and executive board member in the early 70’s), and The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma (Norman, OK).

None of the honors so justifiably awarded to Bettina Steinke shine quite as brightly as do the memories of those who knew her, including some of the most famous artists of our time. 

When I first emailed renowned painter and sculptor Edward Jonas to request an interview with him to talk about Bettina Steinke, I received the following reply: “She was a refreshing talented, chain-smoking, no-nonsense called-them-as-she-saw-'em personality as I have ever met.  She and her husband Don could entertain you for hours with story after story always accented with her knee-slapping laughter and Don smirky grins. Christine and I do miss them very much and would love to share our memories.  I wished she could have lived forever!”

Ed said he first became Bettina Steinke’s work when he saw it in gallery brochures as a teenager. In the early-to-mid 1980’s, he saw an ad for a workshop with her in Scottsdale, he wrote to her, and a long friendship began.  He described Bettina as an unpretentious person who primarily saw herself as a portraitist and illustrator who worked to earn the respect of her peers.   She adamantly felt that women artists and men artists must compete head-to-head…that “lowering the bar” for women would be doing them a disservice.  Bettina’s conviction in this matter was so strong that she turned down an invitation accept an honor awarded by a western art society to become the first woman artist inducted to it: She wanted induction as an artist! Bettina told Ed that when she was in school in New York, she realized if one looks for color, it is found, but if one doesn’t look for it, they will see gray. “She had a very direct philosophy: Learn to see and paint what you see.”  Ed described Bettina’s brushstrokes as bravura with Sargent’s directness but with a much more crafted look.  He found her charcoal drawings among her most intriguing work.

“Bettina taught an approach that harkened back to Pre-WWII – Robert Henri, Aikens, and the Europeans. She strove for simplicity.  She would look at the model for a while and analyze the large shapes, values and colors and then begin to block in the head and other forms always working from large to small.  Her approach was to break each surface such as the face and neck, the hair, the clothing and the background either into a simple light and shadow area or to its nearest value.  She then would begin to work the next size forms within each area down until she would place the final highlights.  Often she would back-up, look and if it didn't suit her eye, a "colorful" comment to herself might be made, the area wiped or scraped and then it was adjusted.  If it wasn't exactly as she wished her down home honesty wouldn't allow it to stay on the surface.

“It wasn't how she put the color and shapes onto the canvas or paper that made her work so wonderful but how her mind and eyes could so quickly see and know just what it was that made each subject or scene exciting to her.  She could pare things down to their unique essence.  Her talent was supported by years of practice and self criticism with which she never let herself off the hook.  She loved the challenge, and you knew that she lived for it even beyond when she could no longer work because of her failing eyesight.  The easel and chair stayed up ready to go in the corner of her living- room/studio beyond the point of her ability to use them.”

Ed also shared a letter written to him by Bettina in 1996 in which she said, “In every day life as well as teaching, if the subject is portraiture truth must be faced without being mean or overbearing! I am very mean to myself in the studio…In that retrospective show (in 1995) I found one thing wrong on one of the canvases – a small place near a hand (and) from then on I didn’t look at any more stuff! Was it Monet who said on his dying bed ‘If I had 20 more years I could have done something good?’ I guess we all feel like that.”

When I asked Everett Raymond Kinstler, (whom Bettina referred to as her “artist son”) about her, the emotions evoked in him were immediately evident in his voice. “She was outspoken, funny, and tough.  She deplored what she called ‘commercial, slick portrait painters,’ and was one helluva painter.”  According to him, Bettina worked and drew directly – no layers or glazing for her!  Ray described being amazed at Bettina’s method of drawing a portrait from the top of the head on down.  Her use of the reference photos that Don took of her portrait subjects were used primarily to remind her of nuances of the individual but the portrait itself was completed from her own drawings and notes, not copied from a photo.  She was a strong proponent of drawing and painting from life. “Her studio was her living room; she piled paint ten inches high on her palette and used vertical files to store her canvases.” About 30 typewritten letters Bettina sent to Ray over the course of several decades are included with the collection of his correspondence that is now housed at Boston University.

Ray recalled an event about 20 years ago: “Bettina, Glenna Goodacre and I shared a Denver seminar interpreting artist Chen Chi.  I fell off the stage (I think Bettina pushed me!) and my easel collapsed, my canvas slipped onto the floor…and the audience thought it was all rehearsed. No one laughed harder than the three of us! We talked about taking our show on the road…”

Bettina and Don at the San Dimas
Festival of Western Arts
San Dimas, California, 1982
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
Richard Schmid studied with Bettina for a long time and even named his daughter after her.  He said that she totally embraced the Western lifestyle after her marriage to Don and moving to Oklahoma.  She made friends with many famous and wealthy people such as Choke Phillips of the Phillips Oil Company, but they were all “down home” types like herself.  “She and Don lived rather frugally, but very happily.  In the end, she suffered macular degeneration among other things and her loss of sight was very, very sad.”

Urania Christy Tarbet recalled meeting Bettina on many occasions and always enjoying her directness and humor.  “Bettina was a most powerful woman, mentally. She had great presence. She knew herself and her work. She was beautiful and sharing.”  Urania called Bettina “the leading woman in western art and she was a driving force in the western movement. She was very powerful emotionally and didn’t hold back on her colors.”  The last time Urania saw Bettina was in the late 90’s, at a rooftop party in Denver. She was still smoking up a storm and she looked tiny…frail…never a word I ever associated with her before”, but still displaying her trademark humor.

The American art world lost our “Grande Dame” in July of 1999. As she wished, her ashes were spread in New Mexico.  Her husband Don died little more than a year later, with romantics among us attributing his death to a heart broken by life without his beloved Bettina.  Without exception, every person who knew her that I spoke with to gather information for this article mourns Bettina’s passing and spoke of her with great affection and admiration. Can any artist – or person – hope for a greater legacy?

For those who wish to know more about Bettina Steinke and her work, there are several books that may be of interest:  Bettina: Portraying Life in Art” by Don Hedgpeth (Northland Publishing, 1978); “From Heartland Profiles O” by Lawrence C. Powell, illustrated by Bettina Steinke (Northland Publishing, 1976); “The Last War Trail: The Utes and the Settlement of Colorado” by Robert Emmitt, illustrated by Bettina Steinke (University of Oklahoma Press, 1972). Bettina’s work is also featured in many “how-to” books, among them “The NBC Symphony Orchestra” by Hendrick Willem et al (National Broadcasting Company, 1939); “The Art of Pastel Portraiture” by Madlyn-Ann C. Woolwich (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1996); and “Painting Beautiful Skin Tones With Color & Light in oil, Pastel and Watercolor” by Chris Saper (North Light Books, 2001).

1 comment:

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