Georgia O’Keeffe, Mable Luhan and the Taos Pueblo… O’Keeffe Country: Part II

With over 1,000 years behind it, the Taos Pueblo is the oldest continuously inhabited community in America. The Pueblo had already existed for 500 years when Columbus sailed for the New World in 1492. When Spanish explorers arrived in 1540, they thought they had found one of the seven golden cities of Cibola. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Mable Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan, whose long name represented her husbands, lived a soap opera kind of life. A wealthy socialite born in Buffalo, New York, she devoted her time to supporting art and bringing together the artists and intellectuals of her time: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Andre Gide, Lincoln Steffens, Walter Lippmann, Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rubenstein, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, Greta Garbo and Georgia O’Keeffe to name a few. 

Her efforts at creating artistic gatherings began in Florence, Italy where she and husband number two, Edwin Dodge, lived in a villa that had been built for the Medici. In 1912 she moved on to New York City and established a salon hosting both artists and leading radicals who espoused causes ranging from free love, to Freud, to anarchism. When she heard about the beauty of New Mexico, she sent husband number three, Maurice Sterne, west in 1917 to explore the possibilities of moving there. He wrote back, “Dearest Girl–Do you want an objective in life? Save the Indians, their art and culture. Reveal it to the world!” That was enough for Mable. She was on her way.

One of the first Indians she met in Taos was Tony Lujan, a member of Taos Pueblo. Tony persuaded Mable to buy several acres of meadow land and then helped her plan and build a four-room adobe house that continued to expand until it reached 21 rooms. The story is told, and it may be apocryphal, that Tony set up a tent in her front yard and drummed away in the night to win her love. Maurice bought a shotgun. Whether it was to eliminate the competition or do away with the infernal nighttime drumming and get a decent night’s sleep, I can only speculate.

Anyway, Mable sent Sterne packing and married Tony, her fourth and final husband. With a large house and a Native American husband, she could now focus on her plan to bring artists, writers and movie stars to promote Taos and help save the Indians and their culture. One of her major successes at recruitment was D.H. Lawrence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover fame. Another was Georgia O’Keeffe. 

A young Mable Dodge Luhan looking like the weathy socialite she was.
The Luhan House/Hotel in Taos as it looks now. Dennis Hopper stayed here when he was filming “Easy Rider” and proceeded to buy it in 1970. For seven years it was more or less a “hippie hangout.” It is now operated by a non-profit as an historic hotel and conference center. Visitors can rent the room that Georgia O’Keeffe stayed in if they wish.
A large rooster with his chest puffed out perches on top of the house and serves as a weather vane. Apparently, there was a south wind blowing when we visited.
This fellow ruled a lower perch and was one of several brightly colored ceramic roosters that decorate the house.
Smaller members of the bird kingdom live here as well. Lots of them. They had all flown south for the winter, however.
They likely perch in the magnificent cottonwoods that tower over their homes when they are in town. I can easily imagine O’Keeffe painting the trees.
Peggy and I found this interesting stairway at the back of the house…
And a sculpture by Ted Egri out front.

Luhan met O’Keeffe in New York City through Georgia’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and immediately initiated a campaign to persuade her to visit Taos. Stieglitz, a leading photographer of the time, was instrumental in persuading the art world that photography could be art. Among his projects was photographing Georgia nude and hanging the photos in his famous modern art gallery at 291 5th Avenue. The exhibit was quite controversial. He also hung original art from Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Rodin, and Cezanne— introducing Americans to avant-garde European artists. He produced show after show of O’Keeffe’s paintings, adding to her credence as a world-class artist, not to mention selling her paintings for hefty sums. 

In the summer of 1929, O’Keeffe finally took Luhan up on her offer and journeyed to New Mexico, partially because Stieglitz was having an affair with the young wife of an heir to the Sears and Roebuck fortune some 40 years his junior. But the bottom line was that O’Keeffe was introduced to Taos and fell in love with New Mexico. She brought her friend Rebecca ‘Beck’ Strand with her. Beck’s husband was Paul Strand another top photographer and, like Georgia, a protégé of Steiglitz. During a visit at Luhan’s in 1930, he met Ansel Adams and persuaded him to pursue a career in photography. Adams had been trained as a concert pianist.

Today, I will focus our remaining photos on the Pueblo, Taos and the surrounding country.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting of the Taos Pueblo
A photo I took of the Pueblo shows how little it has changed in the 90 years since O’Keeffe painted it. The round structures in front are ovens. Peggy and I ate some pie cooked in one. Quite tasty.
Here’s a close up of one of the ovens. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A photo by Ansel Adams of the Pueblo. Note the Taos Mountains towering in the background. They are part of the Sangro de Christo Range, or as translated, the Blood of Christ Range. It seems like a strange name for mountains.
Possibly the early Spaniards noticed the mountains in a fall sunset like I did from our campsite.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting of Taos Mountain.
Our guide told us that the early Indians would post a lookout on the granite outcrop to the right overlooking the Pueblo and could see enemies approaching from miles away. The ruins of the San Geronimo Church, destroyed in 1846 by American forces can be seen on the left.  (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
The ruins of the church overlook the Pueblo’s graveyard. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A close up of the ruins.
The Rio de Taos Pueblo flows through the center of the Pueblo, separating the North House we have been looking at from the South House. The creek was looking a bit cold when I photographed it. Our guide told us we were not to swim in it. No problem.
Peggy took this photo of the South House with its colorful doors and still melting snow.
I don’t know if the inhabitants regard the numerous ladders used to negotiate between floors as photo-worthy, but we did. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Peggy and I learned about adobe maintenance and repair when we visited the Pueblo. The adobe structures need to be recoated annually with a mud and straw mixture. More serious repair work requires these mud and straw bricks. I lifted one. It must have weighed close to 50 pounds.
As I thought of all the work involved in maintaining these structures, I came to appreciate that we only have to paint our house every ten years or so and replace the roof once every 20 years. (Not that I ever lived anywhere long enough to replace a roof.)
The Catholic Church at the Pueblo reminded me of the San Francisco de Assi Church.
Here is a front view of the church that I rendered in black and white.
Heading downtown for lunch after visiting the Pueblo, we were treated to a colorful Native American dance…
And lots of interesting art such as this sculpture. Taos is still a haven for artists and writers.
I conclude today’s post with another perspective on the Pueblo. This is close to the angle that Ansel Adams photographed it.

NEXT POST: We will explore Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, New Mexico where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted.

31 thoughts on “Georgia O’Keeffe, Mable Luhan and the Taos Pueblo… O’Keeffe Country: Part II

  1. Sounds like Georgia could have been the model for Lady Chatterley, eh? I knew Taos was a cultural center, but I never knew exactly how that came about. Thanks, Curt.

    • Mable and Georgia were both central in introducing Taos and New Mexico to the world, G. And both were strong, independent women who went their own way when it came to art— and men. 🙂 –Curt

    • 🙂 You’ve got that one, Peggy. And I have barely touched on her life. I’ve had great fun with both her and Georgia. Both were independent, modern women. Watch out world! Thanks. –Curt

    • When we were in Albuquerque, we stayed at an RV Campground that had existed back in the days of Route 66 and was right beside the old road, MB. Our journey through the Southwest brought us in contact with the highway several times. We always make a point of honoring it. Glad to have you ‘back on the road’ with us. –Curt

    • But, Gerard, she lives on in her unique way, continuing to fascinate and amuse us. Maybe more to the point, she lived her life exactly as she wanted to. If this is all there is, hard to ask for much more. Thanks. –Curt

  2. Curt, a fascinating post and Mable Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan was an incredible woman … her passion for the arts helped inspire and connect so many people. The landscape here is stunning, stark and no wonder O’Keeffe stayed here. Thank you for sharing this amazing place with us here!

    • I read a lot about Mable and, of course, Georgia, Annika. The more I read, the more fascinated I became. They were powerful, unique people, who lived life to its fullest.
      Peggy and I are great fans of New Mexico and its incredible landscape. Had we not found our ‘ideal’ retirement location in Southern Oregon, New Mexico was next on our list. –Curt

    • It has that unique look, doesn’t it Andrew. Possibly there is a bit of it there, given Mable’s close connection to the art of the day. That plus the mixture of Spanish and Native American culture. –Curt

    • I have the same thoughts about the hotel, Alison. It would be fun. They run some great workshops there as well. For example, Natalie Goldberg, who wrote “Writing Down to the Bone” and lives in Taos does one. Natalie is one of my all-time-favorites when it comes to writing inspiration. –Curt

  3. Your marvelously atmospheric photographs provide a good backdrop to a fascinating history of a creative aspiration that continues to inspire to this day, Curt – its relevance never greater!

    • I don’t know why we didn’t make it to the Pueblo on one of our earlier visits to Taos, Kelly, but really glad we did this time. The more I learn about Mable, and Georgia, the more I want to learn. Fascinating, larger than life, characters. –Curt

  4. Wonderful photos, especially since so many show some of the details not usually included — the bricks, for example. You mentioned Georgia painting the trees — when she was staying with Mable in 1929, she went out to the Lawrence ranch and painted The Lawrence Tree — still one of my favorites.

  5. Thanks for taking me back to a site I loved: Taos Pueblo. Your pictures (and Peggy’s) definitely do it justice. I, too, loved the white church but never thought to photo it in black and white. Nice touch. What I do envy is your tour of O’Keefe’s house, back stairs and all. We both loved our travels (although limited) of the Southwest. You’ve captured some of the best and added some much-appreciated history of the area in your post. Thanks!

  6. Oh, Mable! I love her! What an adventurer she was, and poor Tony seems to have had no choice but to woo her. Your photos make the place look so beautiful. I agree that the ladders are photogenic. I was comparing the O’Keeffe painting to the photos, and agree that it looks much the same now. That is an exciting thought to me. It makes me feel a little closer to Mabel and Georgia’s world.

  7. Pingback: Georgia (O’Keeffe) On My Mind… Again: Her Home in Abiquiu | Wandering through Time and Place

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