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German Immigrant Painters 8

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The Munich Style

While the artist illustrators concentrated on the typical and newsworthy aspects of American life, the so-called "salon painters" showed a far more international attitude.  During the last three decades of the 19th century their exhibits in the newly founded museums, art academies, art unions and commercial galleries, displayed few pictures with native American themes.  These institutions reflected the great change in taste that had come over America since the Civil War.  The United States began to assume an international role and its people strove for greater sophistication.  This desire prompted even more American artists to study abroad.  But new ones now replaced the old favorite European art centers.  First Munich and later, and more lastingly, Paris became the art capitals of Europe.

During the 19th century, under the prodigal rule of the art-loving kings of Bavaria, Munich gained the leading position in Germany's culture.  In addition, since the failure of the revolution of 1848 had brought so many liberal-minded cultivated Germans to America, the German cultural influence in America had noticeably increased.  This was particularly true of the middle and far Western cities of Cincinnati, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and San Francisco, where Germans had settled in great numbers.  Some of them helped to direct American-born painters to Munich, especially encouraging those who were children of German immigrants, like Frank Duveneck, Charles Schreyvogl, and Charles Ulrich.  But equally large was the number of American artists who had no German ties.  Among them were David O'Neal, John H. Twachtman, John White Alexander, William Merritt Chase, and William M. Harnett.  Each of these important American artists extracted from their Munich experience different elements and combined them with other European influence to develop a more personal style after their return to America

The Munich style, as most brilliantly formulated by Wilhelm Leibl, was generally identified with a dark, richly pigmented, fluently brushed manner of painting, at once highly realistic and atmospheric.  It was this side of the Munich style which Duveneck, Chase, and Twachtman carried to America.  But Leibl himself practiced two distinct ways of painting.  Besides his virtuoso, broad brushwork, he developed a meticulous "Old Master" technique, reminiscent of 15th and 16th century Flemish and German painting.  This second, more linear finely brushed and polished style, Leibl used to achieve an intensified naturalism.  But in either method, Leibl painted his pictures with a firm planar, underlying structure.  This style contrasted with the loose picture construction of the contemporary French Impressionism.

The heightened naturalism of Leibl's finely painted pictures also found its way to America through the trompe l'oeil paintings of William M. Harnett.  This Irish-born American master studied in Munich from 1880-1884.  He painted the first version of his most celebrated painting Alter the Hunt in his Munich studio in 1883.

The intertwining of the American and German artistic development that occurred during the last quarter of the 19th Century, was further strengthened through the immigration of German painters to America.  Thoroughly schooled in the Munich style, Ignaz Gaugengigl (1855 -1932), who settled in Boston, Joseph Decker (1853 -1924), who worked in greater New York and CIRCA A. Meurer, who went to the mid-west, easily blended into the American art scene of their day.  Indicative of the high esteem which German artists enjoyed in parts of the United States during the 1880's, are the huge cycloramas that they were commissioned to paint.  In 1883, a Munich painter-entrepreneur William Wehner, established in Milwaukee the studios of the American Panorama Company to paint realistic representations of historical events to such a large scale that they would create the illusion of the beholder's own involvement in the painted scene.  To realize his mammoth panoramas, Wehner imported a team of ten artists from Germany.  The first of the big pictures was the Battle of Missionary Ridge, followed in 1885 by the Battle of Atlanta, the most dramatic battle of the Civil War.  After the most thorough research to reconstruct the historical events as faithfully as possible, the battle scenes were painted in five large sections.  When Hollywood studios made their masterpiece Gone with the Wind they took a direct and obvious inspiration from the Atlanta Cyclorama and made the battle the spectacular high point of their film.

To a considerable extent the Munich style directly or indirectly influenced the following generations of American painting.  Munich realism and use of light lay at the roots of the Ash Can School, which Edward Hopper defined as "an art of intense reality".  George B. Luks, another member of the "Eight" studied for some time in Munich.  Robert Henri, George Bellows and John Sloan, all part of this first modern New York school studied under William M. Chase, who proved to have been the most important member of the American artists' colony in Munich.  Leibl's "Old Master" technique is echoed in one of the most typical and well known of American paintings of the 20th century.  American Gothic was painted by Grant Wood in his Mid-Western hometown, shortly after he had returned from a work study year in Munich.  Towards the end of the century, Joseph Christian Leydendecker's (1874-193l) poster art played a major role in the development of commercial art, a field where the United States took the lead.  The German immigrant's designs for Arrow Shirts, Kellogg's Cornflakes, Ivory Soap and the covers of such popular magazines as Collier's presaged the American Pop Art style.

In reflecting upon the German contributions to the 18th and 19th century American art heritage, it must be emphasized that our survey in incomplete and many good artists remain unmentioned.  While this article contains examples of artists left out, it also shows only a small fragment of the large treasure of pictures created by German artists in America.  Nevertheless, the fact emerges that the role of Germans was significant in all phases of the United States' artistic development.  Although, at times, the German immigrant artists captured the American images with a characteristic German vision and technique, they added their artistic talent to the crucible of American culture with genuine devotion and without any reservation.

ANNELIESE HARDING, adapted by Paul Davitt

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