Before the 19th century, and during much of it, when American artists went abroad to study, Rome was their usual destination. By the 1870’s, however, other large European cities began to be recognized as places where artists could receive a suitable education. Paris, Antwerp, Munich, Dusseldorf all began to attract numbers of foreign artists in search of instruction and exposure to culture which they could not find at home. About the same time, the nature of the instruction which artists sought began to change. Increasingly, younger artists rebelled against the strictures of conventional academic training which kept them indoors, copying, in dim and artificial light, old masters and copies of old masters – a stifling, boring curriculum designed to prepare them to paint the large historical and mythological canvases then in vogue. It was in reaction to these stale academic traditions that the idea of open-air, or “plein-air” painting was born. And this concept of painting from nature quickly led to the idea of rural artist colonies, where groups of artists could find suitable subjects to paint, live cheaply, and enjoy each other’s company. The Good and Simple Life by Michael Jacobs (Phaidon, Oxford, 1985) engagingly tells the interesting story of a number of these artist colonies and examines the reasons why this movement came into being, why it flourished, and eventually became a thing of the past.
The most famous of these colonies was in France, in the forest of Fontainebleau south of Paris. There the village of Barbizon first began to attract French painters, then Americans and other nationalities. Similar colonies began to spring up in other places in Europe as well, and began to assume a great importance in shaping 19th century art. It was only a matter of time until the American artists who frequented these colonies abroad, began to introduce them to their native soil.
Will Hicock Low, the American painter, writer, and lecturer who sojourned at Barbizon in the 1870’s and wrote an amusing description of Bohemian life there (A Chronicle of Friendship, New York, 1908), gave a lecture in Chicago in 1910 in which he described the French artist colonies and mentioned that he was pleased that such colonies had begun to appear in the United States. It is possible that he had in mind two such colonies not far from the venue of his talk, on the banks of Rock River about a hundred miles west of Chicago. Eagle’s nest, the better known of the two, was founded in 1898 by the celebrated Illinois sculptor, Lorado Taft. There in cottages on a thirty acre tract, Taft and other artists and writers gathered in creative endeavor. Soon another colony formed just a few miles away in the town of Grand Detour, so named because it nestled in a horseshoe bend of Rock River across which in the 18th century French fur traders made a “grand detour” with their canoes.
Grand Detour’s chief claim to fame is that John Deere was living there when he invented the steel plow which revolutionized farming. For a while the town flourished when Deere and his partner Major Leonard Andrus began to produce their steel plowshares which were much in demand. Grand Detour died a bit when Deere moved his operation to Moline in 1847, and died a little more when it was bypassed by the railroad and then failed to become the county seat. The ensuing stagnation however, produced conditions that made it an ideal site for an artist colony. Property was available and inexpensive, living was cheap. The slower pace of life, the air of decrepitude, the houses and barns that had fallen into decay, added a note of the picturesque that made it all the more attractive to artists. The natural surroundings of woods, fields, and river banks added to its charm and artistic potential. For some artists it became a place to spend their summers; others became full time residents. In the 1920s and 1930s, John Nolf, a painter, illustrator, and cartoonist originally from Pennsylvania, began to teach “plein-air” classes in Grand Detour. It is not surprising that Nolf’s teacher had been John Vanderpoel who had studied in France during the golden age of the French artist colonies.
Early in the 20th century, Grand Detour and Eagle’s Nest began to draw many Chicago-based painters as part or full-time residents. Perhaps the most interesting of these was Oscar Daniel Soellner. He was born in Chicago, the son of a German woodcarver, one of a long line of wood carvers, who had emigrated from Munich and found employment in carving the fancy fretwork and ornate columns which at the turn of the century began to be used lavishly on homes and public buildings.
With such a heritage, it is understandable that Soellner’s interest in art appeared at an early age. While still a teenager he began to earn extra money by painting signs. He pored over art books from the local library, and eventually went on to more formal study at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. He was encouraged by the praise of the noted American painter Chauncey F. Ryder, and around 1920 began exhibiting his paintings in the Chicago area. In 1923 he was invited to exhibit at the annual exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago, and continued to exhibit at the Art Institute until 1950, two years before his death. He was awarded a great honor in 1929 when one of his paintings of Grand Detour was accepted in the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design. His friend Chauncey Ryder wrote to Soellner that his painting was” hung on the ‘honor wall’ of the Vanderbilt Gallery, our best room.”
In the course of the next three decades, Soellner exhibited widely and won a number of awards. He joined and exhibited with the All-Illinois Society, American Federation of the Arts, Association of Chicago Painters and Sculptors, and the American Artists Professional League. He also took part in exhibitions at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Illinois Academy of Fine Arts, Illinois State Museum, and the Kansas City Art Institute, to name but a few.
Soellner is more and more recognized as an accomplished American regionalist, a great master of light and shadow. His poetic landscapes, which often emphasize the abstract forms found in nature, also appropriately enough, and though they have a distinctly American flavor, certainly recall those great painters of the French Barbizon School, Daubigny and Corot, who almost a century earlier had sought the same rustic muses Soellner and his comrades found in Grand Detour.