Bettina Steinke Blair (1913-1999)
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Steinke is best known for portrait commissions and for her Native American portrait and genre paintings.
Bettina Steinke was born in Biddeford, Maine, but spent her first six years in Scranton, Pennsylvania where her father, Bill, worked as a cartoonist and caricaturist for the local newspaper. The family moved to suburban New York when Bill landed a radio show, "Jolly Bill and Jane," which aired for ten years on NBC.
After high school, Steinke attended the Fawcett Art School in Newark, New Jersey before enrolling at the Cooper Union. She also attended the Phoenix Art Institute in New York on scholarship during 1933 and 1934. In 1937 Steinke worked as her father's assistant on a mural at Rockefeller Center honoring the 10th anniversary of NBC Radio. This led to her first major commission, drawing charcoal portraits of Arturo Toscanini, Ignace Paderewski, and the 105 members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The portraits were published in a souvenir book at the time, and the drawings of the two conductors are now in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
From 1937 to 1947, Steinke developed her career as a commercial illustrator as well as portrait artist. Clients included Aetna Life and Casualty, Baldwin Piano, Bayer Aspirin, Pratt & Whitney, Texaco, and United States Lines. For the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), she executed portraits of W.C. Handy, Jerome Kern and others. Steinke completed several works for the U.S. War Department during World War II, including portraits of President Franklin Roosevelt, Generals Douglas MacArthur and Henry "Hap" Arnold, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and Mme. Chiang Kai-Shek. She also participated in a USO-sponsored program in which she and fellow members of the Society of Illustrators drew portrait sketches of wounded soldiers to be sent to their families back home.
In 1946 Steinke married Donald Blair, an oil company engineer and photographer who she met during the war. The following year Blair resigned his job in Aruba and the couple took on a long series of free-lanced assignments on which they worked on together, she painting and drawing and he doing documentary photography. Projects for such companies as Hudson's Bay, Standard Oil of New Jersey, and United Fruit took them on a series of adventurous travels to the likes of the Canadian Arctic, Central America, and Colombia. During this time, the Blairs also opened an art gallery in Claremore, Oklahoma, near Tulsa. Unfortunately, the project was not a financial success.
In 1955, the Blairs moved to Taos where they made a second and much more successful attempt at the gallery business in the 1960s. During their Taos years, Bettina mentored a small group of young male artists, including George Carlson and Ned Jacob, who referred to her as "Mother Blair." Bettina and Don moved to Santa Fe in 1970, establishing their home, studio and gallery in a compound on Canyon Road. They later moved into a larger studio on Agua Fria and Garcia Streets. In New Mexico, Bettina spent much of her time on the Native American portraits and genre paintings (especially Pueblo dance scenes) for which she continues to be famous. At the same time she continued her very active career in commissioned portraits. Sitters during this period included a number of Hollywood luminaries such as John Wayne, Joel and Frances McCrea, Amanda Blake, and Barbara Stanwyck. Steinke's standard method for portraits was to make one or two live color sketches in an environment of the subject's choosing, and then Don would take several rolls of candid photos which she would use while executing the painting in the studio.
Steinke became involved with the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City during the 1960s, and was a founding member of the National Academy of Western Art under the auspices of NCHF. She received two awards from NCHF in the 1970s and that museum mounted a retrospective of her work in 1995. In 1996 Bettina Steinke received the John Singer Sargent Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Society of Portrait Artists.