Karl Schrag (1912-1995)

Karl Schrag (1912-1995)

"Inspired by summers at the coast of Maine, I wanted to show the immensity of the sea, to find a visual parallel for the fragrance of grasses, for the sound of the sea and of falling rain, and to express the influence of the moon upon the ocean. It was a search for the essence and spirit of an experience." - Karl Schrag, Happiness and Torment of Printmaking, 1966

Karl Schrag, one of the most respected painters and printmakers of the mid-twentieth century, fused aspects of Modernism, Abstract Expressionism, and Realism into compelling interpretations of nature's moods and movement.

The son of a German father and American mother, Schrag was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1912, and began his professional art studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1931. He moved to Paris two years later, furthering his education at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and the Académie Ranson. It was under the guidance of Roger Bissière at the latter where the young artist’s eyes were opened to the expressive possibilities of color, light, and space, and by 1936 he was working on his own in Brussels, later holding his first one-man show at the Galerie Arenberg in 1938. The same year, due to growing unrest in Europe, Schrag emigrated to New York City, where he continued painting and refining his printmaking skills under Harry Sternberg at the Art Students League.

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By the mid-1940s, Schrag began flourishing both personally and professionally. In 1944, he became an American citizen and one year later was married to Ilse Szamatolski. That same year, Schrag joined the innovative printmaking workshop Atelier 17, working alongside artists such as Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Louise Bourgeois, and Gabor Peterdi. Schrag developed techniques on the evocative use of line and form that would translate into his oils, watercolors, and prints. As he worked alongside and socialized with those involved with Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, Schrag grew impressed with these liberating movements. However, he chose not to align himself with either, opting to “transform but not relinquish reality” in his landscapes. In 1947, Schrag held a solo exhibition of watercolors at New York’s Kraushaar Galleries, his first of over twenty one-man shows hosted by the prestigious gallery over the next six decades. Most significantly, during the 1940s the artist began spending his summers with Ilse and their two children on the coast of Maine. After many years vacationing and exploring various sites along mid-coast Maine, the artist discovered his ideal spot at Deer Isle, where he purchased a farmhouse in the late 1950s and spent the next forty summers painting in a nineteenth century barn.

The salt-tinged air, dense woodlands and orchards, and changeable tides and weather of Downeast Maine provided a wealth of material as Schrag sought to convey his physical and emotional response to the intangible forces of nature. Whether working with oil, gouache, watercolor, or ink, he employed color, light, and the rhythmic movement of line to depict a cohesive, symphonic experience.

He participated in group shows throughout the country and, in addition to his regular one-man shows at Kraushaar, he presented solo exhibitions at many other venues, including the University of Maine at Orono in 1953 and 1958, the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, in 1967, and the St. Botolph Club in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1981. Among the dozens of accolades that he earned for his prints and paintings are Purchase Prizes from the Brooklyn Museum in 1947 and 1950, the Lea Prize from the Philadelphia Print Club in 1954, the Nelson Rockefeller Purchase Award for Painting at the New York State Exposition in 1963, and the First Benjamin Altman Prize for Landscape Painting in 1981 from the National Academy of Design, which elected Schrag a member the same year.

As a testament to his talent and influence, Schrag’s paintings and prints have been celebrated in several major retrospectives. The first was sponsored by the American Federation of Arts and opened at the Brooklyn Museum in 1960 before traveling around the country for two years. In 1992, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, organized the second, which traveled to museums in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The most recent retrospective, Karl Schrag: Memories and Premonitions, was presented by the Syracuse University Art Galleries and opened in 2012, the centennial of his birth. In addition to the Brooklyn Museum, Schrag’s captivating paintings and prints are in the permanent collections of dozens of institutions across the nation and abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the British Museum in London, England. Karl Schrag passed away at his home in Manhattan in December 1995.

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