Bisttram was born in Hungary, near the Romanian border, in 1895. When he was 11-years old, his family immigrated to New York City. Emil grew up in the tenement buildings that had become the destination for so many Eastern European immigrant families. He was a talented artist, and after a few years began his schooling at the National Academy of Art and Design, then Cooper Union, Parsons, and The Art Student's League. He began teaching soon after completing school, first at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, and then at the Master Institute of the Roerich Museum.
Bisttram first visited Taos in the summer of 1930. He later fell in love with the scenery and moved there. In 1931 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study mural painting. The fellowship enabled Bisttram to travel to Mexico where he studied mural painting with the world famous muralist Diego Rivera. Numerous mural commissions were to follow throughout his career (the Department of Justice in Washington D.C., The Taos County Courthouse, New Mexico, and the Federal Courthouse in Roswell, New Mexico.)
In 1952, Bisttram co-founded the Taos Art Association, and later in '59 won the Grand Prize for painting at the New Mexico State Fair.
In 1970, Emil Bisttram would serve as a judge and monitor for a state-wide arts grant competition for art to be placed in the newly constructed County Courthouse building, designed by architect Bill Menningbach of Taos. Ken Drew, a local sculptor won the competition. Bisttram overseered the project for the next two years, and in June 1972 Drew completed the installation. Then-Senator Joseph Montoya and other dignitaries from Santa Fe would officiate at the dedication ceremonies.