Emil Bisttram was born on the Hungarian-Romanian border on April 7, 1895. At the age of 11, in 1906, his parents immigrated to the United States with three sons and a daughter. The family settled in the tenements of New York City, called the Irish Buggy Row. It was in the artistic metropolis that Bisttram was educated, mainly through night courses, at a number of art schools including: the National Academy of Art and Design, Cooper Union Art School, Parson’s School of Design, the American Student’s League, and the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts.
By the age of 21, Bisttram founded, what has been noted as, the country’s first free-lance advertising art agency. In 1919, he met the love of his life, Mayrion, at the Parson’s School of Design. They were married that same year. Bisttram’s affinity towards teaching as well as producing art was first realized at the Parson’s School of Design, where he taught from 1920 until 1925. In 1923 Bisttram began to teach at the Master Institute of the Roerich Museum in New York as well; a career move that would have a profound and rippling effect on his life thereafter. It was from the schools founder, Nicholas Konstantin Roerich, the Russian mystic and philosopher, that Bisttram learned of a New Mexico town, Taos.
Roerich had spent some time in Santa Fe in early 1921 and most likely encouraged Bisttram to travel to New Mexico, which he did in the summer of 1930. Although New Mexico had become a mecca for artists in the early twentieth century, both for its unique landscape and inexpensive cost of living, Bisttram found himself blocked artistically during his three month stay. By his own account he states that, Whenever I tried to paint what was before me I was frustrated by the grandeur of the scenery and the limitless space. Above all a strange, almost mystic quality of light. Bisttram returned to New York only to leave once again in 1931, after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship for Fine Arts. This provided him with the opportunity to study mural painting with famed muralist Diego Rivera in Mexico, who was working on the National Palace murals in Mexico City at that time.
In 1932, Bisttram returned to Taos, where his wife and mother-in-law had lived during his time in Mexico, to established residence. That same year his passion for teaching led him to found the Taos School of Art (later the Bisttram School of Fine Art), where he remained as director until his death. In 1932, the Heptagon Gallery, Taos’ first commercial gallery, opened under his direction. Bisttram was consistently involved in the development of the artistic community in New Mexico. In 1938, he along with fellow artist Raymond Johnson and others founded the Transcendental Painting Group in Santa Fe, New Mexico , with the objective to advance painting beyond the appearance of the physical world. In 1952 he co-founded the Taos Art Association.
In 1975, April 7th was declared Emil Bisttram Day, a New Mexico state holiday. Sadly the next year Bisttram succumbed to his ten-year struggle with cancer and died in Taos, New Mexico, at the age of 81, on February 26, 1976.