America through the eyes of German Immigrant Painters
America's melting pot culture welcomes all
art, regardless of its origin and makes it her own. In the relatively short span of United States history, an amazingly rich artistic development has taken place in which many ethnic identities are blended.
Some of the most significant contributions to the American art heritage have been made by German-born artists, a fact well realized in the 19th century, but later largely overlooked or minimized.
Today, in the mind of the average American, music is about the only field where Germans have significantly affected the development of the American arts. Probably one of the reasons for this assumption is the
astonishing degree to which German painters and graphic artists have been assimilated into the American culture.
Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware,
Bierstadt's wide angle views of Western panoramas, Nast
's political cartoons for Harper's Weekly, Maurer
's drawings for Currier and Ives, Prang's polychrome Christmas cards, Leydendecker's dashing collegiate types for Arrow shirt ads are now considered pure Americana. The works of these artists, far from being of a peripheral nature, helped weave some
of the most characteristic patterns in the patchwork quilt of American art.
No doubt, the very best American painters of the 18th and 19th Century were English or native-born Americans. Nevertheless, a number of
good and noteworthy painters did come from the ranks of German immigrants. Even German painters of lesser talent were able to produce images that are of important, often unique value to the cultural history of the
United States. In America, all immigrant artists felt less inhibited than in their homelands because no glorious artistic past overshadowed their work.
This rich German participation came about as a natural
consequence of the early and heavy German immigration. Since 1820, the year when the U. S. Government started to keep records, more than- seven million people have been registered as coming from the
German-speaking areas of Central Europe. Just as in the American mind the immigrants are grouped according to their language rather than to their nationality, this article also includes some artists from Austria,
Switzerland and Alsace-Lorraine. Among them, more than 400 professional painters and engravers may be numbered. These statistics do not include those German artists who had come in colonial times and had
already left a vivid pictorial record in their folk art, religious works and in a few portraits. Naturally, these artist immigrants represented not only a wide range of backgrounds, but also a striking range of
artistic quality. While some were little more than skilled craftsmen; others were among the most respected painters of their time.
In general, the number of artists immigrating seems to have fluctuated in
proportion to the general German influx. However, two exceptions can be observed when the percentage of artists notably increased: once shortly after the abortive Revolution of 1848 and then again during the
1930's after Hitler had come to power. During both periods Germany suffered a great outflow of talent including painters and engravers.
In the early phases of immigration most German artists landed in
Philadelphia, which, even after it ceased to be the national capital, remained the cultural center of the country for the first decades of the 19th century. By mid-century New York became the usual port of
entry. Both cities very rapidly developed an active artistic life, but also very soon showed a surplus of artists. This later development, coupled with the general enterprising spirit of the time, prompted
many of the more recently arrived painters to leave the area and to look for commissions and new subject matter elsewhere. German artists preferred to move to locations where a large body of Germans had already
To all these artists who had left their economically, spiritually and politically troubled homeland, America was in more than one way "the land of greater opportunities" and of "a second
chance". Besides the material advantages offered by the New World and the greater personal and spiritual freedom, North America was a continent of great natural beauty, inhabited by strange, fascinating
people and unknown species of animals and plants. Having experienced in their splintered homeland the damaging and retarding effects of disunity and fragmentation, these German immigrants instinctively supported
to the best of their abilities the sweeping cultural unification that began to develop in the United States.