Walter Ufer had a great deal of concern for the plight of the American Indian, and portrayed them not as exotic, mystical figures engaged in ritual dances and religious rites, but as real people confronted with the harsh realities of pueblo life, which was often undignified and even degrading. He refused to romanticize the Indians, and portrayed them as “passive, dejected people, second-class citizens in the white man’s world.” Ufer was generous, outspoken, and opinionated, and worked hard for social and economic reform during the Depression years.
Ufer was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of German immigrants. When he showed an interest and talent in art as a teenager, he was apprenticed to a lithographer in his hometown, and, in 1893, when his employer returned to Hamburg, Germany, Ufer was invited to accompany him. This gave him the opportunity to continue his artistic training at the Royal Applied Art School. He spent the next three years in Dresden, where he worked as a lithographer in order to pay for classes at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Ufer returned to Louisville in 1898 and, unable to find an audience for his paintings, took a job as an illustrator for the Louisville Courier for two years.
Ufer moved to Chicago in 1900. He worked as an engraver while studying at the J. Smith School and in 1904, he married Mary Monrad Frederiksen, a fellow art student. That year, he joined the faculty of the Smith School, and earned extra money by taking portrait commissions. The couple went to Europe in 1911, visiting France, Italy, Germany, North Africa, Sweden, and Denmark. When they returned to Chicago in 1913, Ufer exhibited his work, and it caught the eye of Mayor Carter H. Harrison, an avid art collector. Harrison was a staunch supporter of the Taos, New Mexico art community, and sponsored numerous artists who worked there. Harrison financed Ufer’s first trip to Taos in the summer of 1914, and thus began Ufer’s long association with the Southwest. When he arrived, he exclaimed, “God’s country! I expect to live and die here.” At first Ufer worked in Taos only in the summer and spent winters in New York, but he later moved there permanently. He became a member of the Taos Society of Artists in 1917 and exhibited with the group until it disbanded in 1927. He showed his work at all of the major museum invitationals, and by 1920 he was represented in numerous museum collections such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gilcrease Institute, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He won many prestigious awards during his career, including the First Frank Logan Prize in 1917 from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Thomas B. Clarke Prize from the National Academy of Design in 1918. He had a one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1922 and was elected an Academician by the National Academy in 1926. He was an active and outspoken member of many artist organizations, and throughout his career he supported and encouraged young artists who came to Taos seeking inspiration.