Born in Hudson, New York, Bert Geer Phillips was trained in fine art at the Art Students' League in New York City. He was a dedicated artist even as a young man, and constantly sought out new instructors and material in order to develop his talents as an academic realist. He studied at the Julian Academy in Paris, where he met Ernest Blumenschein and Joseph Sharp. Sharp spoke passionately about the landscape and peoples of the New Mexico pueblos, urging the younger artists to travel to the southwest in order to find natural inspiration for their art.
In 1988, taking Sharp's advice, Blumenschein and Phillips planned what is now one of the most fateful painting trips in the history of American art. Starting in Denver, the two artists planned to travel by wagon all the way to New Mexico and in to Mexico. Outside of Taos, New Mexico, the wagon lost a wheel, and Bluemenschein traveled alone to Taos to find a blacksmith. He returned excited by the landscape and city and upon arriving in Taos, Phillips decided that he would move to Taos permanently to paint. Phillips displayed his work in his studio, and studio viewing became a major draw for tourists in Taos, and continues to be an enduring element of New Mexico art culture.
In Taos, Phillips served as the de facto founder of the Taos Society of Artists, the central group in the arts scene. By 1915, there were more than a hundred artists working in Taos, a testament to the natural beauty of land and to the tenacity with which Phillips clung to the notion of Taos as a potential arts hotspot, an egalitarian collective of some of the finest academic and non-academic painters in the country.
Phillips' own work was varied, but the primary focus was on figurative pieces of the people of the New Mexico pueblos. His style never bent towards the modernist work being practiced by some of his fellow artists. Instead, he grew his knowledge of the dress and customs of the natives and painted them in romantic surrounds, often by firelight. Phillip's left behind a significant contribution to one of the most important and distinctly American art movements in history.