No. 24 Walter Krawiec

 

Walter Krawiec, America’s foremost painter of the modern circus, came to the big top because of his lifelong love of horses and not, as too many of his contemporaries in America and abroad, on the trail of Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso. Krawiec, that is to say, “discovered” the circus for himself, first as a man and then as an artist. His sweeping panorama, how on summer exhibition at the Art Institute, is an impulsive, spontaneous creation, growing out of an eager inner urge and not merely a subject on which to exercise his talents as an artist.

 

Krawiec came to Chicago in 1892 at the age of 3, but he has a curious, remote recollection of eagerly watching his father hitch cattle to their cart in his native village of Morzewo, Poland, near Poznan. How much is recollection and how much a reconstructed memory from stories he has heard from his parents he isn’t quite certain. But he does know, from his own memories, that at 4 or 5 he was enchanted by 15 or 20 horses in a livery stable on Fry Street (now Eckhart Park) near his father’s home.

 

He knows, moreover, that at 5 or 6, on Saturdays, he was washing these horses’ legs eagerly, not only because he like to but in payment for egg pancakes the wife of the keeper of the stables gorged him with on Fridays — meatless days.

He knows, too, that when he was not hanging around these stables, he was at the quarters of Hook & Ladder Company No. 19, watching the horses and eager for a fire alarm to come in, to see them dash out, hitched to the red engines.

 

Krawiec’s love of a spectacular fire is second only to his love for the circus — for both human and art purposes — but the fire has lost much of its charm since Chicago’s equipment has been motorized. My suggestion that he join an arson ring in the interest of supplying himself with paintable spectacles left him cold, in consequence.

 

Krawiec at 6 or 7 was not only washing the legs of the livery stable horses and hanging eagerly on the chain that was strung across the door of the fire house, but he also was making crude pencil and chalk sketches of his beloved animals.

 

One day, a young man of more worldly wisdom than the average of the Polish immigrant neighborhood saw some of his sketches, told him of the possibilities of paint, and advised him to go downtown to the Art Institute and see how the artists held their brushes.

 

The next Saturday, barefooted and fresh from his livery stable duties, Walter Krawiec stole away without telling anybody. He found the Art Institute, but he was greatly disappointed in not finding any artists holding their brushes. All the pictures he saw seemed finished — nobody was at work on them.

 

He has learned since that he visited only the exhibition galleries and didn’t get into the museum’s school quarters. He remembers the guards looking curiously at his bare feet and untidy clothing, but nobody molested him or offered to throw him out. At the same time, he was too timid to ask any questions about the artists and their brushes.

 

He continued to sketch on his own until he was 11 or 12, when another sympathetic observer made him a present of a box of watercolors and a German book with pictures of horses. This chance friend showed him how to use the colors, and Krawiec began to make real progress in his sketching, still from life, however, rather than from the book.

 

At about 18 or 19, he quit his little odd jobs in the neighborhood and went to work in earnest for Paasche, the noted Chicago maker of air brushes for artists and inventor of the air gun for more rapid spreading of pigment.

 

He was now in professional touch with “art,” but his job was on the lathe, turning out Paasche’s equipment instead of making use of it for its destined purposes. The inventor was disappointed when the young Pole, an artist with sketch pencil and watercolors, showed a distaste for producing pictures with his mechanical equipment.

 

Krawiec, meanwhile, had found the Art Institute again but this time less naively. He was spending his nights in the classes at the school, learning to put a professional touch to his drawing.

 

After another short lapse of time, he and a friend of about his own age formed a “commercial art” partnership. Among their first clients was a railroad company, operating out of Chicago to the far west. The young men were given a job doing a piece of art work that carried the names of towns with Indian spelling along the route of the road. Artists are notoriously bad spellers — ask them! It is one of the shrug-shoulder jokes of the profession. Krawiec and his friend delivered the “art work” with most of the names misspelled. The railroad was kind but firm — and Krawiec and his friend went out of business.

 

Next, Krawiec got a job as cartoonist of the Polish Daily News — and he is still there, shortly to celebrate his 21st anniversary with a newspaper preparing for its golden jubilee. His spelling has improved — but he still lives in fear and dread of the more or less inevitable mistakes of the artist.

 

Krawiec carries a curious newspaper writing habit into his everyday conversation. He uses almost invariably the editorial “we” when speaking of himself, rather than “I.” At first, I thought he was speaking of himself and his wife Harriet, who is also an artist, when he said “we,” but found that it was a bona fide “editorial we.” His wife is Polish, too, though of American birth. Her name was Harriet Korzeniewski —and Krawiec can pronounce it!

 

Speaking of pronunciation, Krawiec’s own name is a tongue twister — “crah-vee-eis.” It means “tailor” and that was the occupation of his grandfather in Poland, a man of artistic impulses, designer and make, on occasion, of banners for the village festivals. While the rest of us Americans are struggling solemnly with “Krawiec,” Walter’s associates on the Polish Daily News for whose tongues the name has no terror, call him “Mr. Taylor!”

 

His newspaper job had much to do with shaping the destiny of Krawiec, not only economically but artistically. At first, he was content to do his daily cartoon and a few sketches now and then of a news nature, that being the day of the newspaper sketch artist, before photogravure. His work occupied his mornings — his afternoons were free, and most always he just “killed time” at the baseball game or whatever else was going on.

 

He was still young enough for a serious-minded editor to feel free to give him advice. The upshot was, Krawiec entered the day school at the Art Institute, where he began to learn to paint instead of merely to draw. Ralph Clarkson was his mentor.

 

A few years later, the Polish painter Kossak came to Chicago. He was one of Europe’s most distinguished military painters — particularly of German cavalry, under direct commission of his friend (before the war) Kaiser William. The Poles of Chicago made much over Kossak. The newspaperman Krawiec came under his attention. Kossak liked Krawiec’s horses and advised him to keep on — to specialize. Kossak set a handsome example by painting a military portrait of Gen. Pershing.

 

Krawiec, nothing reluctant, began to look around for models for his horses, other than the stables and the fire department — and he found the circus.

The spectacular performances of the horses in the ring and on parade pleased him mightily, but he was more pleased when he began exercising his privilege of a newspaperman, going behind the scenes, visiting the “backyard.”

 

That he has been doing year after year for the last decade, not only with the huge circuses that play Chicago, but the “truck shows” that visit neighboring towns. He frequently dashes out over the weekend to Joliet or Aurora or Moline.

 

By now, the circus people all over America know him, and he is as much at home in the “backyards” as they are. He is the friend of the distinguished horse-training and horse-riding families — for they, like most of the performers in the circuses, go by families.

 

The numerous Davenports not only are represented in many of the shows but, grown wealthy, they have their own barns and training quarters in Chicago on West Madison Street. Krawiec can always fall back on the Davenport barns when the big tops are traveling Texas or California or Ontario.

 

He knows, too, the Christiani’s of the Hagenback-Wallace circus but who are going back shortly to Italy.

 

He speaks enthusiastically of the Hodgini’s, with the Cole Brothers — particularly of Mrs. Hodgini who has original art ideas like decking white horses with silver and red harness instead of with the usual white leather, and of Harietta Hodgini, most exquisite of girl riders.

 

From the horses and their “families,” his interest in the circus had spread to all departments, until now he is a complete painter of everything that transpires on the lots.

 

A special friend is Hugo Zachinni, who is shot out of the cannon with Ringling’s. Zachinni himself is a talented artist of the circus, sketching for many years in pastel and watercolors.

 

Another friend is the clown Emmet Kelly with Cole’s, formerly on the Hagenback-Wallace lot. When Krawiec is too bashful to ask one of the bespangled girl riders to pose for him, Kelly summons her and gives her orders.

 

But Krawiec doesn’t spend all his time with the circuses. Everyday horses still interest him. His wife specializes in flowers as much as he does in horses.

 

One afternoon not long ago, he asked her why she didn’t go to a graveyard and paint a flower picture — there are lots of flowers there. She took him up, and off to a cemetery they went together. Krawiec stretched under a shade tree while his wife sketched a wreath on a tombstone. But presently he heard the tramp of horses. A workman drove up in a cart.

 

Instantly Krawiec was on his feet, all attention — all eager. Here was a novelty for him, too.

 

The two painters went home at sundown, both blessing the playful suggestion that led them to the cemetery. The picture Krawiec did that day is in his Art Institute show, one of his few non-circus things.

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