A painter of elegant classically-influenced still lifes and Impressionist landscapes, Emil Carlsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. He began his career with the intention of becoming an architect. To this end, he studied for four years at Denmark's Royal Academy. In 1872, at the completion of his training, he immigrated to America. Settling in Chicago, he had a brief and unsatisfying two-year apprenticeship for a local architect. He quickly moved on to a career in painting, receiving instruction from the Danish painter Lauritz Host in Chicago. By 1874, he was teaching drawing and painting at a school that would become part of the Chicago Art Institute.
In 1875, Carlsen went to Paris, where he first saw the still lifes of the eighteenth-century French artist Jean-Baptiste Chardin. This exposure proved crucial to his art, as the influence of Chardin would be apparent in the still lifes Carlsen created throughout the rest of his career. While in France, he also created landscapes from nature.
Upon returning to America, Carlsen established a studio in New York. During the years that followed, he was not professionally successful. He moved to Boston where he made many efforts at earning a living. He held an auction of his work, created engravings, and painted still lifes on commission from Blakeslee Gallery and other art dealers.
From 1884 to 1886, Carlsen was again in Paris, where he enrolled at the Académie Julian. Among his classmates and friends were Willard Metcalf, Edmund Tarbell, and Frank Benson. Carlsen also became acquainted with many French artists, and it was perhaps due to their influence that he adopted a brighter palette.
Although he was essentially self-taught, Carlsen spent much of the next thirty-five years as a teacher. From 1886 to 1891, he worked in San Francisco, sharing a studio with prominent local painter Arthur Mathews and teaching at the California School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute)--he eventually became the school's director. While in California, Carlsen was friendly with a coterie of local artists including Mathews, Edwin Deakin, and William Keith. Despite a congenial life in San Francisco, Carlsen found career opportunities in the Bay Area to be limited, and he returned to New York.
There he began to teach at the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1896, he married Luella May Ruby, and in 1901, their son Dines, who would also become an artist, was born. In the early twentieth century, Carlsen bought a house in Falls Village, Connecticut, derived many of his landscape subjects from the nearby countryside.
By the turn of the century, Carlsen had established his reputation as one of the nation's most eminent still life artists. Capturing effects of light reflecting on the surfaces of ceramic objects and flickering through the blossoms of floral bouquets, he created visually rich, tactile images that seem almost tangibly real. At the same time, devising unified and balanced compositions, his works demonstrate the influence of classical sources and the art of Chardin. Despite the success of his still lifes, after 1900, Carlsen focused his attention increasingly on landscape painting. Working in an Impressionist style, he painted frequently in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Maine. Carlsen's landscape efforts were encouraged by his friends, several of whom were among the country's most prominent Impressionist artists. These included J. Alden Weir, who referred to him as "Old Carlsen," and Childe Hassam, who called him the "Dane of American artists."
Carlsen was esteemed by the American art community of his time. He became a member of the Society of American Artists in 1902 and an associate at the National Academy of Design in 1904. The latter organization made him an Academician in 1906. He was appointed to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1906. Among his many prizes were a gold medal from the St. Louis Exposition in 1904 and a medal of honor from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, in 1915. Carlsen exhibited at the Folsom and Macbeth galleries in New York, at Vose Galleries in Boston, and after 1926, at Grand Central Art Galleries in New York.
Carlsen is represented in many important private and public collections including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; the Art Institute of Chicago; Brooklyn Museum, New York; the Cincinnati Art Museum; the Cleveland Museum; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Dayton Art Institute, Ohio; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the John Herron Art Institute, Indianapolis; the Joselyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut; the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; the Pennnsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California; the Seattle Art Museum; the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut; and the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts.
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