Alfred Juergens (1866 - 1934)
Adam Emory Albright, F. DeForest Schook, George Schultz, W. J. Reynolds, Charles Boutwood, Mrs. A. B. Thayer, Charles Mulligan, S. M. Pebbles, Charles Halberg, Mrs. F. Ingerle, and Alfred Juergens [as the king] on stage for the Chicago Society of Artists Pageant of Italian Renaissance in Chicago
By Edward Bentley © Illinois Historical Art Project
Commenting on the appeal of the Oak Park, Illinois landscapes, featured in his work, the painter Alfred Juergens stated: “In this beautiful suburb there is plenty of inspiration to lend itself to the artistic mind. After all, it isn’t the subject. It’s what you can do with it. People always have had a way of walking past the beauty at their own feet. It isn’t necessary to travel thousands of miles to find it.” While appropriate to his work, that comment also expressed the American art patrons and critic’s growing appreciation, from the 1870s on, toward subjects that reflected the beauty of their homeland. Earlier artists, for example, returning from their European training, found that works of German and French landscape and genre scenes were in the greatest demand by American art collectors. By the time of the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago, a feeling of patriotism was becoming even more prevalent, as one writer commented: “The critics who go to Chicago next summer will not desire expressly to see and study the work...of those Americans who are virtual Europeans in thought, style and sentiment. What they will look for is art that is national - American in subject and manner.” Indeed, the ideas of “vigorous realism” as espoused by the Royal Academy of Art in Munich in the 1880s and 1890s where Juergens studied were to contrast starkly with the colorful local landscapes that brought him recognition and awards in America after the turn of the century. In addition to his work, his career as an artist, exhibitor, speaker and jurist, as well as his support of the art scene in the city of Chicago, was visible and celebrated. His stature in American art history should again be realized.
Alfred Juergens was born August 5, 1866 in Chicago. His father, Ludwig Daniel Juergens, was originally from Prussia but immigrated with his family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the early 1840s. By 1852 he had married and settled in Chicago. Alfred’s mother, Wilhelmine Prosch Juergens was originally from Germany.
Ludwig Juergens initially worked as a general painter prior to employment with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad in 1864 as their paint shop foreman. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he was forced to seek employment as a sign painter. Eventually his familiarity with paints led Ludwig to join with his first son Theodore in the manufacturing process, and in 1875, L. Juergens & Son, Paints, became an established business. Ludwig’s daughter Bertha married Adolph Kruger in 1876 and by 1880 he also was a partner in the family business.
Little is known of the artist as a child. While many biographies find artists sharing an early fascination with the craft the only known documentation of his interest are two floral still-life paintings given to his mother at the age of ten. A later critic, upon viewing them was so impressed as to state that “the technique executed in the paintings might well be envied by mature painters. It seemed he was instilled with the genius to paint even at that tender age.” The artist, later commenting on his upbringing stated: “You might say I was born in a paint-pot. You see, my father was in the paint business. That furnished me with the proper environment and helped to encourage my desire to be an artist.” Yet Alfred’s early interest was strongly resisted by his father. Although the family business had been a favorable influence, it was likely Ludwig’s own lack of success in the commercial aspects of painting that fed his extreme reluctance to neither support nor encourage his son. Despite that, a compromise was reached: Alfred was allowed to enter the Chicago Academy of Design in 1881 to study drawing while he agreed to work as a clerk in his father’s business.
With the sudden death of his father in August of 1883 while on a pleasure trip to Berlin, Germany, Alfred’s situation changed completely. His mother, a very strong supporter of her son’s desire to become an artist, began plans to send him to Europe for study. While Paris at that time was considered a leading destination for those seeking the latest techniques and future possibilities, Munich also had much to offer an ambitious student. The faculty of the Royal Academy could at the time be considered among the most progressive of artists of their day. They were known for their teaching of bold realism and deep, natural coloring. The German language, the basis of Juergens’ cultural identification, would have also been a strong consideration as would the relatively inexpensive cost of living in Munich. Indeed while Munich had become a popular destination for American students the city itself held a widespread fascination with art and artists during that time.
With only brief stops in several European countries – Scotland, England and Holland – to savor the artistic elements, Juergens arrived in Munich in 1885, anxious to begin study. While the entrance fees to the Academy were minimal, some degree of artistic ability was deemed necessary. Juergens, seeking to be prepared for the entrance exams, sought additional lessons to acclimate himself to German techniques. His studies with Robert Koehler and Paul Nauen were successful and he entered the Academy in January 1886. The courses were varied but followed a natural progression of building on established abilities. There was no time limit in any grade or class, competency being the only test for promotion.
Juergens’ instructors at the Royal Academy included Karl Raupp (1837-1918), Nicholas Gysis (1842-1901) and Wilhelm Diez (1839-1907). Diez, appointed a Professor at the Royal Academy in 1870, was one of the most influential and popular of instructors – possibly because he felt he was still a student of painting himself. Experimentation in the classroom was encouraged, which allowed each student to develop individually. Together, Diez and Gysis, representing the direction of Munich art, eventually evolved a style after the 17th century “Little Masters” that concentrated on technique with special attention given to lighting.
With dedication and deliberate use of talent, Juergens applied himself to work. After more than a year and one half of intense study, he became one of only five students, out of an initial class of ninety-seven, to gain acceptance to the Life class of Gysis and eventually, having expressed his admiration of Professor Diez, that instructor found much to admire in Juergens’ work and allowed him to become the only American in his class.
During the summers, the student refused to be content with life in the city, however exciting and colorful. He took extensive sketching trips into the surrounding countryside where he found himself in sympathy with the toilers of the soil, the local inhabitants. These sketches were of great benefit to Juergens, as many were made into finished works that his instructors praised and the public warmly received. That was the tradition as taught at the Royal Academy: landscapes were painted in the studio from sketches done on-site. Juergens grew to place much emphasis on the quality of his sketches, later commenting: “It seems to me the character of a man’s work can be seen in his sketches.” Despite the popularity of plein air painting as practiced initially by the French and later by many American artists, Juergens followed the principal of sketching throughout his career.
While in Munich he became a member of the American Artists Club. At that time, membership in the group numbered about seventy and included most of the Americans at the Academy as well as former students. The camaraderie helped with homesickness as well as giving mutual encouragement. Friendships developed between numerous artists that influenced the direction of their entire lives.
Artists known to Juergens, who also studied in Munich at the same time, included J. Frank Currier (1843-1909), the last of the Duveneck Boys who was now considered the “old man” of Munich; Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953) and Charles Schreyvogel (1861-1912), both of whom went on to be celebrated for their western scenes; Orrin Peck (1860-1921), William Ritschel (1864-1949) and J. Bond Francisco (1863-1931), who eventually migrated to California; and William Clusmann (1859-1927) along with Eldridge Ayer Burbank (1858-1949) who were contemporaries with Juergens in Chicago. Other friendships may have included J. Otis Adams (1851-1927) and William Forsythe (1854-1935) who both went on to become popular Indiana artists.
In 1889 the artist finished his studies in Munich and made a brief tour of Paris. While seemingly not influential at that time, Juergens was at least made aware of the brighter palette work of the Impressionists. Returning home later that same year, the artist found his family living in a new house in Oak Park, Illinois, at that time an exclusive community adjacent to Chicago. He established his studio on the second floor of the new home, facing the street, and began to make use of the sketches and techniques from Munich while actively seeking and sketching local picturesque scenes.
Following the lessons of sympathetic encouragement through association with fellow artists, he became a member of the Chicago Society of Artists, exhibiting with them in various shows through 1890, 1891 and 1892. He also opened a studio in downtown Chicago; first in the McCormick Block and then in October of 1892 in the old rooms of the original Academy of Design where he had taken his first lessons. That same year, Juergens left the Chicago Society of Artists to join the newly formed Cosmopolitan Art Club. The new club’s founders saw the restrictions to “resident artists” for prizes as an undue discrimination at the Chicago Society of Artists. That new group, while speaking of a “spirit of healthy rivalry” between themselves and the Chicago Society of Artists, stated their aim to hold Chicago art to “a higher standard than has hitherto been shown.”
In spring 1891 a figure painting titled Frolic (location unknown) was accepted for thespring exhibition at the National Academy of Design annual exhibition in New York. Positive mention was made that same year in the Chicago Tribune by a studio visitor of another nude study The Bathers (location unknown) while favorable acceptance also accompanied a portrait of Professor Farrison of the Chicago College of Pharmacy (location unknown), which the artist had on his easel. Mention was also given to a special Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, stating that it “shows careful study and painstaking execution.”
Preparation in 1892 for the World’s Columbian Exposition to be held in Chicago the following year included many local projects. Juergens’ welcome contribution consisted of murals in the State of Illinois Building defining the History of Printing. However brief the assignment it was an important part of his career even though there was little mention of it at that time. Murals were to be yet another talent he pursued and which received favorable comment.
Apparently not finding the success in Chicago he had hoped for Juergens began to long for the familiar and favorable climate of Munich once again. It couldn’t have helped matters much that America found itself in the midst of an economic depression, although it was reported that by now Juergens was of independent means by inheritance from his father. He had by now learned to adopt at will the impressionist style that had swept Chicago and was to make such an impact at the annual exhibition of American artists in 1894 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Despite the changing artistic climate in Europe – the growing power and popularity of the Secessionist movement in art – Juergens left the United States in April of 1894 to return to the friends and encouragement he had known in Munich. Initially traveling as far as the Netherlands, he spent several months studying the artwork of The Hague School before continuing on to Germany.
Arriving in Munich in October the artist established a studio and settled into a steady work ethic; sketching and painting the local cities, inhabitants and countryside. A popular Munich venue for exhibiting was the Kunst-Verein, a local gallery where Juergens showed his latest work.  Beginning in 1895, he also began to exhibit his work at the annual Glaßpalast Exhibition. His initial exhibit, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (location unknown), was awarded a Silver Medal (1st Place). In 1896 he displayed a landscape titled In Old Dinckelbuhl (location unknown), a work that was among several displayed in future exhibitions in America.
Further acknowledgment as to his ability came in 1897 with his exhibition piece The Storm (Private Collection) for which he was awarded membership in the Munich Art Association and also the prestigious Art Association of Germany. A watercolor exhibited in 1899 and titled Closing Time (location unknown) also received an Honorable Mention. The medium of watercolor became a favorite while he was a student in Munich and he returned to this often throughout his career. His work in watercolor was widely noticed and received favorable critical acclaim whenever exhibited. The artist also dabbled in tempera and pastels during his career, although only a few were exhibited. Juergens also exhibited his work in a number of major European cities. In Amsterdam in 1896 he was awarded a Silver Medal (1st Place) for his figure work The Potter. He also received a Silver Medal in Madrid although the exact year and subject are unknown. Other exhibitions were in Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Paris and London.
His European sojourn was to be cut short in 1898 however due to the illness of his beloved mother and he returned to the family home in Oak Park. Once there the artist began an extensive exhibition schedule that would, in the following years, bring widespread critical notice and acclaim. Juergens renewed his connection with the Chicago art world, successfully entering three of his landscapes at the Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists at the Art Institute, which opened February 28, 1899.
Approaching the Art Institute of Chicago in the latter part of that year with a proposal to display his work the artist curiously was initially denied an exhibition. The committee headed by director of the Art Institute William M. R. French decided his “work lack[ed] merit,” and that “America is not in sympathy with German art.” This was in marked contrast to the fact that the artist had already exhibited a number of works there to favorable review. Director French acquiesced after only one month and the Art Institute put forth its Juergens one man exhibition, a decided honor. It featured thirty-six paintings including picturesque views of Oak Park and varied gardens.
The turn of the century found the artist firmly entrenched at his home and studio in Oak Park where he would live and paint the remainder of his days. The dawning of a new century proved important for him. He continued to produce work from sketches taken in Munich as well as from the local scenery. Popular painting destinations included the Des Plaines River, Humboldt Park in Chicago, Thatcher’s Woods, the Skokie Lagoons in Winnetka, Ravinia (now part of Highland Park), and scenes along the Fox River Valley. Juergens also traveled throughout much of Western Michigan, with Indian Mill Creek and John Ball Park in the Grand Rapids area figuring prominently as destinations. Yet it was the presentation of views of his own homestead and its surrounding gardens that were to receive awards and shape his techniques.
In April 1900 the W. Scott Thurber Galleries, an important exhibition venue at the time, featured a show of over sixty Juergens watercolors that were “descriptive of localities in Bavaria, Austria and Holland… painted directly from nature.” The critic noted “evidence [of] considerable originality and a personal quality which promise well for his future endeavors.” The artist also announced toward the end of that year an exhibition at his studio at 24 Adams in Chicago of his latest work. Desiring to make his name known Juergens began to show work further afield. He exhibited in Minnesota in 1900 and 1901 with work from his Munich period, and showed works in Kansas, Nebraska, and Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art annual exhibition. He also maintained his regular entries at the Art Institute with the annual showing of American artists (typically held in the fall) and the Chicago artists (typically held in the winter).
On January 12, 1901, a small notice in the local paper announced the death of his mother Mrs. Wilhelmine Juergens. While not unexpected, the loss must have been a tragic blow to the artist who had known his mother’s absolute dedication to his dream of becoming an artist. The Fine Arts Journal in an article published only a few months later wrote of her influence: “She was ever ready with the word of sympathy, or encouragement, and appreciation, and it was given at opportune moments. Perhaps she herself hardly realized what a power of helpfulness she was to her son.” It then remained for Alfred’s sister Helene to take over the everyday household duties.
Fortunately for the artist she also was an avid gardener and continued the care of their surrounding landscape. Helene maintained the beautiful flower gardens where carefully tended lilac bushes bordered much of the property. His appreciation for nature was thus reinforced and continued to grow. It would be Juergens’ immediate garden surroundings in the fashion of Claude Monet of Giverny, France, that would bring about his notoriety. Around the same time Juergens was the subject of a lengthy biography in Brush and Pencil that gave an in-depth review of his early life, his artistic education, and his successes thus far. Of his future promise the author Ellsworth E. Howard wrote: “It is the elements of sincerity; truth, naturalness and human interest that have given to Juergens’ art its essential value, and it is on these that he relies for his future success. His art is young, progressive… ambitious.”
Yet the much sought-after success in his life work was to seem very distant in the next few months. Four entries into the Art Institute’s annual exhibition of water colors by America’s best artists – all having been exhibited elsewhere – were rejected. In a letter to Charles Hutchinson of the Art Institute, likely out of anger and frustration, Juergens wrote: “I feel such an act in my home to be very unjust. This leads me to believe it more of a personal affair than a lack of merit.” Shortly thereafter, Juergens joined the Society of Associated Arts, a group of Chicago artists who felt the jury policies of the Art Institute were unfair. The new faction organized an exhibit in rooms of the women’s Klio Association in spring 1903. The group did not last however and Juergens submitted work once again to the annual exhibition of Chicago artists at the Art Institute in 1904. In November 1903 the prestigious Carnegie Institute International Exhibition in Pittsburg accepted his work An Old Mill (location unknown). That small success was overshadowed by the rejection of his works in succeeding years at the Carnegie exhibitions despites several entries that included award winning works from Munich. Could it possibly be that his early successes in Europe were really a hidden enemy? That acceptance there of his style and methods, while still new and “different,” was of no interest to America and not what was found acceptable?
The next year he sent work to the newly formed American Art Society in Philadelphia for which he was awarded an Honorable Mention. Always seeking to become better known the artist continued to pursue numerous avenues of exhibition. In Oak Park his studio was always open to the public and he fostered a reputation in his hometown by exhibiting a series of watercolors at the Oak Park Public Library – the Scoville Institute. A local critic commented on his views from Bavaria, stating: “While there he caught the sunbeams reflected from the quaint red roofs, the glowing richness of the gardens, imprisoned them upon paper and now displays them upon this side of the Atlantic.” The growing acceptance of his abilities drew him into a commercial project that required adapting his technique to a larger scale. He began a series of murals for St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church, an effort that lasted a number of years, until finished in 1906. He completed six works for this project.
In 1904 Juergens’ painting An Old Mill (location unknown) was accepted for exhibition at the Universal Exposition (otherwise known as the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition or 1904 World’s Fair) in St. Louis. By this time the artist seems to have fallen under the spell of Impressionist coloring while softening the importance of figures in his compositions. From this point in his career onward the use of a figure would only be as a focal point upon the landscape. Since much of the artist’s work is unlocated, it is difficult to say for certain exactly when his technique began to change toward the lighter effects and coloring of American Impressionism that brought a more lyrical quality to his work. While the portraiture that is known to yet exist today was done in the Munich style, the titles of his exhibition works show a growing fondness for local views and impressionist coloring. For example, his paintings submitted to the Annual Exhibition of American Artists at the Art Institute in 1904 were titled Snowballing in Summer (Illinois Historical Art Project) and Lilac Bushes (unlocated), the two having been done around the artist’s home. In a later interview, the artist commented on his choice of subjects stating: “It is here (in Oak Park) we have the changing seasons with their different moods and expressions.
In 1907 the Grand Rapids Public Library opened a month-long exhibit of thirty-two paintings, including at least twelve views of local Grand Rapids landscapes. Well received – it was viewed by over 11,000 people – the show generated critical appreciation, with the local newspaper commenting: “While his paintings reflect the unmistakable influence of the Munich school, he still shows the independence of a true American, and his work is robust, strongly individual and thoroughly in sympathy with homely scenes and common people.”
Following successful acceptance at the annual spring American watercolor display at the Art Institute that same year, Juergens became a charter member of the Chicago Water Color Club. In 1913 and 1914 he was to serve as Vice-President of the group. It was also at that time that another artistic cultural group – the Cliff Dwellers – was inaugurated in Chicago. It is not known when Juergens became a member but, obviously popular, he was included in a sketchbook featuring caricatures of the group by Theodore Keane that the Cliff Dwellers published in 1924.
The following year, he continued his run of regular exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Water Color Club; the latter exhibition traveling on to Cincinnati, Detroit and Toledo. Also, his work was accepted for the prestigious Society of Western Artists annual show that had a similar circuit in the Midwest. He held a one-man exhibit at Marshall Fields Department Store who at the time had an active art gallery for selling paintings, which included six works representing Michigan scenes. He would also send an Oak Park scene to the National Academy of Design annual exhibition and two watercolors to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts annual exhibit. That November he was an important part of the inaugural exhibition in his hometown of the Oak Park Fine Arts Society, showing six scenes of local interest.
April of 1909 brought the artist an award of international proportion: an Honorary Membership in the prestigious French “Union International des Beaux Arts et des Lettres,” awarded on the merit of his work. The group included such distinguished honorees as Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).
About this same time, Juergens was stricken with a nearly fatal case of ptomaine poisoning, but was able to send previously completed work to the Fine Art Society show in Oak Park and also the Chicago Watercolor Society exhibit in Toledo. It was not until the beginning of 1910 he resumed wholeheartedly exhibiting again placing ten painting at the annual Chicago and Vicinity show at the Art Institute.
The artist received further honor in 1910 when his work Tranquility (location unknown), yet another Oak Park subject, was selected as representative of the “best” of American work that year and joined the display of one hundred works at the Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts in the Fifth Annual Exhibition of Selected Paintings. The exhibit later traveled to the City Art Museum of St. Louis later that fall.
He opened the next decade – one that proved his acceptance and growing reputation – with nine canvases being exhibited with the annual Chicago and Vicinity show. Adding to the litany of local praise, an Oak Park newspaper commented: “These pictures bring the beauty of local nearby scenes to the attention of all beholders.” One of his rare tempera works was shown with the Society of Western Artists traveling exhibition while another Oak Park scene The Yellow Rose Bush (location unknown) was sent to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts exhibit. The latter show was a favorite venue of the artist through 1918 where he sent ten works during that time and again from 1923 through 1931 sending another eight works.
The Chicago art critic H. Effa Webster chose his work, this time Garfield Park, Evening (location unknown), for praise from the American Watercolor show that May at the Art Institute commenting: “He portrays the enthusiasm of a theme and in a distinctly delicate spirit. Never does his brush get reckless in an effort to reach an effect.” Later that year, further adventure sent him off to supply the interior decorations for a Hotel on Kaisers Lake near Fabius, Michigan.
On into the decade, Juergens exhibited a work titled Spring (location unknown) at the 1912 inaugural show of the Indiana Art League in South Bend. The local newspaper was adamant in its praise stating: “This particular canvas…should remain in South Bend.” Another artistic diversion had the artist collaborating on a book of verses for the Christmas season with Sarah Roberts Wallbaum for which he provided the illustrations. His work was also chosen for comment by the local paper in reviewing the Annual Exhibition of American Art at the Art Institute that fall: “It is interesting to note, en passant, that this [painting ‘The Lilacs’] is a simple subject treated in a large way.”
A one-man exhibit in October of 1913 at the O’Brien Gallery in Chicago brought out a flurry of notice and critique. Waxing quite eloquent, Oliver Marble Gale called attention to the artist’s subjects stating: “Alfred Juergens is doing for Oak Park what Monet did for Giverny. He is making Oak Park famous by painting Oak Park; by throwing it onto canvas for all the world to look at, and believe beautiful…and most importantly, he interprets Oak Park to us.” Further praise arrived from the Chicago Evening Post in its statement: “Mr. Juergens message is the garden landscape of Oak Park…These he paints for us in a delightful manner, telling the story with truth and all the graces of a fairy tale, until we love all old gardens for the sake of posy borders.”
Afternoon in May (Union League Club of Chicago) another work typical of his outdoor garden theme was one of several works entered in the Chicago and Vicinity show that year. On the strength of that work he was given the Municipal Art League Purchase Award, one of numerous acknowledgments by his audience and peers. Acceptance with the artistic fold included the honor and responsibility of being chosen to sit on the Chicago jury for the annual exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Beginning with the 108th annual exhibition in 1913 Juergens was a member of this jury seven times.
Receipt of the Martin B. Cahn Prize given to the most outstanding painting by a Chicago artist at the fall exhibition of American paintings at the Art Institute added substantial credit to his growing status. The scene titled Garden Flowers (location unknown) was taken from his own backyard. One critic summarized the artist’s calling when he wrote: “Alfred Juergens has thoroughly established himself as a specialist in the realm of intimate garden scenes. In his Martin B. Cahn prize painting, ‘Garden Flowers,’ he is riotous in gay coloring. Just a corner of an old-fashioned flower-bed, but something to make the urban dweller homesick for the rural cottage of his childhood.” In a further public relations coup the artist’s work La Salle Street at Close of Day (formerly the collection of Powell and Barbara Bridges) was chosen by the Northern Trust Company as an interesting record of Chicago in art. The bank offered a color reproduction on its 1915 calendar and added the painting to their collection.
That same year San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal as well as the successful rebuilding of the city after the devastation of the 1906 earthquake. Almost a third of the Palace of Fine Arts was occupied by the work of artists of the United States. Individual states were also represented and Juergens was appointed Chairman of the art committee for the Illinois State Building. Numerous awards were given to Chicago artists including Karl Albert Buehr (1866-1952), Oliver Dennett Grover (1860-1927), Wilson Henry Irvine (1869-1936), Louis Betts (1873-1961), Louis Ritman (1889-1963), Lawton S. Parker (1868-1954), and Frank Charles Peyraud (1858-1948). Juergens received a bronze medal for two works: garden views of his Oak Park home.
Submitting five Oak Park subjects to the 1915 exhibition Artists of Chicago and Vicinity, he once more attracted favorable notice. Evelyn Marie Stuart of the Fine Arts Journal wrote: “Among other interesting landscapes the lovely flowering fields and gorgeous lotus pond of Alfred Juergens have not failed to win approval and afford delight to visitors at the exhibition. The pictures made us feel how deeply and how wisely the artist loves flowers and with what true taste he presents them, not insignificantly in bouquets, but magnificently as the true adornments of the summer scenes in meadow lands or cultured gardens.”
In a show of public relations and good-hearted fun that same year the Chicago Society of Artists participated in a contest designing costumes for the yearly Pageant of the Nations sponsored by the Chicago Women’s Club. Judges included prominent Chicago artists Ralph Elmer Clarkson (1861-1942), Lawton S. Parker, Mrs. Pauline Palmer (1867-1938) and Juergens.
The artist was also associated with the Swedish-American Art Association. From its modest beginnings in 1905, this group had held annual or biannual exhibitions through at least 1959 in Chicago. The Illinois Historical Art Project has compiled an exhaustive collection of catalogues from their shows documenting Juergens having served as a member of the jury in 1916 and 1923.
The artist was also associated with the Swedish-American Art Association. From its modest beginnings in 1905, this group had held annual or biannual exhibitions through at least 1959 in Chicago. The Illinois Historical Art Project has compiled an exhaustive collection of catalogues from their shows documenting Juergens having served as a member of the jury in 1916 and 1923.
In 1918 Juergens was singled out to receive the first William Randolph Hearst Prize for a work by a Chicago artist. This award carried special meaning to Juergens, who explained:
“I met Mr. Hearst when I was a student in Munich, more than twenty years ago…Mr. Hearst visited our friend Orrin Peck, the famous California artist, who also was a student at Munich, and for this reason it is especially appreciated.”
The award-winning work – A Lilac Bush (location unknown) once again featured an Oak Park scene; a view looking out the artist’s residence window. While he continued to show his work to growing popular acclaim Juergens was also in demand as a speaker for a number of local clubs and organizations. An appearance with several other Chicago area artists before the Oak Park Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club on the occasion of their visit to the Art Institute of Chicago elicited this comment by him on the value of local scenery: “We in Oak Park don’t have to go a thousand miles to come on our beauty spots; there are no more lovely gardens anywhere than those in our village.” Another appearance in 1920 before the Grand Rapids Art Association, found him speaking on the subject of “Color,” while showing a dozen paintings of local Grand Rapids scenery as if in demonstration. An article on his appearance there by Eleanor Kerkhoff, in a note of encouragement and direction to future artists, quotes the artist on the necessity for academic training before all else:
“Let him forget what he thinks he knows, and learn the foundation of drawing. It doesn’t make any difference how tight his drawings are if he is gaining a working knowledge. Let him draw and draw in black and white, and let color alone till he gets further along. Color means years of training and many great artists are never colorists. A sense of color is a gift and it will come later if it is ever coming. A man doesn’t need initiative in art in his embryo years. Let him get an art education first and then he will find himself.”
Kerkhoff also revealed how involved the artist had become in the finished presentation of the product, commenting: “It is interesting to know what pains Mr. Juergens takes with his frames. Many of them he carved himself, and at least designed most of them. He has chieved a unity between frame and painting which is oft-times sadly lacking.”
Following up on a growing reputation, the artist took part in the annual 1920 Chicago and Vicinity show as both participant and juror. Later that year an off-hand remark by a critic then repeated in the Chicago Evening Post regarding his solo gallery exhibit at the Art Institute caused a great deal of consternation to another critic, the prominent, yet conservative reviewer Eleanor Jewett of the Chicago Tribune. The initial comment mentioned Juergens in the same sentence with Monet, calling Juergens “the American Monet because of his love for lily ponds.” To such an idea Miss Jewett quite pointedly stated: “To my mind it is as far fetched as the most extraordinary simile or metaphor ever imagined.” Writing that the viewer need do nothing more than view each artists’ work as proof of the inappropriateness of the remark, she wisely sidesteps a direct comparison of the two: “The contrast is clear; both are beautiful, but neither man owes anything to the other. They speak different languages.” She goes on to compliment Juergens’ work and make her point, stating: “This does not mean that Mr. Juergens has not charm in his paintings, nor that they are beyond the pale in any way, but it does mean that those who look at them and speak of them should know a little about what they are doing before they appropriate such a criticism for such a use.”
On into the next decade Juergens refused to bend to the whims of the coming onslaught of modernism. While not considered an innovator he stayed with his successful formula of painting beautiful garden scenes that still remained highly appealing to the public. Meanwhile he continued to maintain a high profile in numerous exhibition venues in the Midwest and on the east coast. His taste was well respected by his peers as he sat on juries at the Art institute from 1920-1923. While exhibiting also with the Chicago Society of Artists and the Chicago Watercolor Society he continued his association with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in their annual exhibits. In addition, he showed his earlier award-winning painting The Potter (location unknown) in 1928 and another of his Munich-style portraits Man with Cocked Hat (location unknown) in 1930 at the National Academy of Design annual exhibition.
Participating in the 1922 Central States Exposition in Aurora, Illinois, he entered two works taken from scenes at John Ball Park in Grand Rapids: Lily Pond and Landscape (locations unknown). The following year the West End Women’s Club in Chicago sponsored a one-man show by the artist where he displayed twenty-four canvases of his Oak Park and Grand Rapids subjects. In appreciation, a local critic wrote: “As a painter of gardens, Mr. Juergens holds the first rank in the middle west.” The Oak Parker also commented on the exhibit: “The works of Alfred Juergens are characterized by a marked individuality, by strength and force suggestive of the artist’s robust personality and not lacking in poetry, sentiment or tenderness…(he) portrays joyous gardens full of sunshine and the breath of flowers.”
The next year, 1924, Marshall Field’s was the location for the annual exhibition by the Chicago Society of Artists after a rift in the organization between the conservative and modern artists caused a sort of breaking away from the annual show at the Art Institute. The Oak Parker again commented on its hometown man and his three exhibited paintings eloquently stating his work “subtly imparts to the beholder the liveliness of nature bathed in golden sunlight.” They also commented on the “modernists,” indicating that, while well represented, “their viewpoint (is) somewhat difficult to understand by those who are still governed by the stereotyped ideal of what constitutes ‘art’ or ‘pictures.’” The next year with the show held at the same location the Chicago Evening Post commented that the inclusion of the modernists “...has resulted in a show of unusual interest, in that conservatism of the more staid members is contrasted in the same rooms with the eager experiments of the more daring element, participating in movements that have revolutionized the art of Europe.” Ultimately, seeing the direction of “accepted” art, many of the old guard conservatives left the organization to form the Association of Chicago Painters & Sculptors. That was also the last time Juergens was to exhibit there as a member of the Chicago Society of Artists.
Awards received by the artist in that decade included the Business Men’s Art Club Prize at the Artists of Chicago and Vicinity exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1923 for his painting of a winter landscape in Oak Park titled First Snow (location unknown); the Sixth Purchase Prize in 1927 from the Chicago Galleries Association for Lilac Bush (location unknown), and his earlier work The Potter again being accepted for exhibit – this time for a show of one hundred works representing the best of American art held at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.
The loss of his sister in July 1930 removed his nearest and dearest supporter. Her obituary in the local newspaper attempted to acknowledge her importance to the artist’s career, stating: “She not only was a home maker but was a splendid critic of her brother’s work and devoted much of her time to raising the flowers and tending the lilac bushes, the latter when transformed to canvas were the first to bring fame to the artist.” The final four years of his life were characterized by poor health as he suffered the deteriorating effects of heart disease. As a result the artist spent much of his time at home in Oak Park in the company of his new wife, the former Louise Parsons Gray, whom he married sometime in the early 1930s. It may have been a marriage of convenience for Juergens as in his sister not only did he lose his closest friend and companion, but also his caretaker.
Juergens exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for the last time in 1931 showing two Oak Park scenes: A September Morning and A Lilac Bouquet (locations unknown). He also held a one-man show at the Wurzburg’s Department Store in Grand Rapids in August of that year with the majority of works noted as being scenes of the area.
What became Juergens’ final one-man show was held in May 1932 appropriately, at the Blackstone Art Gallery a local Oak Park venue that was newly renovated. The Oak Parker continued its positive assessment of the artist commenting on his forty canvases: “One notes a firm, bold application of pigments which give a luscious, liquid effect to the observer and warrants designating Alfred Juergens as one of the greatest colorists in the art world of today.” Later that same year Juergens’ stature in the art world supported his inclusion, along with fellow Oak Park artists Charles Dahlgreen and Carl R. Krafft, in the 1932 edition of Who’s Who in America.
In fall 1933 the artist traveled one last time to the area of their farm in Grand Rapids. There he completed eighteen landscape sketches. Shortly after his return he was able to complete his last work; quite appropriately it was a garden water lily subject taken from an earlier sketch in Grand Rapids.
He finally succumbed as a result of a heart attack on the 19th of April 1934, at his residence in Oak Park. Obituaries in newspapers throughout the country were unanimous in generous and warm praise.
For a number of years after the artist’s death, his wife continued to share his work with an adoring public. While keeping the home and studio open to visitors, she also placed his work in numerous exhibitions beginning with the retrospective exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1937. Regarding the exhibit the Art News stated: “The paintings of Juergens testify to the artist’s love and understanding of nature whose moods he paints with the insight of one to whom these scenes represent a spiritual experience.” The All-Illinois Society of Fine Arts next featured over seventy of his paintings at a 1938 exhibition in the Drake Hotel. Eleanor Jewett of the Chicago Tribune, seeming enthralled with his paintings of water lilies and gardens, called his work “painting with a capital P.” And, in further gentle appreciation she also commented: “Be sure not to miss the various garden paintings. Mr. Juergens was a master craftsman in rendering flowers. They are still fragrant, though the hand which painted them is stilled.” The exhibit then moved to the home of the Oak Park Art League where Juergens was recalled as a familiar figure who “won distinction for himself and his work.” Additional venues where his widow entered some works included the Chicago Artist’s shows held at the Navy Pier in 1939, 1940 and the No-Jury Society of Artists show held at Marshall Field’s Department Store in 1941.
In January 1940 the Waters Building Furniture Mart in Grand Rapids featured forty-eight works.And in July a number of paintings were included with two other noted former Chicago artists – Frederic Victor Poole (1865-1936) and Charles Abel Corwin (1857-1938) – in an exhibit at the Findlay Galleries of Chicago.
In 1941 the All-Illinois Society of Fine Art renewed its exhibit of several years earlier with a larger group of Juergens’ works at the Drake Hotel including seventy-six in oil and watercolor spanning all periods of his career. Later that year a collection of paintings was on display in Grand Rapids at the Anderson Artist Supply Company, which then moved in March 1942 to the Old Kent Bank. Press announcements noted proceeds from the sale of paintings were to be devoted “to the cause of victory” by the widow. Further mention was also made of Mrs. Juergens returning to Grand Rapids after an absence of 10 years and bringing with her the artist’s remaining paintings consisting of about two hundred works. The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts sponsored the next public appearance of his work in April 1946 consisting of twenty-five paintings, many of them portraying Michigan scenes.
In July 1949 a mystery that had “baffled the art world for 15 years” was solved when the entire estate of the “late Alfred Juergens” was “rediscovered.” In a public relations coup Mrs. Juergens was able to reintroduce her husband’s “Hoarded Treasure” to an appreciative public. An article published in the Grand Rapids Press spoke of “one of the giants of American impressionist paintings” living on in an obscure Kent county farmhouse. It told of a large group of “lost” works being “found” and discussed his similarity to the work of Monet as well as giving an overview of his career. The article mentioned the work of his last “period,” smallish pieces done in a sketchy post-impressionist style declaring them “most impressive,” while stating that all the familiar scenes of western Michigan “were given poetry and psychological overtones by his brush.” An exhibit was immediately planned and twenty-eight paintings were featured at the Grand Rapids Art Gallery that December. Calling Juergens an “Impressionist of international reputation” gallery officials commented “all his outdoor scenes show his understanding of the moods of nature.” Five years after the “discovery” the Kewanee Hotel in Kewanee, Illinois hosted a show that featured thirty of his works.
On the April 3rd 1956, a tornado in the Grand Rapids area literally destroyed Mrs. Juergens’ country home and the Grayling Kennels. Mr. James C. Nichols, a gallery owner from the Kalamazoo area purchased what was left of the painter’s estate – about forty works, from the widow. In September 1957 he held an exhibition at his gallery of seventeen works featuring the artist’s “Munich” period. The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts then held a major memorial exhibition in 1966 featuring nearly fifty works, including over a dozen borrowed from local residents and several from Chicago owners. One critical appraisal from a Chicago newspaper stated: “The exhibit...indicates that the 32 years that have elapsed since the painter’s death have not lessened the appeal of his quietly lyrical art.” The last known organized public showing of the artist’s work took place in Cincinnati at the A.B. Closson Company in December of that same year. A brief notice in the Cincinnati Enquirer showed the same enduring appreciation in stating: “The works of Juergens combines strength with the lighter touch of the impressionist and love of nature.” It was evident by this time Juergens’ work had outlasted all the “isms” art had to offer as the public was and continues to be drawn to subject matter of a pleasing quality that reminds them of fragrant summer gardens.
On the occasion of the first retrospective exhibit of the artist’s work Eleanor Jewett gave an apt summary of his life’s production:
“Juergens work in Munich reflected the current tendency toward dark, tonal painting with a strong emphasis on light and shadow. Gradually his palette grew lighter and delicate effects of atmosphere and color replaced the dark tones of his earlier work. He concentrated on out-of-door subjects and flowers, which he handled with an exquisiteness of brush that recalls the French Impressionists. As his many friends have testified, Juergens loved nature in all its varied moods and spent hours of his time in the open. A devout man, he saw the world as 'God’s universe' and in his work felt he was communing with nature, painting it as he saw and experienced it."
Postscript. Over a hundred of Juergens's paintings were in the possession of a family friend, and through the efforts of Elizabeth Kendall of Parma Conservation in Chicago, they have been donated to a worthy institution. See: this article for some information: .
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