Emil Bisttram – New Mexico’s Hungarian-American painter

In this piece we remember Emil Bisttram, a famed Hungarian-American painter, as one in a series of articles where we introduce lesser known or forgotten Hungarian immigrants of North America.

Emil Bisttram

In 1975, Emil Bisttram’s birthday, April 7, was declared “Emil Bisttram Day,” in the State of New Mexico. Very little is known about Bisttram in Hungary, yet the influential US artist was born in Nagylak in 1895. His official biography mentions Nadlac, Romania, but in 1895 Nagylak was a tiny Hungarian town that only became part of Romania after World War I. Today Nadlac is a border town between the two countries.

Emil James Bisttram was a son in a Hungarian-Greek Catholic family; his original name was Bistrán Emil. In 1906 he immigrated to the US at age 11. The family lived in one of New York City’s tenements. Little Emil didn’t speak any English and was a poor student. As a teenager he became involved in local street gangs. The turning point of his life was art education. Emil shows himself to be a talented young artist and was admitted with a scholarship to Cooper Union, the famous New York art school. He also studied at Parsons (today part of The New School) and at The Art Student’s League. Bisttram later became an art teacher at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts and also at the Master Institute of the Roerich Museum.

Emil met his future wife, Mary Huth, at Coopers Union; Mary’s father was an Austrian immigrant. They were married in 1920. Both were interested in the occult and numerology. After marrying they followed the advice of a numerologist; she changed the spelling of her name from Mary to Mayrion while Emil changed the spelling of his family name from Bistrán to Bisttram.

Self portrait of the artist

Bisttram first visited the remote and magical city of Taos, New Mexico, in 1930. It was love at a first sight so the family moved there. In 1931 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study mural painting and travelled to Mexico to work with the legendary Diego Rivera. He also knew Frida Kahlo.

After his travels Bisttram received several mural commissions from the Taos County Courthouse and the Federal Courthouse in Roswell, New Mexico. In 1932 Bisttram started the Heptagon Gallery and the Taos School of Art and later co-founded the Transcendental Painting Group and also the Taos Art Association.

Mural entitled Contemporary Justice and Woman, Department of Justice, Washington DC.

A respected artist and teacher in the Taos art community, Bisttram was also a rigorous academic. He believed students should become well acquainted with modern and classical art before settling into a fixed style of their own.

He died in 1976 in his beloved Taos, New Mexico; he was 80 years old.

György Lázár

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