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Our Rich History: Rediscovering artist Charles Svendsen from when Cincinnati was ‘America’s Paris’

This is the first of a two-part series on Cincinnati artist and religious painter, Charles C. Svendsen.

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to NKyTribune

It has been more than a century since the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area was known as “America’s Paris.” At one time, this area was home to one of the most prolific concentrations of artists in its history, during a century-long period that was known as the “American Renaissance.”

It was a time when society sought to repudiate the classicism and secularism that had emerged after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Gothic and Italian-Renaissance Revival art and architecture emerged from it, with thousands of churches and cathedrals produced in a new wave of church-building nationwide. One of the movements that sprang out of the American Renaissance was the Religious Art Revival movement. And here in Cincinnati, it produced some of the most prolific religious artists in Cincinnati’s history. One of those artists was Charles C. Svendsen.

Charles C. Svendsen in 1889. Courtesy of Stephen Enzweiler.

Charles Cornelius Svendsen was born December 7, 1871, the eldest son of Charles Svendsen, Sr., a Danish-born immigrant and church decorator who founded The Charles Svendsen Company in 1866. The company, which had its factory at 84 West Court Street in Cincinnati, produced flags, banners, regalia and church vestments for Christian communities all over the country.

In its early years, the family lived upstairs above the shop. As a little boy, the young Charles would come down to play and roam in the back rooms and hallways of his father’s business. He often would sit for hours, watching the artists, seamstresses and craftsmen do their work. He was a familiar figure in the back rooms. Every so often, an artisan would pull him aside and show him the work that he was creating.

One of these artisans was Johann Schmitt, a warm, friendly man who had emigrated from Heinstadt, Baden in Germany. Schmitt knew Svendsen’s father from the ranks of The Society of Christian Art, then existing in Cincinnati. In the autumn of 1866, Schmitt went to work for the company painting the intricate medallion pictures on the society flags and banners it produced. But it didn’t take him long to discover the young Svendsen’s talents, and soon he took him on as his student.

Johann Schmitt, (1825-1898), the first art teacher of Charles C. Svendsen

Within a few years, the young boy was creating his own religious-themed drawings and paintings under Schmitt’s guidance. Svendsen’s father was delighted that his boy showed such talent, because he hoped he might someday use that talent in the family business.

By the time he was twelve, young Svendsen began to accompany his father to area churches and work under his supervision touching up murals. Gradually, he was brought more and more into the business. Where once he could only watch the artists, now he began sitting at their tables as one of them, entrusted with simpler jobs, such as hand-lettering a ribbon or applying gold-leaf to fabrics.

For the next decade, Johann Schmitt continued to teach him drawing, watercolor and painting. In time, the patient Schmitt became like a second father. Like Svendsen, Schmitt was a Catholic; he was also a devout member of the Third Order of St. Francis. Schmitt’s working creed was essentially that art was philosophy, and the noblest philosophy that art can teach man is the concept of morality. Immoral art and its negative effects, he believed, too often leave an indelible stamp on the imagination of fallen man. Thus, it was the artist’s duty to be the bearer of a message of morality. It was a message that Svendsen would eventually adopt as his own.

Svendsen’s teachers and academic influences (L to R): Thomas Satterwhite Noble, Gabriel Ferrier, and William Adolph-Bouguereau.

In 1885, Svendsen was enrolled in the McMicken School of Drawing and Design (later called the Cincinnati Art Academy), where he studied with Thomas Satterwhite Noble, the school’s director. Under Noble, he learned the academic method of drawing, painting, pen and ink, etching and watercolor, winning his first honorable mention for a watercolor piece at an 1887 art show.

By 1888, Svendsen had finished at the Art Academy, and returned to the family business. There, for the next several years, he worked in the back room of the shop, painting the society banners in the old job Johann Schmitt once held. On the side, he painted religious works for individual sale and acquired commissions. He found plenty of work, and his reputation as a religious painter gradually grew in Cincinnati art circles. It was helped largely by Svendsen’s close association with Schmitt, as well as by the Svendsen name itself, which everyone in Cincinnati’s Christian community knew very well.

The year 1889 saw the beginning of the first substantive period in Svendsen’s creative life, and while it was defined mainly by small works of limited scope, it also saw the establishment of his independence as a religious artist. Schmitt took Svendsen on as an assistant on several of his projects, gradually molding him in his own image and likeness. In the spring of 1891, he took him to St. Paul, Minnesota to help out with ten large murals he was commissioned to paint for the church of the Assumption, a Franciscan parish. It was the largest project Svendsen had ever been associated with up to that point.

A rare, surviving sketchbook page from Svendsen’s time at Académie Julian. He carried a sketchbook wherever he went. Here, three of his American classmates (identified as Frank, Dan and Murry) are depicted during a casual outing to the Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens). Courtesy of Stephen Enzweiler.

But it quickly became his baptism by fire that would enhance his reputation and bring about a new independence. In the middle of the project, Schmitt’s wife suffered a stroke, forcing him to return to Cincinnati. By then, Schmitt had finished only six of the ten murals. “My dear Svendsen,” Schmitt penned him a few days later. “It would please me if you could finish these pictures yourself and I know they would be a great credit to you.” Svendsen did finish them to Schmitt’s praise, and within the year, the young artist began receiving an ever-increasing flow of commissions for religious works of art.

Charles C. Svendsen was 5’7” tall, had dark, luminous brown eyes and dark brown hair that he neatly combed back away from his forehead. He always seemed restless, always looking for new projects, new opportunities and new ideas, each of which he pursued with what seemed to be an almost inexhaustible reserve of energy. It was this restlessness that brought him to a decision in 1891. The aging Schmitt knew what his young friend needed: he encouraged him to enter the art schools of Europe, a suggestion he once gave to a former student named Frank Duveneck. The following spring, Svendsen followed his advice and headed east for Paris.

For any artist of that time, Paris was the place to be. There, mingling together like streams of converging rivers was a constantly churning flow of ideas and new approaches to creativity amid a fertile crescent of art colonies. The traditional art school was the government-sanctioned École des Beaux Arts; and while it produced some of the finest artists in Europe, Svendsen chose to attend two newer and more progressive institutions: Académie Julian and Académie Colorossi.

“Woman Crossing the Yard” was painted in 1894 while Svendsen was at The Hague. Thoroughly European in its approach, this early work shows many of the influences of the late Hague School. In style, it closely follows the technique of Hague School leader, Anton Mauve. Courtesy of Stephen Enzweiler.

The reason seems to be that, unlike the other schools in Paris, Colorossi and Julian accepted women to participate in the same studies as men, including the drawing and painting of nude male and female models. To the Parisian traditionalists, such an allowance was almost scandalous, but it suited Svendsen just fine. One New York Times article reported that at Julian and Colorossi, “Human exchange went forward in an atmosphere that was collegial, easygoing and mutually supportive. It nurtured some of the best artists of the day.”

Svendsen threw himself into his work, studying under the two celebrated French artists – William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Gabriel Ferrier. In his own time, Bouguereau was considered to be one of the greatest painters in the world by the academic art community, while simultaneously being reviled by the avant-garde community. He also gained wide fame in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and in the United States. Ferrier was renowned in his own right, especially for his portraits of famous personages associated with the French Third Republic, for which he received a knighthood in the Légion d’honneur.

After his time in Paris, Svendsen headed north to Antwerp, deeply attracted by the ongoing rise of post-impressionism in the Netherlands. He studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, then at The Hague. “The Hague School” as it was known, had already faded from prominence nearly a decade before, but its stylistic approach was still being felt and taught throughout the 1890s. It was characterized by a loose style of painting, incorporating relatively somber, subdued colors, with a penchant for gray. Svendsen experimented with this style; it can be seen in his only known work from time at The Hague, “Woman Walking Across a Yard,” painted in the summer of 1894.

Svendsen at age 24, when he served as Commissioner of Arts for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1896. Courtesy of Stephen Enzweiler.

Returning home, he returned to painting religious themes. He simultaneously began writing and publishing his European experiences in Catholic magazines, publishing articles that contained not only his sketches but also some paintings. In June 1896, he accepted a position as Commissioner of the Arts with the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1896. It was a position that required him to return to Holland and the Netherlands, to interview the great Dutch artists of the day, and to send back articles reporting on the prevailing Dutch art movement. “I have been trying to see some of the great fellows in art,” a frustrated Svendsen wrote to Theodore Colley on August 23. “I always found they were somewhere out in the country sketching.”

Upon his return that September, Charles C. Svendsen looked forward to getting back to the studio and painting. Despite wading into the mainstream community of international art, he continued to be regarded as primarily a religious painter. That seemed to suit him just fine, because by Christmas that year, he received a commission to travel to Palestine. There, he was free to sketch, to paint and to write. Svendsen would travel there but twice – in 1898 and 1899. Little did he know at the time how profoundly these two trips were to change his life.

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and journalist. He has been a columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer, the Oxford Citizen, and was a senior editor at Y’all Magazine. He is the author of Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land (2010).

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  1. ruth bamberger says:

    Cincinnati has a rich history of the arts, and I was delighted to learn about Charles Svendsen’s contributions to that tradition. I look forward to Part II of this series.

  2. Ada K. Stanfird says:

    I have one of his paintings. A small painting of a creek in a snowy scene. Quite beautiful,I love the yellowish winter sky. It belonged to my mother. The is is some very faint writing on the back.

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