Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on March 5, 2003 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the Lightner Museum. The essay was earlier published in a 28-page illustrated catalogue titled Illustrations and Impressions: The Rediscovered Works of Richard Zschaebitz, 1860-1912. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Lightner Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Illustrations and Impressions: The Rediscovered Works of Richard Zschaebitz
by Karen G. Harvey
Richard Zschaebitz arrived in New York City as a young man already sufficiently skilled with his paintbrush to have faithfully captured the faces and character of his German compatriots. He came with an expectation and zeal that compelled him to explore this new land and record his views through his gift of artistic representation. His curiosity and interest are expressed in paintings as diverse as Under the Brooklyn Bridge (page 13) and Catskill Waterfalls (page 24). He painted soaring Manhattan skyscrapers as well as crumbling country shacks. His travels took him from the noisy city streets of New York to the peaceful Western Plains where his Indians and cowboys were as real and honest as his well-polished models in Manhattan. Of the approximately 140 works known to date to have been executed by Zschaebitz, the 44 hung for this exhibit at Lightner Museum were selected to illustrate the artist's flair for portraying such a wide range of subject matter, and his versatility within different media.
A superb watercolorist, Zschaebitz was able to paint with detail rarely seen in that medium. Leaves and tree branches fairly flutter in the breeze and bend in the wind in Woodland Stream and Backyard Goldenrod. Apple blossoms of white mix with shades of green in Apple Tree in Bloom. and naked tree branches stand out against a stark winter sky in Old Broken Bridge (page 4). Woodland Trail (page 4) combined flickering shadows with lazily waving reflections of tree branches in clear lake water.
Even when it appears the artist has painted quickly or sketchily as in the pair of Ruine Stolpen (page 22) paintings and Outside Oven, we still find his attention to detail. Note the texture of the wall and the exposed brick in Gates - Ruin Solpen (page 22); and look closely at the small but glowing fire in Outside Oven. In Early Morning Near Brooklyn the artist uses detail to clearly define the tree and foliage in the foreground while blurring distant objects, putting them slightly out of focus.
Each clapboard of the wooden houses in Country Setting (page 6) stands as a separate entity as if the artist painted the homes plank by plank. Scrutiny of the porch shows not only a pendant accenting the portico, but also chamfered posts. Nor should the detail of the little fire hydrant in the foreground be overlooked.
Zschaebitz' incredible ability and sensitive use of watercolor also extend to the treatment of clothing. Looking at Lady in Red Skirt one can practically feel the texture of the sturdy material in her skirt, while Pretty Young Lady wears a frock so delicate as to appear almost diaphanous. The luxurious satin sheen of the fabrics worn by the young couple in European Color Prints (page 20) can be contrasted with the lacy fragility of the child's frock in Martha Zschaebitz (page 23). Note also in this painting of the artist's first-born daughter, colors so rich as to render a feeling of a portrait in oil rather than watercolor. Indeed, the artist explored this art form in a most unusual manner by successfully executing portraits in watercolor -- a medium rarely used for that subject matter.
In Indian By the Campfire (page 7) and After the Round Up (page 7), the artist demonstrated his control of firelight in both watercolor and oil. In the first, the firelight flickers on the contours of the Indian's face; in the second, details are only revealed to the viewer of this night scene through the light of the fire. The city scene of Night Lights illustrates Zschaebitz' delicate use of lanterns and window light to illuminate a dark street. In contrast, his use of daylight can be seen not only through the mechanism of shadows cast by trees but also in the filtered soft light shining through the doorway in Old Back Porch and the hazy overcast ambiance of Old Post Office, New York City.
Although the artist's forte apparently was watercolor, he produced a number of engaging and dramatic oils. Cowboy Holding Rifle (page 9) portrays the feeling of the rugged West, while Lady in Green and Pale Pink Gown express the elegance of turn-of-the-century ladies. Through a transformation of color, the same direct brushwork becomes a rich interior or the rugged sunlit open countryside. His progressiveness is clearly demonstrated in Under the Brooklyn Bridge and Old Windows in Snow (page 19), while Harmony in Nature is an interesting combination of strength in composition at the same time illustrating a whimsical theme.
Richard Zschaebitz was born in Dresden, Germany, in 1860. He was one of five siblings in an artistically and musically talented family. A sketch titled Vision shows the budding talent of the artist at age ten. Through portraitures such as Shoemaker, Musketeer (page 20), and Lady in Red Skirt (page 8) we see the honing of this gifted talent. These are three of many works done between ages 19 through 21 considered to be academic studies. One, Model in Winter White, shows how far ahead of his time the artist was when, at age 19, he painted in the foreground of his watercolor the back of a man's head and a lamp producing a scene in the style of Edgar Degas. Indeed, the subject matter of his paintings can be compared to many of the great Impressionists. He has the realism of Thomas Eakins and the feel of James McMeill Whistler and Winslow Homer in that he paints with honest brushwork, the essential visual characteristic of the realist revolution.
Even with the influence of Impressionism, Richard Zschaebitz displayed a progressiveness in style, versatility, and thought that spanned the Impressionist period to that of "The Eight." As with this group of artists given the sobriquet of "Ashcan School," Zschaebitz frequently liked to "tell it like it is." His Old Windows in Snow and Old Back Porch (page 10) as well as several others not included in this exhibit treat the subject matter of middle class city life with a realism beyond that dealt with by the Impressionists.
An intriguing aspect of the Richard Zschaebitz collection is that the preponderance of paintings represents works done for the love of the art form -- not for commercial benefit. Zschaebitz, however, did support his family as a commercial artist while simultaneously developing his talent as a fine arts painter. The majority of paintings shown here are drawn from the latter category rather than his commercial pursuits.
The academic studies from 1879 to 1881 are the only works believed to represent formal artistic training. Since the artist still resided in Germany at that time, it is possible that his only formal schooling took place in his homeland. He traveled to the United States with his wife, Laura, sometime in the early 1880's and settled in Brooklyn where his first child, Martha, was born in 1886. Portraits such as Nude Man (1889) (page 17), Old Man in Gray Suit (1900), Man in Turban (1906), and possibly the undated pastel The Red Coat -- all somewhat similar to the academic studies -- were probably done in his New York studio either as assignments or for pleasure.
In 1892 Zschaebitz sailed with his young family back to his native Germany. While there he painted numerous European scenes, three of which are shown here: European Village, Ruine Stolpen (page 22), and Gates-Ruine Stolpen (page 22). In Ruine Stolpen we can again see the marvelous use of detail. Although the painting and its companion work were probably done rather quickly, we see a sentimental touch of the American Flag cleverly concealed within the stones around the archway. The use of the American Flag within his paintings can often be seen, sometimes nearly hidden as in Old Post Office, New York City (page 11), sometimes prominently displayed as in Brooklyn Bridge Allegory (pages 14 and 15).
The artist was a prolific painter of landscapes and seascapes. Within the collection are numerous paintings of the Catskills represented here by Catskill Waterfalls, Big Indian Valley. and Outside Oven (page 5). His Early Morning Near Brooklyn (page 5) and Old Broken Bridge (page 4) are two examples of the many landscapes painted during the 1890's and early 1900's.
Examples of the artist's apparent appreciation of the sea and ships can be seen in his paintings of South Side Docks; the pastel, Sailboat; and his titled Old Cedar-Rockaway, New York (page 26) as well as Under the Brooklyn Bridge (page 13).
At some time after returning from Europe around 1893, Zschaebitz and his family moved to Coshocton, Ohio, in order for him to accept a commercial assignment. It is possible that it is from here that he traveled to the West to do a series of Western paintings, four of which are exhibited here.
Mission San Jose is a watercolor of the famous mission outside San Antonio, Texas. A large oil of the Mission also exists in the collection. Cowboy Holding Rifle (page 9) and After the Roundup (page 7) are both copyrighted paintings and therefore believed to have been painted for commercial commissions. It is known within the Zschaebitz family that the artist also painted the familiar Twenty-Mule Team, later used as a background for a television series and stylized as the Borax logo. Unfortunately, the original painting was lost with other Borax records in the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. The painting of Indian By the Campfire (page 7) is one of two known Indian paintings executed by the artist. It is likely he did many more.
The paintings shown in this exhibit were collected over the years by the artist's descendants. At least 12 Zschaebitz paintings were copyrighted, several which are described in the Library of Congress files but have never been seen by family members. The marvelous Brooklyn Bridge Allegory (pages 14 and 15), exhibited in 1983 at the Brooklyn Museum for the centennial celebration of the bridge, was more than likely painted for a commercial project. The Victorian Couple, European Color Prints (page 20), and the small print of Couple on Horseback also appear to be purposefully executed as illustrations; however, details about the assignments remain a mystery at this time. What is known, however, is that this fine artist died in 1912 at age 51 in Jersey City, New Jersey, and was well into a career as a proficient illustrator and painter.
His final works include the oils of two young women Lady in Green and Pale Pink Gown (page 12), his Western paintings, and Brooklyn Bridge Allegory (pages 14 and 15) all painted around 1907 and 1908. The last dated work in the collection is the lovely and sentimental portrait of a frequently depicted model - the lady in Black Feathered Hat (cover).
The Liberty Centennial brought awareness of the celebrations of America and the heritage we share. Now it is appropriate to allocate a tribute to an American artist who played a substantial part in preserving for us the natural beauty of an earlier time. His distinctive romantic landscapes in muted colors are reminiscent of the work of such artists as members of "The Eight": Robert Henri, William Glackens, and John Sloan.
A sensitivity to mankind and interaction with both primitive, undomesticated landscapes and the realism of urban life earned Richard Zschaebitz a place in American art. How unfortunate that the talented artist died just as his work was reaching its pinnacle; now, seventy-five years after his death, we are privileged to view a portion of the known works of Richard Zschaebitz. It seems probable that other paintings hang on walls of owners unknown at this time, or illustrations were executed for clients yet to be found. Perhaps in time these missing works will surface to be seen and appreciated by arts lovers of America.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Lightner Museum in Resource Library Magazine.
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
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