John Lewis Krimmel

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John Lewis Krimmel
Born Johann Ludwig Krimmel
May 30, 1786
Württemberg, Germany
Died July 15, 1821
Germantown, Pennsylvania
Nationality American
Known for Painting

John Lewis Krimmel (May 30, 1786-July 15, 1821), sometimes called "the American Hogarth" was America's first painter of genre scenes. Born in Germany, he emigrated to Philadelphia in 1809 and soon became a member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Initially influenced by Scotland's David Wilkie, England's William Hogarth and America's Benjamin West, he soon turned to direct observation of life for his genre scenes. He was among the first artists in America to portray free blacks, such as in Black People's Prayer Meeting (1813). Among his still frequently reproduced paintings are Fourth of July, Center Square (1811/12) and Election Day (1815), both filled with lively characterizations of scores of crowd members. Krimmel died in a swimming accident at the age of 35. Among the prominent American artists influenced by Krimmel's work are William Sidney Mount, George Caleb Bingham, and Thomas Eakins.

Early work[edit]

Country Wedding (1820)

Johann Ludwig Krimmel was born on May 30, 1786 in the small town of Ebingen in the south German duchy of Württemberg. In 1809, Johann Ludwig decided to join his older brother, who had immigrated to Philadelphia. Initially he planned to engage in business with his brother, but soon abandoned this occupation for art. Though he may have had some watercolor lessons in London, Johann Ludwig had no real formal training in art when he reached Philadelphia about November 1, 1809. The 1812 city directory listed Krimmel (who by now had Anglicized his name to John Lewis) as a painter. He began by painting portraits, but, a copy of David Wilkie's Blind Fiddler falling in his way, his attention was turned to humorous subjects. He also painted historical pictures.

At that time Philadelphia was the intellectual and cultural center of the United States. Here Krimmel soon joined the first known sketch club in America whose members included Thomas Sully and Rembrandt Peale. His first painting to excite public notice was Pepper-Pot: a Scene in the Philadelphia Market, 1811. The oil depicted a black woman ladling out bowls of her uniquely Philadelphian spicy soup to white customers of various ages, heights and social classes. This genre scene or depiction of contemporary everyday life was soon followed by many more in his sketchbooks and canvases like Blind Man's Buff (1814) and Country Wedding (1814). In all of his known oils, Krimmel included at least one animal (usually a frisky dog) sometimes two or three.

Pavel Svinin, a Russian on a diplomatic mission to Philadelphia between 1811 and 1813, apparently bought roughly 14 sketches from Krimmel and presented them back in Russia along with works from a variety of sources as typical American scenes which he had painted. The pictures in the so-called Svinin Portfolio include Black People's Prayer Meeting, Deck Life on One of Fulton's Steamboats and Morning in Front of Arch Street Meeting House, which showed Quakers in their Sunday best. The Svinin Portfolio is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Though formerly thought to be Svinin's own work, the watercolors are now generally attributed to Krimmel.

Best known pictures[edit]

Fourth of July Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia (1819)

Krimmel’s works are still often reproduced in schoolbooks, historical works and magazines. Election Day 1815, perhaps his most famous painting, best illustrates Krimmel's ability to individualize crowd members with humorous observations. Fourth of July Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia, 1819 brims with patriotism and a spirit of unity in a neoclassical design. In Quilting Frolic guests and their black fiddler burst in to celebrate the finishing of a quilt before the needlework and clean-up of the room are quite finished. Art historian Guy McElroy has identified this work as one of the first "to utilize physiognomical distortions [wide toothy grins and over-sized lips] as a basic element in the depiction of African Americans..." The depiction of a mother and daughter trying to persuade the drunken father to come home has caused historians of the temperance movement to praise In an American Inn as the first work of an American artist to illustrate this issue.

Krimmel's sketchbooks[edit]

Krimmel recorded ideas for his pictures in a series of sketchbooks he kept between 1810 to 1821. From late 1816 to 1818, he travelled back to his home region as well as to Vienna and Salzburg, and his sketchbooks are filled with sketches of European landscapes, people, animals, and flowers. His encounters with local artists influenced his style to become more maturely romantic. Some of Krimmel's now lost paintings are known from detailed sketches, such as The Tea Party. Seven of Krimmel's sketchbooks are now in the library at the Winterthur Museum. They contain approximately 700 separate drawings, ranging from quick pencil sketches to finished watercolor pictures, which have been useful in authenticating unsigned paintings of Krimmel that surface from time to time.

Two sketches in his second sketchbook capture a typical Moravian Christmas home celebration and represent what are probably the earliest depictions of a Christmas tree in American art.

Death and legacy[edit]

On July 15, 1821, Krimmel went swimming near Germantown, Pennsylvania in a millpond and drowned. He was engaged to be married at the time of his death. Though Krimmel had been a painter only 11 years, his star was definitely on the rise. He had recently been elected President of Association of American Artists. He had also received a prestigious commission for a large historical work, a 6 foot by 9 foot canvas commemorating the landing of William Penn at Newcastle, Delaware in October 1682. Though Krimmel's genre scenes found few buyers during his lifetime, engravings of his work made long after his death were widely circulated as prints and magazine illustrations. He is recognized as the most significant American painter to consistently chronicle American life from 1810 to 1821.

Selected works[edit]

Barroom Dancing (c. 1820)
  • Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market, 1811
  • In an American Pie, 1814
  • The Country Wedding, 1814
  • Election Day, Philadelphia 1815
  • Fourth of July Drunk Celebration 1819 - Philadelphia
  • The Cut P.P.
  • Blindman's B.J.
  • Going to and Returning from Boarding-School
  • Perry's Victory

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