Frederick Ferdinand Schafer Painting Catalog

1.1 The Artist: Schafer's background and training

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Frederick Ferdinand Schafer is a nineteenth-century western United States landscape artist not well known outside of a community of dealers in western art and collectors of that genre, mostly in California and the Pacific Northwest. Schafer is listed with a brief biographical sketch in the standard reference encyclopedias that list artists of the American West, and exhibition catalogs typically succeed in filling out about one paragraph of biographical information, mostly by repeating things from earlier exhibition catalogs.note 1 The information found in the biographical encyclopedias, in the California Artists Archive of The Oakland Museum of California, in the exhibition catalogs, in nineteenth-century newspaper accounts, and in notes and letters of collectors, is fragmentary and in some cases contradictory. No one has reported uncovering any original papers or diaries, and information about his artistic training is largely a matter of conjecture. Even Schafer's Vital statistics appear in print with wide variations.

Schafer's surname was, in German, spelled "Schäfer". Schafer signed his paintings both with and without an umlaut over the "a" and rarely with the umlauted "a" rendered in the conventional English transliteration "ae". Official documents in the United States all use the anglicized form "Schafer," with no accent. Some biographical sourcesnote 2 claim that Schafer spelled his name several ways in signatures on paintings, but apart from one painting that appears to be by Schafer but bears the strange inscription "O. G. Shäffer", no other spellings have turned up in this inventory. Nineteenth century newspaper articles and advertisements occasionally omit the "c" or double the "f" in his last name, but these variations should probably be attributed to sloppy newspaper editing.note 3

The forename Frederick would have been spelled "Friedrich" in German, as attested by an 1871 ship manifest recording his departure from Hamburg, Germany, which gives his forename as "Friedr."note 4 All U.S. official documents and the occasional painting signature that includes his first name appear with the anglicized spelling. This anglicized spelling, together with the observation that no trace of work or study in Europe has turned up, suggests that he adopted the anglicized spelling of his forename upon immigration into the United States.

By all reports, Schafer's career as an artist was troubled. He seems to have arrived in San Francisco at the worst possible time. There were dozens of other landscape artists already working in the city in the 1880's.note 5 San Francisco collectors were beginning to feel that in order to be properly sophisticated they should be acquiring European, rather than local, work.note 6 To cap it off, a series of financial panics in the last quarter of the nineteenth century must have cut into the cash available for patronizing artists.note 7 A newspaper report of a February 1886 sale in Los Angeles says that a great many paintings "were sold last night for about the cost of the frames." note 8 From other newspaper reports of the time,note 9 Schafer was somewhat bitter about these circumstances, and apparently Schafer augmented his income by painting theatre scenery for the Ye Liberty theatre in Oakland and the Columbia and Baldwin theatres in San Francisco. Several newspaper reports indicate that he also tried to augment his income by teaching painting.note 10


Two lines of investigation suggest that Schafer studied in Germany, at Düsseldorf, though apparently not at the Düsseldorfer Malerschule. First, his work resembles that of Düsseldorf-trained painters. The section of these notes on Similarities, affinities, and influences explores this line of investigation. Second, several contemporary newspaper stories mention Düsseldorf in connection with Schafer, and some even identify him as "Professor".note 11 These stories suggest that Schafer represented himself as being trained, and perhaps even as a teacher, at Düsseldorf. Unfortunately, an investigation turned up no record of his attendance there nor of residence in the area.note 12

Two still-life paintings, at the right, may offer a tantalizing clue concerning Schafer's training. These two paintings, signed with an umlauted "a", are in a seventeenth-century Dutch style. Perhaps these paintings were done as the academic exercise of a student in Germany, in a style never again pursued--their meticulous detail and finish are quite unlike any other Schafer paintings. Were they unsigned, one would come up with a dozen other potential attributions, probably without ever thinking of Schafer. painting image
[Floral still life: white rose]
painting image
[Floral still life: red rose]

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note 1: Biographical sketches can be found in Doris Ostrander Dawdy, Artists of the American West, pages 389-390; Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, page 422; Edan Milton Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940 (1989), page 494; and Maria Sharylen, Artists of the Pacific Northwest, page 178. The shortage of information about the artist is remarked on in Catherine H. Campbell, New Hampshire Scenery, page 136. A biographical sketch in Peter Hastings Falk, ed., Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975 (1999 edition, volume 3, page 2912) is somewhat longer and benefits from recent historical research.

A thorough search of Ulrich Thieme, Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur... (Vol. 29, pages 549f) uncovers four different Frederick Schäfers (in various spellings) but not this artist. The Hans Vollmer, Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler des XX Jahrhunderts supplements to Thieme in 1958 (Volume 4, page 171) and 1962 (Volume 6, page 396) also show no listing. Similarly, Friedrich von Bötticher, Malerwerke des Neunzehnten Jahrhunderts and Emmanuel Benezit, Dictionnaire Critique et Documentaire des Peintres,... have no listing for this artist. The supplement to Mallett's 1948 Index of Artists on page 247 lists a Friedrich Schäfer with a birthplace of "Braunsching," Germany, in 1869 (30 years after the birth of our subject), giving references to Thieme and Benezit, but neither of these sources has such a listing in any edition examined.

note 2: Comments about Schafer's signature spellings may be found, for example, in Joseph Armstrong Baird, Jr., Catalog of...the...Honeyman...Collection, page 131, and Edan Milton Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940, second edition, page 494.

note 3: An example of the umlaut is found in the The San Franciscan, 30 January 1886. Another example of an accent (using the form "Scháfer", perhaps because the font lacked an "ä") may be found in an auction advertisement in the The Argonaut, 13 September 1884, page 11.

note 4: See passenger #217 in the Thuringia embarkation list of September 6, 1871.

note 5: Langley's San Francisco Directory for 1881 under the category "painters, landscape and marine," (page 1122) includes Schafer in a list of forty names.

note 6: *****locate a primary citation for the frequently-mentioned claim about San Francisco sophisticates turning their nose up at American Art*******

note 7: There were financial panics in 1879, 1885, 1888, 1891, 1894, and 1897. See, e.g., The Wall Street Journal, November 5, 1991, page A5.

note 8: "Elegant Oil Paintings at Low Prices", Los Angeles Times, 17 February 1886, page 4.

note 9: Indications of this bitterness can be found in his strongly negative comments about the world of art quoted in "Art Notes," The San Franciscan 5, 2 (January 30, 1886) page 9, and "What is Art?," San Francisco Chronicle XLIII, 86 (April 11, 1886), page 1.

note 10: A report that Schafer did theatre scenery painting comes from the 1975 conversation between William K. Dick and Schafer's grandson Frederick O. Hughes and is confirmed by a newspaper preview in the 24 April 1898 (San Francisco) The Morning Call, page 29, columns 4 and 5. Schafer's efforts to teach painting are confirmed by an advertisement in the 27 May 1882 San Francisco Evening Bulletin and newspaper notices that appeared in many other cities (for example, Salt Lake City and Seattle) where Schafer visited to sketch and sell paintings. A 1910 advertisement, when Schafer was 71 years of age, offers not only lessons in drawing and painting but also "amateurs' work finished", which may explain some strange paintings that have emerged.

note 11: A typical reference to Schafer's Düsseldorf background can be found in the (Salt Lake City) Daily Tribune 20 December 1891. This "news" report is not necessarily authoritative; its effusive compliments on Schafer's painting ability read more like a press release than a news story. The Los Angeles Times, 31 January 1886 refers to "...paintings by Professor F. Schafer, a graduate of the Dusseldorf school and officiating member of the Fine Art Association of San Francisco...", and on 13 February 1886 and 17 February 1886 again refers to the artist as "Prof. Schafer". The (Salt Lake City) Daily Tribune on 27 and 29 May 1886 similarly uses the term "Prof. Schafer". The Vancouver Daily World, 1 September 1891 begins a news item "Prof. Frederick Schafer of Dusseldorf..." and again on 3 September 1891 and 11 September 1891 refers to "Prof. Schafer". Auction advertisements in the San Francisco Chronicle on 16 November 1885 and 14 December 1885 also refer to the artist as "Prof. Frederick Schafer"

note 12: The lack of records on Schafer was reported in a personal communication from Dr. Volker Adolphs, of the Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf im Ehrenhof, 30 October 1991. Dr. Adolphs reviewed records of the school as well as local government archives, and found no mention of a Frederick F. Schafer.

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