ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 25 Charles William Dahlgreen
Charles W. Dahlgreen, landscape painter and etcher, reversed the usual American process of acquiring an art education. Born in Chicago, he began his art studies abroad and then came back to finish in the school of the Art Institute of Chicago.
This was partly accidental, however, for in his youthful student days in Dusseldorf, after three years of training, he fell in love with a German girl and married her. In those days, the matrimonial brain trust had not yet made the epochal discovery that two are able to live as cheap as one and, as Dahlgreen’s means were limited, he returned to Chicago with his bride. Moreover, he had no illusions about an unknown young art student being able to make his way comfortably on the proceeds of his brush, so he abandoned painting and went into business. It was after a lapse of 16 years, having become more or less independent in means that he took up his art again.
But Dahlgreen, in his maturity, is not so sure his partly accidental system isn’t the right one. In Dusseldorf and in the other art centers abroad, the student is put through a much more severe course of training than is customary in America, and Dahlgreen believes this training is better absorbed at the outset than later in a student’s career.
Dahlgreen, born in 1864 on Des Plaines Street near Randolph ten years after his father came to America, went to Dusseldorf because of his German ancestry and particularly because of the urgent wish of his mother. She, a well-educated woman, had been a governess in a noble family of that city.
Dahlgreen’s father was a dyer and “color matcher.” In those days, when cloth for ladies’ clothing and for other purposes wasn’t as plentiful as it is now, it was customary for the storekeepers to change the colors of their fabrics as styles changed. One of dyer Dahlgreen’s best customers was the merchant Marshall Field.
Charles Dahlgreen, as a youth, instead of following his father’s trade, went to work in the establishment of G.F. Foster, Son & Co., also workers in textiles but in a different way. The Fosters were makers of silk flags, banners for parades and the like, sometimes embroidered, sometimes painted. Dahlgreen was assigned to the paint department where he was making satisfactory progress when his parents decided, chiefly on his mother’s insistence, that he could have the art education he had been desiring from boyhood — and off to Germany he went.
A day or two after his return to Chicago with his bride, he accidentally encountered G.F. Foster on the street. The banner maker pounced upon him. A political campaign was in progress (Cleveland vs. Harrison), the Foster establishment had just been given a big order for painted banners, and Foster was short of help.
He literally ordered the young artist, fresh from Dusseldorf, to report to the factory immediately — it was late in the afternoon then. Dahlgreen, accustomed in the old days to obey when “the old man” used that tone of voice, pleaded he couldn’t go just now; he’d report in the morning. He had brought from Germany a wife — she would be scared and worried —
Foster cut him short by summoning a messenger to go to young Mrs. Dahlgreen and explain that her husband couldn’t come home that night. It was the day before telephones.
Dahlgreen plunged industriously into his job, which was painting portraits of Cleveland and Thurman on one order of banners, and Harrison and Morton on another. The work had to be done by hand, after a set pattern. Dahlgreen painted as many as 20 of these portraits a day in oil, at the rate of $1.50 each.
Is it any wonder that, after such an experience, he decided to be a landscape painter instead of doing portraits?
He stayed with Foster through the political campaign and for a few months later, and then decided to go into business for himself along the same lines. It was as a painter and embroiderer of banners and flags that for the next decade and a half Dahlgreen accumulated a modest fortune.
There was one interruption. Gold was discovered in Alaska. Dahlgreen was one young man the “fever” hit hard. He gave up his business and trekked to the north. He bought into a claim for $100, taking the share of a young man who was sick and disheartened and wanted to return to he States. Dahlgreen gave him an order for the $100, collectible in Chicago.
The cold winds of Alaska did much to cool the banner-maker’s gold fever, and when he, in turn, got a chance to sell out, he did so, at a profit, and returned to Chicago and his trade.
About 1904, Dahlgreen felt secure enough to rèsumè the ambition of his youth. He entered first the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts where he studied with William P. Henderson and Wellington J. Reynolds, and later the Art Institute of Chicago where his chief instructors were John H. Vanderpoel, Frederick Freer, Ralph Clarkson, and Harry F. Walcott. During the summers, he roamed and painted outdoors with John D. Johansen and Charles Francis Browne.
He was now 40 years old, but he entered upon his work with all the enthusiasm of a youngster, plus a mature eagerness that had been retarded for nearly a score of years. He was no novice, what with his Dusseldorf training and his ornamentation of textiles. His paintings were accepted readily by the Art5 Institute juries, and it wasn’t long befo0re buyers appeared for his landscapes.
After four years at the Institute, during the last of which he took up etching likewise, Dahlgreen went back to Europe — again to study, but not in the schools. He visited the museums of England, Belgium, Italy, France, and Holland, and devoted himself to a study of the old masters by the process of copying them. He did “life size” copies, thus, of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” and “Anatomy Lesson” of a girl’s head by Vermeer and of several other masterpieces.
Dahlgreen believes the mature artist can learn more this way than by any other method. Many years later, when “modernism” invaded the Art Institute of Chicago and when Dahlgreen’s “conservative” associated — and he among them — were condemning the new men as lunatics or four-flushers, Dahlgreen decided to find out for himself just what these new painters were after.
Consequently, he set up his easel in a gallery at the Art Institute where Arthur J. Eddy’s collection (now the property of the museum) was on temporary exhibition, and proceeded to copy one of Kandusky’s color extravaganzas. Kandusky particularly caught his eye — an eye that gloried in the brilliant hues of silks in the embroidering and the painting of his flags and banners. Later he applied the same method of “analysis” to the more somber Braque.
The result is a much higher respect for the great “moderns” than most of his “conservative” associates feel — though Dahlgreen himself, while loosening up his own drawing and particularly his coloring considerably, has not plunged all the way into the troubled sea of “modernism.” His “Breakfast Table” nevertheless of 1934 caused the “old timers” to gasp and they gasped still more when it was awarded a prize in the thirty-eighth annual exhibition by Chicago artists at the Art Institute of that year.
On his tour abroad in 1909, prolonged for more than a year, Dahlgreen continued his study of etching, paying particular attention to the color processes, which, however, failed to interest him especially after he had examined into the technique. On that trip, also, he exhibited in the Paris salon of 1910.
Returning to America, Dahlgreen, in his love for landscape, began doing seriously “the American scene.” He was one of the first to penetrate the wilds of Brown County, though Steele already was established there when Dahlgreen made his advent. Dahlgreen has a high respect for the accomplishments of the greatest of the Hoosiers. His trips into Indiana – both Brown County and the Lake Michigan regions – have been so frequent and so prolonged that the Hoosiers all but claim him. He participates annually in the Hoosier salon.
He also journeyed frequently into the Ozarks and to Taos and the Spanish-Indian southwest. All these regions he has both painted and etched.
As an etcher he has been particularly prolific – his catalogue now numbers 234 plates and these little pictures are scattered pretty well over the world – France, England, South America, Germany and Japan, besides the United States and Indiana.