Among a number of talented Impressionists to emerge from the Midwest at the turn of the century, Karl Anderson enjoyed a successful career as a figure painter. His oeuvre includes portraits and genre scenes, but he was best known for his depictions of lovely women taking tea or relaxing in sun-dappled settings. Anderson’s paintings were lauded by contemporary critics who were especially taken with his “delicious color and entrancing motion of design.” His oils were also said to bear a fragrant beauty, to which Anderson replied: “Whether this is true or not, it is the fragrance of the invisible beauty of life that I should like to express.”
The son of a Southern-born harness-maker and saddler and a mother of Austrian descent, Anderson was born in Morning Sun, Ohio on January 13, 1874. He was the eldest of five brothers and two sisters, some of whom showed an early interest in the arts. While Karl would go on to win fame as a painter, his brother Sherwood (1876-1941) became a prominent playwright and writer of novels, poetry, and short stories.
That Anderson was destined to pursue an artistic career became clear during his youth, for while serving an apprenticeship with a harness-maker he began drawing on the walls of his master’s shop. Following this, he worked for a house painter and amateur portrait artist who taught him the rudiments of drawing in exchange for cleaning his studio. While attending high school in Clyde, Ohio, he studied privately with John B. Tichenor (1891), after which time he went to Cleveland, supporting himself by retouching old photographs while attending evening classes at the Cleveland School of Art (1891-92).
By 1893, Anderson had saved enough money to move to Chicago, where he continued his training at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago under John H. Vanderpoel (1893-97). A gifted draftsman, he began taking illustration commissions in 1894, going on to join the firm of J.C. Mantz & Company in 1896. Two years later, he accepted a position as resident illustrator for Woman’s Home Companion in Springfield, Ohio. During these years, Anderson also produced illustrations for other leading periodicals, among them Scribner’s, Collier’s Weekly, Vanity Fair, and the Saturday Evening Post.
Although Anderson’s work as an illustrator was lucrative, it was aesthetically unsatisfying; his real desire was to become a fine artist. In 1900, he sailed to Paris, refining his skills as a figure painter at the Académie Colarossi and at the Académie Julian. He also frequented the studio of the Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha. In the summer of 1901 he went to Egmond, Holland, enrolling in outdoor painting classes conducted by the American expatriate painter George Hitchcock, whose penchant for bright hues and decorative form influenced Anderson’s painting style.
Anderson returned to America in 1904, working as an illustrator in New York while painting in his spare time. In 1909, he went back to Europe, studying independently in Spain and Italy before going to France. A turning point in his career occurred in the summer of 1909, when, at the invitation of the American Impressionist figure painter Frederick Frieseke, he made an extended visit to the artists’ colony at Giverny. Influenced by his friend’s decorative Impressionist style and his emphasis on the female figure, Anderson painted attractive models in sunny outdoor settings, often working in Frieseke’s garden. Much of his time was devoted to The Idlers: August (1909; Valparaiso University Museum of Art), one of his best known paintings which won a silver medal at the Carnegie International exhibition of 1910.
Anderson returned to New York early in 1910. In January of that year he had an important two-man show (with Edmund Greacen) at the Madison Gallery in New York, which featured his recent Giverny canvases. A solo exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery that same year also helped secure his place in national art circles. After receiving several commissions from General Charles C. Dawes of Chicago, Anderson was able to give up illustration work to paint full time. In 1912, he settled in Westport, Connecticut. Working out of a studio on Narrow Rocks Road, he painted nudes, portraits, maternal themes, and genre subjects with symbolic overtones. One of the few local artists able to support himself solely through easel painting, he was dubbed the “dean of Westport Painters.”
The 1910s and 20s were peak years for Anderson. He had solo shows at the Thurber Galleries in Chicago (1910, 1911, 1913), the Gage Gallery in Cleveland (with Lawrence Mazzanovich) (1913, 1914), the Rowfant Club in Cleveland (1913), Durand Galleries in New York (1925), Grand Central Art Galleries in New York (1927-28, 1931, 1934), and Ferargil Galleries (1929) in New York, among others. He also contributed regularly to the national annuals, winning such awards as the Lippincott Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1916), the French Gold Medal at the Art Institute of Chicago (1918), and the Gold Medal at the National Arts Club (1920). In New York, he belonged to the most prominent professional organizations of his day, including Allied Artists of America, the National Academy of Design, the National Arts Club, the Salmagundi Club, and the Society of Illustrators.
Throughout the 1930s, Anderson made painting trips to the Baie St. Paul region of Québec along with other Westport artists such as Edward Boyd. His activities during this period also included painting decorative murals for post offices in Bedford, Ohio and West Haven Connecticut and teaching at the National Academy of Design (1931-44).
Anderson died in a Westport sanitarium in 1956 after suffering a stroke. His work is represented in major public collections throughout the United States, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts. Boston; the National Academy of Design, New York; the National Arts Club, New York; the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, among many others.
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