Joseph Imhof was born in Brooklyn, New York. His first exposure to art was at age six when his godfather gave him a box of watercolors. Upon graduation, his father refused him further education unless he became a priest. Rejecting his father’s wishes, he started teaching himself lithography and was hired by Currier & Ives in New York City. He eventually earned enough money from this job to buy a bookstore. He eventually quit his job and sold the bookstore to pursue a formal art education in Europe.
In 1891, he traveled to Europe for four years of formal training in Paris, Brussels, Antwerp and Munich. In Antwerp, he met and sketched Buffalo Bill Cody and the Native Americans in the Wild West Show, which was making a grand tour of Europe. Imhof found something in the Native's face that inspired him to want to paint the Native American. This experience set in place a style of painting for the rest of his life which focused on ethnographic and anthropological data rather than artistic expression. Ironically, it was this experience with Buffalo Bill in Europe that set the direction of his career rather than his exposure to the European artists. However, lithography methods he learned in Europe had a life-long influence on his work.
When Imhof returned to the United States he began to study the Iroquoise Indians in New York and Canada. Intending to return to Europe, he traveled East but got sidetracked from his travel in New York City. He would spend ten years working on photography and color printing inventions in New York City. His innovations he made, while in the city, financed his early painting career.
In 1897, he married Sarah Stuart and the two would travel to Europe several times until 1905. In that year the couple traveled to the Southwest for the first time to record the ceremonies of the Pueblo Indians. Joseph who spent much time traveling throughout the region, built a studio in Albuquerque in 1906. By 1929, he and his wife closed their studio in New York and moved to their new home in Taos, New Mexico.
His studio in Taos, was built on right on the edge of the reservation facing the Sacred Mountain behind Taos Pueblo. Imhof became "The Grand Old Man of the Pueblos" as long time resident and neighbor, Mabel Dodge Luhan, would refer to him by.
In addition, to painting the Native Americans of New Mexico, he collected many Native artifacts and recorded ethnological information with his paintbrush. His most notable painted record is the story of Kivas and Corn which he gifted to the University of New Mexico. Through his study of the kivas of Pueblo people, Imhof was able to design the ceremonial fireplace for the Koshare Indian Dancers after they built the Koshare Kiva in 1949.
Imhof owned the first lithography press in Taos, from which he made prints that were of ethnological value and taught others lithography.
Imhof, a dedicated artist, had models live in his home before he attempted to put them on canvas. He said that he had to know the man before he could paint him. The Natives said that Imhof put a man's soul in his eyes, they said that the eyes revealed the inside of a man.
The Koshare Indian Museum houses one of the largest collections of Imhof paintings. The only collection believed to be larger is that owned by the University of New Mexico.
Joseph Imhof died in the June of 1955 leaving an important legacy of the American Southwest. He left behind a collection of artwork which documented the religious ceremonies of Pueblo Indians in large.
When Sarah Imhof became ill and was liquidating her collection she wanted some of her husband’s paintings to go to the Koshares. The Koshares had a quick raffle to raise the money and purchased several pieces from the collection. Today those Imhof’s are the pride of our collection.
Imhof's wife Sarah in later years said of her husband, “…a gentle, dignified man who loathed the publicity and the limelight that other artists seemed to seek; he avoided publicity at all times…”