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Our Rich History: Newport’s own Thomas P. Anshutz, an unassuming painter and an influential teacher

By James C. Claypool
Special to NKyTribune

Part 45 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

His paintings have hung in the White House, his students are considered some of the best artists of 20th Century America, and his reputation as an important link in the history of American art continues to grow. Yet Newport’s own Thomas Pollack Anshutz was really what an 1899 art journal once labeled him — “An Unassuming Painter.”

Anshutz was born October 5, 1851, in Newport, Kentucky, on what is now Third Street. His father, Jacob, was an Alsatian from Strasbourg whose lineage could be traced to the German religious painter Hermann Anschutz. His Scotch-Irish mother, Abigail Jane Pollock, was from Wheeling, West Virginia, then a part of Virginia.

In 1851, Newport was a small river community with a population of fewer than 6,000. Its residents, many Germanic, were artisans, laborers, and craftsmen whose work often revolved around the Ohio River.

Thomas and his siblings were reared on the riverfront, and throughout his career, Anshutz’s paintings showed its influence. Although the family left Newport to go East during the Civil War, at least two of Anshutz’s pictures are clearly linked to his early childhood home.

Thomas P. Anshutz, “Ironworkers’ Noontime.” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“On the Ohio,” circa 1880, is an oil on canvass in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It resembles a photograph of the Cincinnati hillside across from Newport. A second picture, “Steamboat on the Ohio,” 1896, now at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, is based on a progression of photographs and sketches from both the Cincinnati and Wheeling riverfronts.

It all began when an uncle working on the Brooklyn Times first urged young Anshutz to consider painting as a profession. In 1872, Anshutz went to New York City to study at the National Academy of Design. There he was subjected to a rigorous and uninspiring set of classes of which he later wrote his parents: “The National Academy of Design is a rotten old institution supported and controlled by lovers of art and by artists who desire to create just as few artists as possible . . . when the promising young genius enters the academy . . . he is given some head with strongly marked features which he works on from two to three weeks immensely to his own satisfaction. Then there comes an art critic who says ‘. . . you had better not waste any more time on it as it is hopelessly spoiled’ . . . so you work away at other heads . . . until you are thoroughly convinced that you are an ass. When you are driven entirely mad and are suicidal, he deals out some encouragement and points out your defects in a mild manner.” Anshutz rejected these methods and later, as a teacher, won acclaim for developing his students’ drawing skills while preserving their individuality.

In January 1876, Anshutz left New York, joined his family, then in Philadelphia, and enrolled as a student of Thomas Eakins in a sketch class at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Here the emphasis was on anatomy, at the time a radical idea for American art. In 1879, Anshutz, by then Eakins’ assistant demonstrator in the dissecting room, produced “The Dissecting Room,” which appeared in Scribner’s Monthly as an example of the new ideas being pursued by Philadelphia art schools.

Eakins’ influence on Anshutz is clear. Between 1876 and 1886, Anshutz learned the intricacies of line, comprehension of anatomy, and the life-rendering portrait skills of a maturing artist.

Early in the 1880s, Anshutz became briefly involved in the history of industrial America: first as a witness to the beginning technology of the motion picture industry, and then as a contributor to the history of commercial outdoor advertising.

In 1881, Anshutz came in contact with Eadweard Muybridge, who was conducting photographic motion experiments at the University of Pennsylvania. These experiments, the forerunner of motion-picture photography, intrigued Anshutz, who relied heavily on series of photographs and studies for his paintings.

“Ironworkers’ Noontime,” circa 1880-1882, is such a case. The canvas, which depicts workers during a noontime break at a foundry in Wheeling, West Virginia, was developed from a progression of preliminary photo-like sketches.

The picture was sold in 1883 to Thomas B. Clarke, a New York art collector-dealer. Exhibited at the American Art Gallery in New York City, it was critiqued as one of the best paintings of the year, making Anshutz among the first artists to paint scenes of industrial America.

In an ironic turn, Anshutz’s career was again linked to the Cincinnati riverfront of his birth. Harley Procter, the Cincinnati advertising genius who made Ivory Soap famous, had seen “Ironworkers’ Noontime” at the Clarke Exhibit. Procter adapted the composition of the painting as a model for an Ivory Soap advertisement, photographing and pasting up artists from the Strobridge Lithographing Company in Cincinnati as replacements for Anshutz’s foundry workers.

Thomas P. Anshutz, circa 1900. (Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The scene was then turned into the first commercial poster “blown-up” to multiple-sheet size from a photograph. The giant poster, about 100 x 160 inches, was a sensation when displayed on Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati.

Although his works are exhibited nationwide at such prestigious institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Academy of Design, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, Anshutz is best remembered in the art world as the patient teacher of some of America’s finest artists: Stirling Calder, William Glackens, Robert Henri, Elizabeth Sparhawk Jones, Morton Schamberg, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan.

However, a rediscovery of Anshutz’s talent and value as a painter is currently underway. Credit for this is usually ascribed to Jacqueline Kennedy who, in 1963, purchased and hung two Anshutz watercolors in the White House.

At the time, his works were selling for modest amounts. “Ironworkers’ Noontime” had been offered in 1959 to Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County Museum for $7,000. It sold in 1972 for $250,000, at the time the highest price ever paid for an American painting at auction. Today, the Graham Gallery in New York offers small Anshutz pastels for as high as $10,000, larger works for $50,000.

Anshutz received several awards during his life including election to the National Academy, but little was made of such honors. He died on June 16, 1912, after a long illness. He is buried at Hillside, Pennsylvania.

Perhaps his career is best summed up by a quotation in which he shows the expectancy he felt in the classroom.

“I never go to my class with the idea of imparting any of my knowledge to the students, but rather to seek what fresh things I myself can find there which will help me in my own work — in just such a mood as a boy rises early on a frosty morning and hurrying into the woods looks about and says,’ Any chestnuts this morning?’ ”

Thomas P. Anshutz was in deed and word a modest and unassuming painter, but today this Newport native is recognized as both the teacher of a whole generation of modern American artists and an original and important native painter in his own right.

James C. Claypool is Professor Emeritus of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He is co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, as well as of Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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