This essay was originally published in Kansas Quarterly, Manhattan Kansas (English Department, Kansas State University/Arkansas State University). Copyright 1994. Reprinted by permission of Kansas Quarterly.
Feodor von Luerzer: The American Odyssey of an Austrian Immigrant Artist
by Peter C. Merrill
Feodor von Luerzer (1851-1913) was an Austrian-born landscape painter who immigrated to the United states in 1886. He worked briefly in Milwaukee and Cleveland before settling in Duluth. Late in his career he spent a year in California and the last four years of his life he lived in Spokane and nearby Coeur D'Alene, Idaho. This article seeks to bring together what is known about von Luerzer and his Work.
Von Luerzer was born February 14, 1851 at Saalfelden, Salzburg Province, Austria, the third of the eleven children of Count Matthias von Luerzer and his wife Eleanor. Being the older of the count's two sons, von Luerzer was in line to succeed to his father's title. Dorfheim, the family's ancestral castle, is still standing near Saalfelden. The count was chief forester of the district and it was his wish that his elder son would one day take over this position. Although he indulged his son's youthful interest in art, he never hoped that he would one day became a professional artist.
As a young man, von Luerzer was trained to become an army officer. He finished his cadet's training around 1872 and was commissioned a captain. He was subsequently wounded in action against the Turks. His daughter reported this as having taken place during a military confrontation between Austria and Turkey.
Records at the Vienna Art Academy indicate that van Luerzer was registered there as a student during the 1884-1885 winter semester. He was enrolled in a painting class where the instructor was Christian Griepenkerl (1839-1916), an artist remembered chiefly for his mythologically inspired murals. According to his daughter, he had decided to become an art student after winning some money in a lottery. None of his work from this period is known to have survived.
Von Luerzer arrived in the U.S. in February 1886 and found work in Milwaukee as a panorama painter. The commercial production of immense panoramic paintings by teams of artists was at that time a local industry in Milwaukee. The paintings generally depicted Civil War battles or religious subjects and were for the most part the work of German artists who had been brought to the United States for the purpose. Von Luerzer's daughter believed that he came to Milwaukee under contract to William Wehner, the proprietor of the American Panorama Company. There can be no doubt that he was one of the Milwaukee panorama painters, for the Milwaukee Sentinel reported in August 1887 that he was "one of several artists employed from time to time at the panorama studio. By this time, however, Wehner's company had ceased operations and its studio had been acquired by August Lohr and Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, who had a team of artists at work on a panorama of the crucifixion. The same year, however, van Luerzer was in Cleveland, where he applied for U.S. citizenship on May 6, 1887. His name appears in the 1888 Cleveland city directory, which reported that he was an artist with a studio at 23 City Hall and that his residence was at 118 Brownell Street.
In the spring of 1889 van Luerzer set off with a friend by canoe, intending to go from Cleveland to Minneapolis. Instead, he ended his journey in Duluth, where he arrived in September. He soon established himself there as a professional artist with a studio in the now demolished Ingalls Block. In Duluth he became interested in amateur theatrical performances and was an enthusiastic member of a local Turnverein, a gymnastics organization with a liberal and somewhat anticlerical bent. Although raised as a Catholic, he had by this time distanced himself from the church.
One of von Luerzer's close friends in Duluth was Carl Thiel, a photographer and former actor who had a studio in the same building. Another friend was John Fery (1859-1934), a fellow Austrian whose career as a landscape artist was in many respects similar to van Luerzer's. Fery is remembered for his large, quickly executed western landscapes, particularly of Glacier National Perk in northwestern Montana. Fery was living in Duluth in 1890, though he later worked mostly in Milwaukee and St. Paul. The two artists had a chance to collaborate on wall paintings which were commissioned by a local brewery as decorations for a tap roam. The paintings can now be seen in the Pickwick Restaurant in Duluth, where they were installed in 1914. The panels contributed by von Luerzer are whimsical grotesques depicting elves brewing beer while a tipsy monk looks on.
One can be less certain about what other artists von Luerzer may have known during his stay in Minnesota. The principal center far art in the state was in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where two of the leading painters were Homer Dodge Martin (1836-1897) and Robert Koehler (1850-1917). Martin was a landscape painter and pioneer American impressionist while Koehler is best remembered for his genre scenes. Von Luerzer was probably aware of developments in the Twin Cities but was little affected by them. In Duluth itself the Duluth Art Association had been in existence as early as 1872 and provided periodic exhibitions during the period when von Luerzer was in the city. h can probably be assumed that he was involved in the activities of the Art Association, though it has not been possible to confirm this from surviving records. Two Duluth artists that von Luerzer must have known were William A. Sussmilch and Peter F. Lund, landscape painters who were, like von Luerzer, attracted to local logging scenes. The Norwegian-born Lund, who painted marine landscapes along the Lake Superior shore, was active in Duluth during the 1880s and early 1890s, but then moved to New York. It is less likely, however, that von Luerzer would have had any personal contact with Duluth's most celebrated artist, the Swedish-born David Ericson. Although Ericson had come to Duluth at any early age and always regarded it as his home, he was away in New York and Europe during most of the time that von Luerzer was living in the city. There was, however, a brief period in late 1902 and early 1903 when Ericson and von Luerzer were both living in Duluth at the same time.
In 1893 von Luerzer closed his studio and made a trip by canoe in order to visit the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, opening a new studio upon his return. On November 25, 1897 he was married in a civil ceremony to Ella Brautigam, whose German immigrant parents owned a picnic ground on the Lake Superior shore. Von Luerzer built some summerhouses on the property. He got along well with his father-in-law, with whom he liked to go hunting.
Von Luerzer's daughter reports that he received his final naturalization papers on July 26, 1904, presumably in Duluth. Although the records of his naturalization have not been located, the 1910 federal census of Spokane confirms that he was by that time a naturalized citizen.
In the spring of 1904 van Luerzer closed his Duluth studio and left with his wife for an extended trip to California. The Duluth Herald reported in June that he intended to paint at the Calaveras Grove, a stand of giant sequoia trees owned by the Duluth timber magnate Robert Whiteside, who commissioned some paintings of the trees. Although the Herald had predicted that van Luerzer would probably not return to Duluth, he was back in the city the following year. Kurt, the older of his two children, was born in Duluth on August 27, 1905.
In 1907 his wife's two brothers, Ernest and and Brautigam, purchased property on Lake Coeur d'Alene in western Idaho. Von Luerzer and his wife visited the place the following summer. He built a cabin on the property and in the summer of 1909 closed his Duluth studio and moved with his wife and son to Coeur d'Alene. The town was then in its infancy and they were among its pioneer settlers. His arrival in Coeur d'Alene was reported by a local newspaper on August 21, 1909. At that time he owned a summer home on Lake Coeur d'Alene, but intended to spend the coming winter in Spokane, where he had recently joined a local artists' association. A week later, on August 27, 1909, von Luerzer's daughter, Feodora, was born at a local hospital. By coincidence it was the fourth birthday of his son, Kurt.
Von Luerzer's arrival in Spokane was duly noted by the Spokane Evening Chronicle on November 9, 1909. Spokane provided von Luerzer with a proper studio, which was located in the Auditorium Building at the northwest comer of Post and Main. Spokane is only about thirty miles west of Coeur d'Alene, and for the rest of his life von Luerzer and his family divided their time between the two places. Winters were spent in Spokane, but he continued to spend every summer at his cabin on Lake Coeur d'Alene, where his oils and watercolors were offered for sale by a local furniture store. These included pictures of fruit and animals as well as local scenery from along the St. Joe River. L. Byrd Mock, another summer visitor to the place, describes its scenic atmosphere in a 1911 article published in the Overland Monthly. The article mentions von Luerzer and reproduces one of his paintings. Miss Mock later commissioned the artist to supply wall panels with scenic paintings for installation in a home she was building in Arkansas.
Von Luerzer's presence in Spokane was reported by the 1910 federal census, which noted that he was a self-employed artist with his own studio in Spokane. His residence appears to have been in a hotel or boarding house in which a number of other self-employed professionals lived. His name later appeared in the Spokane city directories for 1911, 1912, and 1913. Each year he had a different residential address, but his studio was always in the Auditorium Building.
Art activities were already well organized in Spokane when von Luerzer arrived there. The Spokane Art League had been organized in 1892, the immediate impetus being the need to prepare for the upcoming Chicago World's Fair. By 1897 the Art League had organized art classes and engaged the services of Eugen Lingenfelder, a visiting Munich artist, as instructor. Lingenfelder was succeeded the following year by Anna Louise Thorne, a painter and etcher from Toledo, Ohio, who had studied in Chicago and Paris. In 1900 the director of the Spokane Art League School was Mary von Gilsa, another former student of the Art Institute of Chicago. The following year the Art League secured the services of Jessie Fisken, an immigrant painter from Scotland who had been trained at the Glasgow School of Art.
The Art League was an organization of non-professionals who were interested in promoting art by providing instruction and art shows far amateur artists. By the time van Luerzer arrived in Spokane, however, there was also a professional association known as the Spokane Society of Washington Artists, a group which von Luerzer immediately joined after arriving in the city. Von Luerzer exhibited some of his landscapes when the Spokane Society of Washington Artists had a show at the beginning of August 1909. Among the other professional artists whose work was exhibited were Maude Irvine Kerns, Lillian Annin Pettingill, Hanson Duvall Puthuff, Carl Weber, and Adolph Weil. The painter and designer Grace Church Jones was living in Spokane in 1911 and 1912 and probably also exhibited in the same shows as von Luerzer. Fritz Sonnekes, about whom little is known, was appointed a juror for painting by the Spokane Society of Washington Artists in 1909. Another artist in Spokane at the time was W. Thomas Smith, an English-born portrait painter, who was honorary president of the Society in 1910.
Von Luerzer died in Spokane on August 14, 1913. Death was due to pneumonia, but tuberculosis was a contributing cause. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why he had decided to leave Duluth and settle in the mountain air of western Idaho. Funeral arrangements were attended to by a Spokane undertaker, but burial was at Forest Cemetery in Coeur d'Alene, where his wife and two children are now also buried. Obituary notices appeared in both the Spokane Press and Spokane Spokesman-Review.
Von Luerzer's paintings are executed in a carefully delineated realistic style. They are generally of moderate size, most ranging between one and three feet in length. Some idea of their subject matter can be gathered by studying the descriptions of the 66 van Luerzer paintings enumerated in the Smithsonian Institution's Inventory of American Paintings Executed Before 1914. Four of these works are watercolors, while the rest are oil paintings. Fifty-four of the paintings are landscapes, while the remaining works include animal subjects and two portraits. Fifteen of the paintings depict scenes in California, five in the state of Washington, thirteen in Idaho, six in Minnesota, and the rest in other states. At the time the survey was made in the early 1970s, most of these paintings were in the possession of the artist's two children, Kurt and Feodora, who both died soon afterwards. Feodora noted in 1973 that she had had her collection professionally appraised and that she intended to sell a limited number of the paintings. At least one painting from her collection was sold to a purchaser in California, but other works, including some drawings, appear to remain in the possession of the family. There are, however, numerous other von Luerzer paintings which are privately owned and only a few of these have been included in the Smithsonian Institution's inventory. In addition, several von Luerzer paintings are now in public collections such as the St. Louis County Historical Society in Duluth, the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, and the Cheney Cowles Museum in Spokane.
Certain subjects occur with particular frequency in von Luerzer's work. These include forest landscapes and many pictures of ponds, marshes, and lakes. The year that he spent in California resulted in a number of coastal scenes and pictures of the giant redwood forests. Only a few paintings stand out from the rest as untypical. Of these the most striking is a large canvas at the Cheney Cowles Museum which depicts a group of Arab horsemen. The painting appears to be a copy of a work by the German painter Christian Adolf Schreyer (1828-1890), who specialized in this type of oriental genre scene. Although quite untypical of von Luerzer's work, the painting demonstrates his artistic skill and versatility.
In attempting to characterize von Luerzer as an artist, one should begin by emphasizing that he was a genuine professional, an academically trained artist who joined professional associations, exhibited his work, and succeeded in making a living entirely from his painting. He was, however, a regional artist in the sense that he was not part of the national art scene centered in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. His conception of art was rooted in the tradition of realistic landscape painting, a tradition which had already become an international phenomenon by the time he took up painting. The landscape realists of the nineteenth century tended to see themselves as a group striving for fidelity to nature, rejecting the dramatic effects cultivated by such Romantic painters as Caspar David Friedrich and instead cultivating an attenuated, even sedate approach to depicting landscape. The precursor of this school in Austria was Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1793-1865), while the mature stage of central European landscape realism is perhaps best exemplified by the work of the German painter Hans Thoma (1839-1924).
Any discussion of von Luerzer's time and place in art must, however, keep in mind that the late nineteenth century represented a peak in German immigration to the United States and that von Luerzer was one among hundreds of immigrant artists who had come to the U.S. from German-speaking countries. In seeking to keep track of this phenomenon, I have been able to compile a list of more than 800 German-speaking immigrant artists in the U.S. who were born before 1880. They did not constitute what one could easily term a distinctly German-American school of art, but many of them were, like von Luerzer, profoundly influenced by the German academic tradition as taught in such centers as Düsseldorf, Munich, Vienna, and Berlin. In fact, the influence of these centers an American art did not proceed exclusively through immigration. The German art academies enjoyed high prestige in the United States during the nineteenth century and attracted many American students.
To sum up, von Luerzer's career as an artist in America can be located within the three intersecting circles of realism, American regionalism, and something which can perhaps best be termed the German-Austrian ethnic legacy. His indebtedness to this legacy reveals itself in several ways. For example, his artistic career was intertwined with that of several other immigrant artists, particularly the Austrian artists John Fery and August Lohr, both landscape painters in a style generally similar to his own. His social life, particularly his association with the Duluth Turnverein, also reflects his ethnic origins. The Turnverein was an organization in which all activities were conducted in German, its varied program typically including cultural events such as concerts and theatrical productions. Von Luerzer also revealed his ethnic background by choosing to make a copy of a work by the painter Christian Adolf Schreyer.
Von Luerzer was one of a long list of German, Swiss, and Austrian immigrant artists who provided the world with a window to the American West. Most of these artists were genre painters who painted such subjects as Indian villages and California mining camps, but there were also some landscape painters. The most celebrated of these was Albert Bierstadt, famous for his views of Yosemite. Two lesser known immigrant landscape artists of the time are Hermann Lungkwitz in Texas and John Hafen in Utah. Lungkwitz, a student of the Dresden Academy, brought a Romantic vision to his landscapes of the Texas hill country, while Hafen painted serenely realistic landscapes which are at times quite similar to von Luerzer's paintings.
But although von Luerzer's work is rooted in the European academic tradition and is comparable to the work of other immigrant artists in America, he was undoubtedly also influenced by general trends in the American landscape painting of his time. One of the most important of his American contemporaries was William Merritt Chase, who got his initial training in Munich but was later much influenced by Whistler. Other American landscape painters of the time were affected by influences emanating from France, such as Impressionism and the Barbizon School. Artists like Thomas Moran and George Inness reflect Romantic and tonalist tendencies in their work, but they were pursuing the same goals as von Luerzer and their work probably would have met with his approval. For that matter, one can cite a whole list of von Luerzer's American contemporaries whose paintings recall his work in one way or another. The list includes such American-born artists as Louis M. Eilshemius, Martin Johnson Heade, Arthur F. Matthews, and Walter Elmer Schofield, as well as many others.
Unlike such artists as Bierstadt, von Luerzer was little known in his own lifetime and is not really well known today. In the ongoing reassessment of the American art of his time, however, there has been a recent tendency to discover and appreciate just such seemingly obscure regional artists. I would not maintain that he was an artist of exceptional talent, but his career was certainly interesting and he deserves to be recognized as a significant American artist of his time and place.
1. The starting point for any biographical research on von Luerzer is Feodora L. Montgomery, My Father, Feodor von, Luerzer (1973), a privately printed, 32-page pamphlet. Although Feodora never really knew her father, who died before she reached her fourth birthday, she was able to draw upon family memorabilia to produce a valuable summary of her father's career. In writing the present article I have also drawn upon such sources as city directories, local newspapers, census reports, and vital records. I wish to express my thanks to the many persons who have responded to my inquiries, including particularly Nancy Gale Compau of the Spokane Public Library, Glen Mason of the Cheney Cowles Museum in Spokane, and Len Braarud of La Conner, Washington.
2. "A Colony of Artists. The Panorama Painters Who Are Making a Good Living Here," Milwaukee Sentinel, August~, 1887, p. 3.
3. For further information about the Milwaukee panorama industry and the artists associated with it, see my article "What Happened to the Panorama Painters," pp. 19-46 in Sandra Butz-Siebers (ed.), German Academic Artists in Wisconsin (West Bend, Wisconsin: West Bend Gallery of Fine Arts, 1989).
4. Records of the Duluth Art Institute, 1872-1905 (archival collection at the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, University of Minnesota - Duluth).
5. Rena Newmann Coen, Painting and Sculpture in Minnesota 1820-1914 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976), pp. 81-83. J. Gray Sweeney, American Painting at the Tweed Museum of Art and Giensheen (Duluth; The Tweed Museum of Art, 1982), pp. 186-187.
6. Sweeney, pp. 188-201.
7. The Duluth Herald, June 4, 1904.
8. The Evening Chronicle (Spokane, Washington), November 19, 1909.
9. Byrd Mock, "The Lucerne of America," Overland Monthly vol. 62, no. 1 (January 1922), pp. 3-10.
10. Jonthan Edwards, An Illustrated History of Spokane County State of Washington (San Francisco: W.H. Lever, 1900), pp. 199-201.
11. For information on Anna Louise Thorne, see Glen B.. Opitz (ed.), Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers (Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Apollo, rev. ed. 1986), p. 936. See also Chris Petteys, Dictionary of Woman Artists (Boston: G.K. Hall and Company, 1985), p. 697.
12. Spokane Review (Spokane, Washington), September 21, 1901. For further information on Jessie Fisken, see Opitz (1966), p. 282.
13. Spokane Review (Spokane, Washington), August 6, 1909, p. 10. For information on Maude Irvine Kerns, see Patricia Pate Havlice, World Painting Index (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1977), p. 669 and Petteys, p. 392. For information on Lillian Annin Pettingill, see Opitz (1988), p. 720 and Petteys, p. 21 (under Annin) and p. 560 (under Pettingill). For Hanson Duvall Puthuff, see Havlice, p. 1014. The Carl Weber who exhibited in Spokane may have been identical with the artist of this name discussed in Opitz (1966), p. ·1003, but this is uncertain. Grace Church Jones is discussed in Havlice, p. 650 and in Opitz (1986), p. 463.
14. Spokane Review (Spokane, Washington), February 6, 1909, p. 2.
15. Spokane Review (Spokane, Washington), January 3, 1910.
16. Two of the paintings at the St. Louis County Historical Society are reproduced in Coen, pp. 84-85.
17. For the concept of regional art in America, see particularly William H. Gerdts, Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting (New York. Abbeville Press, 1990).
18. For a discussion of these crosscurrents, see the following: Michael Quick, Eberhard Ruhmer, and Richard V. West, Munich and American Realism in the 19th Century (Sacramento: E.B. Crocker Art Gallery, 1978); Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf, The Hudson and the Rhine: Die amerikanisce Malerkolonie in Düsseldorf im 19, Jahrhunderf (Düsseldorf: Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf, 1976); Lunda Joy Sperling, "Northern European Links to Nineteenth Century American Landscape Painting: The Study of American Artists in Düsseldorf," (Dissertation, University of California - Santa Barbara, 1985).
19. A suggestive list might include such names as William Hahn, Hermann
Wendelborg Hansen, Julius Kummer, Richard Lorenz, Charles Christian Nahl,
Henry Raschen, and Carl Wimar. For a short but illuminating treatment of
the German ethnic legacy in American art, see Goethe Institute Boston, America
Through the Eyes of German Immigrant Painters (Boston: Goethe Institute
About the Author:
Peter C. Merrill, who currently resides in Boca Raton, Fl, was born in 1930 in Evanston, IL. He was affiliated with the Department of Languages and Linguistics, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL from 1968 to 1998, retiring as a full professor.
Dr. Merrill received a B.A. in Anthropology from Yale University, a M.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Columbia University.
He is an expert on 19th-century German-language writers in the U.S., the German-language stage in the U.S. and German immigrant artists in the U.S.
Dr. Merrill has authored four books on related subjects and written forty-three articles and numerous book reviews and professional papers.
Image of Dr. Merrill and his biographical information courtesy of the author.
For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11
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