Can you imagine painting outdoors during the bitter cold snaps we have endured this year in north-central Kentucky?
That is exactly what Louisville artist Carl Christian Brenner did! “The weather never stopped Brenner,” wrote Jean Howerton Cody in a 1979 Louisville Courier-Journal column. “He would set up his easel and a folding chair in a portable hut with large glass exposures and paint away in rain or snow.” Brenner loved nature and being outdoors, especially rambling around the forests and fields of his adopted hometown and its vicinity. As Diane Heilenman described in a 1985 Louisville Courier-Journal article, “Wearing his artist’s hat and carrying a staff and a paint box, Brenner was a familiar figure in Louisville parks and Pewee Valley woods.”
Brenner’s most iconic paintings are detailed landscapes of his favorite haunts: scenes from what is now Cherokee Park and along River Road in Louisville, Pewee Valley in Oldham County, and the hills just across the river in New Albany, Indiana. His favorite subject was beech trees, as illustrated above. He painted other Kentucky views as well, including the Cumberland Mountains and the Falls of the Cumberland River in Whitley County. At various times Brenner also visited the Southern wetlands and highlands to paint, and traveled West to the Plains states, Colorado, California, Washington, Oregon, and the Rocky Mountains. (Brenner is also known to have occasionally painted portraits and experimented with printmaking and graphic art.)
“Brenner’s view of the city’s parks and woods were THE thing in Victorian Louisville,” declared Heilenman. “Louisville author Meliville O. Briney once wrote, ‘If you grew up in Louisville, a Brenner painting on the wall is as much a part of your pleasant childhood as a rose-back sofa in the parlor or the fire of cannel coal that burned in grandma’s grate.’” While his works demonstrate a wide range of styles, including Realism and Romanticism, after 1878 Brenner was considered part of a group of Louisville artists known as Tonalists, who used muted color to evoke mood. Brenner paid special attention to seasonal effects and time of day through his sensitive rendering of natural light and shadows.
Carl Christian Brenner was born August 1, 1838 in Lauterecken, Bavaria (Germany), and attended public schools there from age six to fourteen. According to “A Biographical Sketch of Carl Brenner” in The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Kentucky of the Dead and Living Men of the Nineteenth Century (1878), a teacher who recognized his artistic talent made application to King Ludwig I for Carl’s admission to the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. The king readily granted permission but Carl’s father, a glazier by trade, refused consent for Carl to pursue further art studies. His father objected to art as a career, believing that nobody could make a living as an artist, and wanted Carl to train (and join two other sons) in the family business.
The Brenner family emigrated to the United States in 1853, when Carl was fifteen. They landed in New Orleans, where there was a strong German presence in the arts community, and stayed there briefly before journeying upriver that winter to Louisville, Kentucky, which also had a substantial German population. Carl remained in Louisville for the rest of his life. He originally worked with his father as a glazier (which turned out to have been a handy skill for constructing that portable hut!), then later as a house, sign, and ornamental painter. Carl’s artistic workmanship drew much admiration, however, even when used just for painting signs.
Not long after arriving in Louisville, Brenner’s talent was noticed by an influential patron of the arts, George P. Doern, publisher of the Louisville Anzeiger, a German-language city newspaper. After seeing Brenner’s pencil sketches of scenes along the Mississippi River, Doern advised him to become a landscape painter. In 1863, Brenner received his first professional artist’s commission, a vast panorama (35,000 square feet) of Civil War scenes, from its beginning through the battles at Chancellorsville, for the Masonic Hall of Louisville. By 1867, Brenner had rented a studio at 103 West Jefferson Street, where he pursued his true passion of painting canvases when he was not painting signs and houses to afford his avocation.
In 1871, Brenner began devoting more of his energies to landscape painting. His friend, U.S. Representative (and future Kentucky governor) J. Proctor Knott is said to have boosted Brenner’s career around 1874 by arranging for the sale of his painting Beeches to William Wilson Corcoran, founder of the Washington, D.C., gallery that bears his name. (Brenner named one of his sons after Knott.) Encouraged by the Corcoran sale and the Civil War panorama commission, Brenner gave up his business to become a full-time landscape painter at the age of forty, using his earnings as a glazier, house, and sign painter to establish his own studio at 407 South Fourth Street (Fourth and Jefferson) in 1878.
Brenner had become a very popular and well-esteemed figure about town. “Night-time sales of his work in his gas-lit studio were social events of the time,” stated Heilenman. (Sounds a bit like the current First Friday Trolley Hop tour of art galleries in downtown Louisville, doesn’t it?) Cody shared a contemporary account of one such event: “Every year, just before Christmas, Brenner conducted his annual auction at his studio. A newspaper account in 1885 noted, ‘The studio was well filled last evening. The bidding was lively, although the pictures went for very modest sums.’ The top price was $113.” Heilenman also noted, “Prices rose from $35 a painting in the 1870s to more than $1000 just before his death.”
During his lifetime, Brenner was the most well-known of Kentucky artists. His paintings were exhibited in Vienna, Philadelphia, New York, and California, as well as regionally in the first Louisville Industrial Exposition in 1874 (and every subsequent annual exposition) and the 1883 Southern Exhibition on the site of what is now St. James Court in Old Louisville.
Brenner’s 1864 marriage to Anna Glass, daughter of an eminent Louisville violinist, produced six children. Three sons inherited his artistic talent; Edward became an architect and Proctor Knott studied art before taking holy orders at St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana. Carolus showed such promise that he was sent to the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, since his father knew for certain that one could indeed make a living as an artist! Several works by Carolus are also in KOAR, one of which is included as the last image here. (Perhaps more on Carolus in a future blog…)
Carl Christian Brenner died of a kidney ailment on July 22, 1888, in Louisville and is buried in St. Louis Cemetery. “Henry Watterson, editor of The Courier-Journal, wrote in 1888, shortly before Brenner’s death at the age of 50, ‘It was a grand triumph of Carl Brenner, an untutored sign painter of limited education and little or no instruction in art, to have painted the beech better than any American dead or alive,’” Cody quoted, then later continued, “Brenner, at the time of his death, was written up in the London Magazine of Art. Not bad for a self-taught artist from Louisville.”
An image of Carl Brenner sketching on the Kentucky River is available at: http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mmhesse/Brenner.html#sketching
“Brenner on the wall used to be central to being a kid” by Jean Howerton Cody in the Louisville Courier-Journal, November 8, 1979, is available at: http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mmhesse/Brenneronthewall.jpg
“A Legacy – Carl Brenner 1838-1888” by Diane Heilenman in the Louisville Courier-Journal, February 3, 1985, is available at: http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mmhesse/BrennerLegacy.jpg
Available through the KOAR Publications webpage (http://www.koar.org/publications.htm) are:
Catalogue of the J.B. Speed Memorial Museum’s 1947 exhibition “Kentucky Paintings by Carl Christian Brenner” at: https://speedweb.speedmuseum.org/pdfs/brenner.pdf
Patty Prather Thum’s “Artists of the Past in Kentucky”, which contains an informal biographical sketch of Brenner on p. 11-12, at: https://speedweb.speedmuseum.org/pdfs/Thum_1925.pdf
KOAR images shown here (top to bottom):
1958.1.24 Carl Christian Brenner, Winter
2008.2.8 Carl Christian Brenner, Winter Landscape
1918.104.22.168 Carl Christian Brenner, Winter Sunset
1922.214.171.124 Carolus Brenner, Untitled