Presented by the A. Keith Brodkin Contemporary Western Artists Project
and Exhibit Curator Gerrianne Schaad.
Exhibit is on display in the Atherton Alcove from August 2012 through July 2013.
Bettina Louise Steinke was born on June 25, 1913, in Biddeford, Maine, to William “Jolly Bill”
Steinke and Alice M. Staples. After high school, Steinke attended the Fawcett Art School in
Newark, New Jersey, and then Cooper Union in New York City. In all, Steinke spent nearly six
years in her art education.
Through the influence of her father, she was able to land a job as his assistant in creating a
mural for the 10th anniversary of NBC Radio in 1937. Steinke’s art career was really launched by
her assignment in 1938 to do charcoal portraits of Arturo Toscanini, Ignace Paderewski, and the 105
members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The portraits were included in a souvenir book that had a
10,000 first print run. Although she used a small on-site studio for most of the portraits, she did
Toscanini’s portrait from a small perch near the stage where she could observe the maestro as he
conducted the orchestra. Both the Toscanini and Paderewski portraits are now part of the permanent
collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
For the next ten years Steinke worked as a portraitist and commercial illustrator. She worked for
the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), for whom she did portraits of
Jerome Kern and W. C. Handy; Baldwin Piano Co.; Pratt & Whitney Co.; Aetna Life & Casualty;
Texaco; Bayer Aspirin; United States Lines; and others. During World War II, Steinke did work for
the United States War Department, including portraits of Generals Henry "Hap" Arnold and Douglas
MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz. As a member of the Society of Illustrators, of which she
was member until 1961, she and other top illustrators toured military hospitals under the
auspices of the U.S.O. to do quick portraits of the wounded servicemen for their families at
home. Many photographs and over 50 letters from thankful family members document her U.S.O.
After the war, Steinke moved into the next phase of her life and career. In 1943, Steinke had
come to know Don Blair. In 1946, she was able to take the S.S. Esso Bolivar to Aruba where
Blair was working for a unit of Standard Oil of New Jersey. In the course of her visit to Aruba,
the Governor of Aruba married Steinke and Blair. This began a period of travel and adventure
that would continue for almost a decade. During this period they worked for Standard Oil of
New Jersey, United Fruit Co., Hudson's Bay Co., and others. The Blairs also started an art
gallery in Claremore, Oklahoma where, among other things, they tried to sell the work of
successful commercial illustrators in their gallery. This venture was not a success. While
in Oklahoma, Steinke met Native American artist Acee Blue Eagle, who helped her gain an
understanding of Indian culture. She also painted of portrait of Blue Eagle. On a 1947 trip,
the Blairs visited New Mexico, which would play such a pivotal role in the final phase of
In 1955, the Blairs moved to Taos, New Mexico and in the early 1960s opened a gallery there.
While in Taos, Steinke became a mentor to a group of young male artists who referred to her as
"Mother Blair." This group included Ned Jacob, George Carlson, William Sharer, and others. The
year 1970 found them moving to Santa Fe, where, as Don Hedgpeth wrote in his 1978 book on
Steinke, “The Compound on Canyon Road became home, studio, gallery, and a development business
for the Blairs.”
Later, Steinke established a larger studio at 462 Acequia Madre in Santa Fe. During this last
and most productive phase of her life, she would focus almost exclusively on private portrait
commissions and fine art genre painting, primarily depicting the Native Americans of New Mexico.
Steinke’s portrait subjects included many executives, bankers, lawyers, and other persons of
means. Notable persons painted during this period include: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lady Bird
Johnson, Joel McCrea, Amanda Blake, and Barbara Stanwyck.
Steinke and Blair worked as a team for her private portrait commissions, and it is useful to
quote at some length from the standard verbiage she sent to prospective portrait clients:
I prefer to gather all my preliminary material at one time. The procedure is not too complicated
and is easy on the subject involved. I make one or two color sketches from life. This will involve
about two hours of time, then another brief session with the subject to take several rolls of
candid camera material [black & white film]. My husband, Don Blair, will take the photographs.
The entire process can be handled in one day, one session in the morning and another in the
afternoon, or all at once, depending on the wishes of the subject. All material should,
really, be procured in surrounding typical of, or comfortable for, the subject. Therefore,
my husband and I will travel to whatever location the subject desires. The preliminary work
may also be done in my studio, if the subject prefers. However, this somewhat curtails the
feeling of locale in background material. Back in the studio, I work up the finished portrait
from my sketches and from a variety of the photographs, and from long years of portrait
knowledge. No further sittings are required of the subject. It will take me about one month to
six weeks to finish the portrait.
Steinke’s first connection with the National Cowboy Hall of Fame (NCHF) was in the mid-1960s
when she attempted to sell already completed portraits of Will Rogers and Acee Blue Eagle to
the museum. While she did eventually sell the Rogers portrait, which remains part of the
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s permanent collection, this led, more
significantly, to several high-profile portrait commissions for the NCHF. These commissions
included portraits of Joel McCrea, Frances Dee McCrea, Amanda Blake, and Barbara Stanwyck.
In 1973, Steinke was a founding member of the National Academy of Western Art (NAWA), formed
under the auspices of the NCHF. Steinke wrote a piece about the philosophy and objectives of
the group that was circulated among the members. Steinke was a member of the NAWA executive
committee and was also involved in selection of guest artists to show at the annual
exhibition and sale. Steinke was awarded the Prix de West award in 1978 for her painting,
Father and Daughter at the Crow Fair, and in 1995 the NCHF hosted a major
retrospective of her career.
In 1996, Steinke was awarded the John Singer Sargent Award for Lifetime Achievement by the
Society of Portrait Artists. Failing vision and other health problems plagued Steinke in the
late 1990s and her artistic output dropped to almost nothing. On July 11, 1999, Bettina
Steinke died, it was her wish that her ashes be scattered on the New Mexico landscape she
had grown to love.