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Home | Articles | Frank von der Lancken; Artist and Educator

Brooklyn-born artist of exceptional talent, and an educator of great passion, Frank von der Lancken (1872–1950) was an influential but largely forgotten proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Von der Lancken’s training, which began at the most progressive art schools in America and continued at the Parisian academies, equaled that of any of the top artists of his time. He participated and won medals in some of the premiere exhibition showcases of his day, associated with many of the leading figures in the popular Arts and Crafts movement, actively participated in the art clubs and guilds of the communities in which he lived, and achieved considerable professional prominence wherever he went. In many ways, Frank von der Lancken was at the very forefront of American art; yet, astoundingly, he slipped by almost unnoticed.

Fig. 1: Portrait of an Artist (Self-Portrait), ca. 1898 Signed (at lower left): F. von der Lancken. Oil on board. 16 x 13 inches.

Given the depth of his talent, training, and art-related activity, von der Lancken’s lack of notoriety may be explained by his marked preference for teaching over selling, exhibiting as a means of instruction rather than self-promotion. While happy to exhibit his work, he seems not to have cared whether his paintings actually sold. He was never represented by a gallery, and apparently had no agent of any kind.

In fact, much of von der Lancken’s oeuvre remained in his possession until his death in 1950 and was subsequently preserved by his children and grandchildren.

Throughout his life and career, von der Lancken made a gradual westward progression from the art centers of New York and Paris to the increasingly remote areas of New Milford, Connecticut; Rochester, New York; Chautauqua, New York; Louisville, Kentucky; and Tulsa, Oklahoma, always searching for a new audience receptive to the doctrine of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The few clues that exist about von der Lancken’s persona reveal him to have been a colorful and popular instructor who was respected and admired for his artistic skill and extensive knowledge of art history. The paintings themselves prove him to have been a superb draftsman, comfortable in almost any medium. They indicate a clear mastery of the human figure, as well as a remarkable flair for landscape and even still life. His multifarious style was at times linear and precise, at other times broad and feathery. Later, it became far looser and more fluid, but always remained literal and carefully composed.

Fig. 4: River Bank, Late Afternoon, 1907. Signed and dated (at lower right): F. von der Lancken 1907. Oil on canvas. 22 x 18 inches

Von der Lancken began his artistic training around 1888 at the recently opened Pratt Institute in New York. Taught there by the Arts and Crafts specialist Lucy Fitch (later Perkins) and the American Renaissance sculptor Herbert Adams, von der Lancken was well schooled in the popular new practice of combining fine and manual arts training, an emphasis then sweeping America’s art schools. Later, at the more established Art Students League (also in New York), he attended H. Siddons Mowbray’s life class, and may have been influenced by some of the League’s other instructors— J. Alden Weir, James Carroll Beckwith, and John Henry Twachtman. Eventually, by 1896, he continued his training in Paris at the Académies Julian and Colarossi, studying with Jean-Paul Laurens and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. An early self-portrait exhibits von der Lancken’s emerging identity as a confident, bohemian artist [Fig. 1]. Its tight, realistic handling and spare, neutral setting became hallmarks of von der Lancken’s portraiture, revealing the technical virtuosity for which he was often praised. In 1903, after several years as a professional artist in New York, von der Lancken was invited by his old classmate and friend, Willard Dryden Paddock [Fig. 2], to return to the Pratt Institute as an instructor to help fill the considerable vacuum left by the recent departure of the controversial and popular artist Arthur Wesley Dow. This seemingly temporary career change began the young artist’s lifelong odyssey in teaching.

By 1904, and possibly as early as 1900, von der Lancken discovered the bucolic landscape of the Housatonic River Valley, particularly the town of New Milford, Connecticut. The region surrounding this sleepy village became the subject for dozens of von der Lancken’s finest landscapes: a body of work that forms the very heart of his oeuvre, and may well be his most important contribution to American art. Works like A June Day, 1910 [Fig. 3], and River Bank, Late Afternoon, 1907 [Fig. 4], are beautifully restrained and aestheticized observations of the countryside surrounding his studio. They feature von der Lancken’s unique treatment of seemingly infinite detail dissolving into soft, silvery forms. The result is a blurred, even dreamy vision, a sort of ethereal reality, as if the artist had painted the scene from memory.

Instead of returning to Pratt in the fall of 1904, von der Lancken was hired away by a rival school in Rochester, the Mechanics Institute,1 to teach the life courses, and, more importantly, to teach Pratt’s brand of progressive art education. The Mechanics Institute was one of the best examples of a school that had modeled itself after Pratt in response to the burgeoning interest in the unification of manual and creative arts. During a golden period in Rochester’s history, the school stood proudly among the city’s well-funded and nationally-known cultural institutions such as the Eastman Theater and the Memorial Art Gallery. And, along with the Rochester Arts and Crafts Society (founded in 1897), the Mechanics Institute served for years as the nucleus of the Arts and Crafts movement in Rochester.

Fig. 2: Portrait of the Sculptor Willard Paddock, ca. 1905.
Signed (at lower right): F. von der Lancken.
Oil on canvas. 4 11/2 x 30 inches

Throughout the next ten years of increased teaching, as well as keeping family and civic responsibilities (during which he became superintendent of the School of Applied and Fine Arts of the Mechanics Institute, president of the Rochester Art League, and professor of art history at the University of Rochester), von der Lancken somehow managed to continue painting. He fiercely held on to his identity as a professional artist and believed that to effectively instruct others, an artist had to practice his craft consistently. But the irony of the situation could not have been lost on him: in the course of roughly a decade, von der Lancken switched from supplementing his painting career with teaching income to supplementing what had become a full-time teaching career with painting commissions.

In his second decade in Rochester, von der Lancken’s landscape style underwent a distinct change that seems to have coincided with his election to the Rochester Art Club. The painterly, high-keyed works of prominent members, such as George Herdle, G. Hanmer Croughton, and John Inglis, imbued the club with a decidedly impressionist tenor; and the city itself had been swayed by a sensational exhibition of French Impressionists in 1908.2 Accordingly, von der Lancken’s paintings, such as Portrait of Giulia and Carl, about 1915 [Fig. 5], show a marked departure from his earlier landscapes. Here the palette is far more colorful and the brush stroke broken and apparent. There is an informal, spontaneous character to these works that sharply contrasts with the carefully crafted aestheticism of the earlier New Milford pictures. Departing even further in a work like The Rapids and Gorge, about 1917 [Fig. 6],3 von der Lancken adopts a remarkably fluid stroke and a willingness to use unmodulated color. He revels in the sinuous patterns in the water and the linear contours of the rock, treating both with equal emphasis. The result is a strikingly rhythmic display of color and line, as brash as the artist would get.

Fig. 3: A June Day, 1910. Signed and dated
(at lower right): F. von der Lancken/1910.
Oil on canvas. 10 x 18 inches

In 1921, von der Lancken entered the next significant phase of his career as director of the School of Arts and Crafts of the Chautauqua Institution, in Chautauqua, New York. By now he was not only an accomplished artist, but also an experienced drawing instructor, professor of art history, and school administrator. His qualifications perfectly suited the Chautauqua position, which in turn suited his Arts and Crafts ideology and his increasingly zealous desire to spread his own brand of art appreciation to the population at large.

Attended by such notable intellectuals and politicians as Thomas Edison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington, and James Garfield, the Chautauqua Institution represented the quintessential form of advanced popular education, devoted to the democratization of culture and the arts.4 Theodore Roosevelt once exclaimed: “There is probably no other one educational influence in the country quite as fraught with hope for the future of the nation as this and the movements of which this is the archetype.”5 Such was the idealistic context that crystallized von der Lancken’s thinking about his own role in bringing art to the people.

Fig. 5: Portrait of Giulia and Carl (Wife and Son of the Artist),
ca. 1915. Oil on canvas. 27 x 2 21/8 inches

While continuing to be a central figure in the artistic and cultural life of Chautauqua’s summer program for the next fifteen years, in 1924 von der Lancken uprooted his family and headed further west, to begin an art school from scratch in Louisville, Kentucky. Von der Lancken’s arrival in Louisville received some fanfare and was celebrated in the Louisville Herald with the announcement, “An art school to be known as the Kentucky Art Institute will be opened October 6 under the direction of Prof. Frank von der Lancken. An institution which in time will equal any art school in the country is the aim of Prof. von der Lancken. For the past decade he has been located at Rochester, N.Y., where he has become a dominant figure in that city’s art world.”6

Von der Lancken explained his reasons for opening an art school as “the result of appeals of people of the South for such an institution.”7 Unfortunately, the Institute’s auspicious beginning did not last, and two years later the von der Lanckens moved on. The school apparently closed with the departure of its founder, and the factors that contributed to its demise remain a mystery, though evidence suggests that he was lured to Tulsa, Oklahoma, by the same kind of popular appeals that had brought him to Louisville.8

Von der Lancken arrived in Tulsa in 1926 and remained there for the rest of his life. It seems likely that the artist perceived Tulsa as ripe for an upwelling in the arts, a sort of cultural tabula rasa that an artist and educator of his stature might profoundly affect.

He and his wife, Guilia, proceeded to teach, at various times, throughout the public high school system, the University of
Tulsa, and at the Philbrook Art Museum (now the Philbrook Museum of Art).

Fig. 7: Jug and Fruit, ca. 1943.Signed (at lower right): F. von der Lancken. Oil on canvas board. 22 x 18 inches

Von der Lancken participated in notably more expositions and annuals across the country between 1926 and 1946, including shows in Texas, Oklahoma, California, and Ohio, exhibiting several times at the National Academy of Design, New York, as well as winning the 1937 Beck Prize for top portrait at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. His work also grew more varied in these years as he experimented more seriously with the still-life genre. These were often exquisite technical exercises ranging from loose and gestural [Fig. 7] to highly meticulous [Fig. 8], demonstrating once again von der Lancken’s extraordinary stylistic depth.

Fig. 8: Still Life with Phlox in a Vase, n.d.
Oil on canvas. 20 x 14 1/2 inches
By the time of Frank von der Lancken’s death in 1950, the Philbrook Art Museum had begun to establish Tulsa’s reputation as a national center for the arts. Admiringly referred to as “the first family of art in Tulsa,”9 the von der Lanckens lived to see their city’s cultural potential fulfilled after twenty-four years of painting and teaching there. As for Frank’s own potential, he seemed satisfied with a career path that led him away from the limelight under which he was trained, toward the artistic obscurity of his final years. He once explained, “The record of my life work is more to be found in the influence, character, and achievements, of the hundreds of students I have had, and also the thousands I have preached my gospel of art to.”10 Through his visions on canvas and his teachings in the classrooms of New York, Connecticut, and the Midwest, this quiet, unassuming artist became one of the louder exponents of the Arts and Crafts movement. For Frank von der Lancken that was more than enough.

Fig. 6: The Rapids and Gorge, ca. 1917. Signed (at lower right): F. von der Lancken. Oil on canvas board. 18 x 22 inches
This article is a condensed version of Thomas B. Parker’s essay for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Frank von der Lancken: Artist and Educator. The exhibition, organized by Michael L. Gitlitz, is the first comprehensive exploration of the life and work of the artist. It is on view January 6–February 24, 2001, at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 21 East 70th Street, and is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Additional information is available at 212.535.8810 or via www.HirschlAndAdler.com.

Thomas B. Parker is a research associate at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, New York. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the City University of New York.

Thomas B. Parker is a research associate at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, New

York. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the City University of New York.

1 Though the school was referred to popularly as the Mechanics Institute,
its formal designation was the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute, after the two institutions that consolidated in 1891. Today, it is known
as the Rochester Institute of Technology.
2 Blake McKelvey, Rochester: The Quest for Quality, 1890-1925 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1956), pp. 206-10. The controversial show, held at the Rochester Savings Bank, is considered a watershed for the
city of Rochester’s artistic taste and awareness.
3 Possibly the same picture as that exhibited at the Memorial Art Gallery
in 1917, as The Stream, no. 130.
4 For a more complete discussion of the Chautauqua Institution see Theodore Morrison, Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion, and the Arts in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), and Alfreda L. Irwin, Three Taps of the Gavel: Pledge to the Future - The Chautauqua Story (Chautauqua, New York: Chautauqua Institution, 1970).
5 As quoted in “Roosevelt on Chautauqua,” The Chautauquan Weekly (December
9, 1909), p. 4.
6 “Art Educator to Open School Here,” Louisville Herald (September 21, 1924).
7 “Newcomers Club Hears Art School Founder,” Louisville Herald (September
23, 1924).
8 “Frank von der Lancken, Prominent Artist, Dies,” Tulsa Daily World (January
23, 1950), pp. 1, 4.
9 “Mrs. von der Lancken, Famed Tulsa Artist, Sells Home Here,” Tulsa Daily World (May 10, 1953).
10 Letter, Frank von der Lancken to Silvio Valerio (president of the Salmagundi Club), February 2, 1949, artist files of the Salmagundi Club, New York.

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