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Albert H. Krehbiel, American Impressionist

Illinois –- Landscapes, Figures and Chicago Cityscapes


Throughout the years when at home in Illinois, Krehbiel painted continuously. From his historic Chicago street and river scenes to his rural and wooded presentations of Midwest forests and the hills and valleys of Galena to his synchromistic figure compositions, he painted incessantly and in all seasons without regard for the elements.

Like most American impressionists, Krehbiel did not subscribe to scientific color theories of the original French impressionists. Rather, he adopted other lessons of impressionism. He was committed to painting outdoors in natural light and to capturing with a very personal vision the constantly changing character of the Midwestern landscape, mostly done along the Chicago North Branch and Des Plaines Rivers in winter.(1) Krehbiel was known to leave his Park Ridge home on a freezing cold morning and not return until the end of the day with two or three freshly painted canvas landscapes of the surrounding country. Wonders of Winter Color, ca. 1932, Wonders of the Woods at Winter’s End, ca. 1927, Wet Snow, dated 1929, February Sunshine, ca. 1923, and Yesterday, ca. 1934, are characteristic of the hundreds of such works. Occasionally, on weekends and holidays he would visit the northern Illinois town of Galena and paint large canvases of the tree covered hills with their spattering of homes (see Galena Hillside). (Click here to see Illinois Landscapes and Winter Scenes Exhibit.)

When teaching and residing (at the Cliff Dwellers) in downtown Chicago, Krehbiel turned to recreating the urban landscapes, most of them within walking distance to his classrooms at The Art Institute of Chicago. These familiar scenes were painted between classes from the banks of the Chicago River. Most were painted during rush hour when automobiles and pedestrians populated the bridges and streets. He was often recognized, which motivated him to write some years later:

"I see many things about Chicago that I would like to paint but don’t dare to. I’m soon found out and joined by a former student with a paint box, and if I keep it up for any length of time I soon have a class and no tuition."

Krehbiel painted the Michigan Avenue Bridge and the Chicago River numerous times, each from a different perspective. The images of the bridge were executed in 1920, the year of its Grand Opening, with the bridge towers wrapped in rows of American flags and blue ribbons. Grand Festival At the Michigan Avenue Bridge was done on May 14th, the day of the opening. In this painting, as well as in Looking South Across the Michigan Avenue Bridge (the largest of these canvases) and "El" Train Over the Chicago River Bridge, ca. 1922, the colors used to depict the buildings in the background – pink, lavender, and pale blue – take into account the effects of diffused light. With Lower Deck Along the River, ca. 1923, and Workmen by the Chicago River Bend, ca. 1922, solid forms are composed of thick wedges of unblended color laid side-by-side. Urban cityscapes such as these had become icons of European Impressionism. (Click here to see Chicago Cityscapes Exhibit.)

In 1928, Krehbiel was requested to paint a life size portrait of Benjamin Franklin to hang in the Hardware Mutual Insurance Building in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Standing a total seven feet tall and titled "Poor Richard", the historic work was depicted from a small statue of the American icon created by Joseph Siffred Duplessis (1725-1802). The statue was found among the Ben Franklin artifacts collection of William A. Mason of Evanston, Illinois. As stated in a feature article from the Chicago Daily Journal, March 12, 1928, the hanging of the painting was accompanied by elaborate dedication ceremonies, .

Beginning in 1938, Krehbiel embarked on writing his second series of long detailed letters, this time to his son, Evans, who was living in Park Ridge with his mother, Dulah.(1) These letters often describe the exhilaration that he felt when able to spend a sequence of days painting outdoors. In a letter dated December 28th, 1938, in which he describes his Christmas break in Saugatuck, Krehbiel wrote:

“Came over the last night of school (at the Art Institute) on the midnight bus and started work as soon as I landed. Have gotten my second wind now and can work all day in zero weather and not mind it . . . Yesterday worked all day in a blizzard and did three canvases. When I went to breakfast before dawn, I thought the trees were going to fall, so strong was the wind . . . Worked all Christmas Day. Turned down three invitations to dinner for fear that the light snow would disappear. I have found that a bit of chocolate and a handful of peanuts are hard to beat for an outdoor dinner . . . And to think that I will have to leave all this and go back to another kind of work on New Years Day.” (2)

In a letter dated January 4th, 1939, Krehbiel wrote to his son from the Cliff Dwellers club:

"Got back the second (from Saugatuck) but found the institute closed. Had expected night class. It was good to have a day of rest. Like a reactionist who comes back to rest up. I had a good workout, 45 small and large canvases in 15 days. But I’m not telling this to anyone but you. Working from dawn to dark one learns a lot not being interrupted. And at sixty-five one has always to produce something new to show that one’s still young enough to grow . . . . I am in need of a twenty two-thirty (22X30) frame in silver or gold. Any thing that size you can pick up in the studio will do. Can you bring one in and leave it at my locker (at the Cliff Dwellers) within a week? . . . . I may wish to send something to the Chicago show . . . . I find that teaching is quite another matter from doing a thing oneself. Working alone one gets in the habit of doing it all oneself and it takes a different mind to tell one how to do a job which would be easier through a simple demonstration." (1)

Increasingly reluctant to return from his painting winter holidays and wondering what kind of reaction he would get if for the first time in nearly forty years, he showed up an hour – or a week – late for class, Krehbiel writes to Evans on one occasion:

“Some day I am going to learn to be real smart . . . to telephone the school on a nice snowy morning that I am ill with a cold, and cannot come down to work. Then go out in the storm and enjoy myself.” (2)