West Bend Art Museum

West Bend, WI



Segment from pages 5-8 of 1986 essay titled "Carl von Marr" by Thomas D. Lidtke, Executive Director, West Bend Art Museum. The essay is contained in the Museum's catalogue prepared for the exhibition Carl von Marr: American-German Artist. Essay and images reprinted with permission of the West Bend Art Museum.


Carl von Marr

by Thomas D. Lidtke


During the summer of 1893, Marr was commissioned by Phoebe Hearst of California to do several works of art. While in California, he received a telegram indicating that he had been offered the position of Professor at Munich's Royal Academy. During the following months, Marr also was offered the same position by two other royal academies - Berlin and Vienna. (left: Self Portrait, d. 1877, oil on canvas, 19 x 14 1/2 inches, West Bend Gallery of Fine Arts, West Bend, Wisconsin)

In 1893, Carl Marr accepted the position in Munich, an opportunity that afforded him the financial security to continue his work. In accepting this position, Marr unknowingly relinquished his American citizenship and embedded himself even more deeply into the history of German art. Several years passed before Marr became aware of the status of his citizenship through the American Consul in Munich. Marr said later, "I had always considered myself an American and did not wish it to be any other way."[17]

Once again Marr accepted his lot and continued to teach and paint. Unselfishly and dutifully, he put the Royal Academy, its students and other artists' interests before his own.

When Marr's attention focused on his own canvases, he continued to master the human figure. In his portraiture he was able to transcend the mere physical likeness, capturing both mood and personality. He handled facial features and expressions with delicacy and accuracy, evidencing a remarkable keen insight in his ability to penetrate deeply into the most elusive personality. His later subject matter and style, including portraits, were strongly influenced by the Impressionists.

Another influence, that of the Barbizon School, is apparent in some of Marr's landscapes. Besides the profuse number of oils and drawings, Marr also did illustrations and murals. His murals graced the walls of government and commerce buildings, theaters, castles and even an ocean liner. Many of these murals and structures have long since been destroyed.

Throughout his career, Marr was particularly intrigued with the analysis of light, as is evident in his interior scene, "The Old Song." The placid couple sits in the afternoon sun, which warmly filters into their room. The use of a back light helps to create a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere by giving both figures and objects the effect of a color that is both warm and glowing.

In "The Lovers," we find a couple sitting in a coach. They are small and seemingly unimportant, yet these two figures are a major focal point in the painting. Attention is drawn to the figures by the intense light that filters through the forest canopy and illuminates the coach. The roadbed, the major horizontal line in a field of predominately vertical lines, draws the viewer's attention to the lovers, who are framed by two white birch trees. These two paintings, among many others, exemplify Marr's interest in light.

Around the turn of the century, as Marr's works were being widely exhibited in Europe, his work was also beginning to receive exposure in North and South America. Honors and awards became almost commonplace to him. As his work gained international acclaim, he began to receive many decorations bestowed by European governments. In 1909, Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia bestowed the Order of the Red Eagle Third Class on Marr. This honor placed the prefix of 'von' before his name.[18] In 1912, he was knighted with the Commendatore Cross of the Royal Order by King Victor Emanuel of Italy, receiving with it the equivalency of a baronage. Later in the year, the Order of St. Michael Second Class was awarded by Prince Ludwig of Bavaria. (left: Lenore Suder, d. 1893, oil on canvas, 34 x 19 1/4 inches, West Bend Gallery of Fine Arts, West Bend, Wisconsin)

Von Marr became the focal point of the Munich art scene and was constantly in the public eye as chairman of numerous artists' associations, teacher, administrator and painter.

In 1916, von Marr entered into a marriage that was to be a brief but important highlight to his personal life. Von Man married Elsie Fellerer Messerschmitt, widow of his close friend, painter plus Ferdinand Messerschmitt. Their short but happy marriage was blessed with Elsie's two daughters, who became von Marr's fond subjects in many of his paintings.

The title of "Geheimer Hofrat" - Privy Councilor was awarded to von Marr in 1917. This new position designated him as advisor to the Bavarian government, adding to his fame, but it also caused him to become unwittingly entangled in political vicissitudes in Bavaria.

During this period, the first European Bolshevik uprising occurred. Due to Marr's social ranking and political affiliations with the Bavarian and Bohemian governments, his name was added to the Bolshevik's list of the 40 most-sought-after civilian citizens. Bulletins were posted putting a price upon von Marr's head, demanding him dead or alive, and adding a promise that the others on the wanted list would be saved by Marr's capture.

After fleeing Munich, he found refuge for weeks in the mountain forests of Switzerland before being forced down into a village for food. There he encountered a peasant who befriended him and gave him a brief but more- secure refuge in his house. Then one evening a search party approached their quarters led by the peasant's son-in-law. The compassionate peasant hid von Man in the pigeon loft of his barn. Von Marr's intrusion frightened the birds out and into a frenzy of flight, at the same moment the search party fired a warning shot to signal its approach. (left: Wind and Waves, c. 1925, oil on canvas, 27 x 39 inches, West Bend Gallery of Fine Arts, West Bend, Wisconsin)

When questioned about the birds' peculiar night flight, the peasant blamed it on the gunfire. The searchers were not satisfied and asked to see the loft. The frightened peasant threw open the door to the dimly-lit loft, hoping that von Marr had flattened himself against the shadowy back wall. The painter had, thus saving them both from possible imprisonment or execution. The relieved peasant said, "You see, it is empty."[19]

Satisfied, the party made its way back to the barn floor and departed. On another occasion, a search party did capture von Marr, but due to his knowledge of the Italian Swiss dialect, the fugitive convinced them he was of no importance. They kicked him to the ground and left him.

The strife-torn events of this period did not end quickly enough for the von Marrs. Elsie died shortly after Carl's return from refuge, only three years after their marriage began. The fear, tension and separation in their lives may have hastened her death.

In 1919, shortly after the revolutionaries were suppressed, von Marr was appointed director of the Academy in Munich by the new republican government. He continued to paint, teach and administer at the Academy until 1923, when he was forced to retire because of his age.

In 1924, von Marr received one of his two highest American honors, when The American Association of Art and Literature made him an honorary member. The second American honor came in 1929 when the University of Wisconsin awarded him an honorary degree. This befitting award was held as a great honor by von Marr, for it came from the very state to which his personal ties were never severed.

During von Marr's later years, he continued to assist other artists. This time, however, it was out of a conviction of the dignity of humanity rather than the furtherance of art. As the Jewish citizens were being persecuted by the Nazis in the early 1930's, von Marr remembered his own persecution and became involved in helping Jewish artists flee the country. Those who personally knew the painter said that Adolph Hitler admired his work and even possessed a portrait of Carl von Marr. This admiration was not mutual. Von Marr was a man of quiet conviction, but on a few occasions in the early 1930's when he would discuss his contempt for this regime with relatives, he was sternly and adamantly opposed to Nazism. [20]

In 1934, von Marr was diagnosed as having cancer. Despite being bedridden and at death' s door, he continued to paint He died in Munich on July 10, 1936, at the age of 78, leaving the legacy of a modest and most-humble man, whose productive life spanned two continents and nearly eight decades. As one of America's Most-honored native sons, von Marr made a significant contribution to the European art world. Carl von Marr was buried in his hometown of Sölln, a suburb of Munich.


17. "Von Marr, Now 65, Is To Retire," Laura Knickerbocker, The Milwaukee Journal, 4 May, 1924, p. 11.

18. Dr. Bruno Storp, Carl von Marr and Drom (Munich: Drom Company, 1979) pp. 23, 31.

19. "Carl von Marr's Newest Marvels Worked Amidst Red's Terrors," Harriet N. Pettibone, Milwaukee Sentinel, 12 September, 1922, p. 17.

20. Interview with Lenore Zinn, niece of Carl von Marr, 11 November, 1982.


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