Frederick Ferdinand Schafer Painting Catalog

4. Legends and Myths about Frederick F. Schafer

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Legends and myths about Schafer

Biographical sketches and other sources include some stories for which there is no compelling evidence one way or another. In this list, those that seem plausible are identified as legends; those that seem implausible are identified as myths.

Crocker mentorship and grubstake (legend)

An anonymous typescript1 found in the files of Craigdarroch Castle, Victoria, B.C., reports that

…San Francisco people appear to have been his patrons…the well known Mr. Crocker of that city (Crocker Bank, etc.) was a mentor and grubstaked him on painting trips to the Sierras.

The source of this information is unknown. Presumably, from the identification of San Francisco and the bank, this is a reference to the businessman Charles Crocker, rather than to his brother, the lawyer Edwin Crocker of Sacramento.

Another Crocker connection (legend)

In a 1962 letter from Elliot Evans, of the Society of California Pioneers, to the librarian of the Alameda Free Public Library2, is the following item:
From a recent catalogue of a now-defunct gallery at 2217 Polk is a listing of "Sunset on Mt. Shasta from Cape Horn, 1880," "from the Crocker Estate." This view could only be secured from above the R.R. at that point so the very site specification of the title argues an arrangement of the artist with the R.R. for his convenience in reaching the emminence from whch Mt. Shasta could be seen. Crocker ownership is further indicative."

Since the collection of Edwin Crocker of Sacramento, which has been carefully documented by the Crocker Museum, does not mention any paintings by Schafer, the "Crocker Estate" reference also appears to be to the San Francisco Charles Crocker.

Alcoholism (probably a myth)

In a brief biographical sketch of Frederick Schafer for the 1959 exhibition Art of the Oregon Territory, Franz R. Stenzel, M.D. (1906-1998), a physician, noted collector, and amateur art historian included this comment:

Though an alcoholic, producing much inferior work, when he took the necessary time he was able to create a presentable picture.

Four years later, Dr. Stenzel expanded his biographical sketch of Schafer for the 1963 exhibition An Art Perspective of the Historic Pacific Northwest, saying

According to people who knew him, he fought against his tendency to alcoholism, though not always successfully. Some of his work is very good and some of it is equally bad. This would seem to be partially explained by his alcoholic problem.

Dr. Stenzel's comments have been picked up and elaborated in several other biograpical sketches. However, in William K. Dick's 1975 interview with Schafer's grandson Frederick O. Hughes, who lived with Schafer from 1907 until his death in 1927, Hughes said that Schafer "did not drink except a bit of homemade wine occasionally".3

In a 1990 telephone conversation,4 Dr. Stenzel recalled that he learned about Schafer's purported alcoholism from an elderly woman, the daughter of the landlady who provided accommodation for Schafer and his wife when they visited Portland. This third-hand report seems to be the sole source of claims of alcoholism. Given the grandson's contradictory report and that severe alcoholism seems unlikely for a person who lived to the age of 88, it seems more likely that Dr. Stenzel's report correctly applies to some other visiting artist.

Panama visit (On repeated retelling, a conjecture turns into a purported fact; the fact may be partly correct)

The following sentence appeared in a biographical sketch of Schafer5:
Yet another Panama traveler in the 1870s was Frederick Schafer, (1839-1927) the German landscapist, who arrived in California in 1877, after spending time in Mazatlan, Mexico.
This report that Schafer traveled from Germany to San Francisco in 1877 by way of Panama and spent time in Mazatlan is an unsupported claim whose development can be traced in some detail with the help of the date. An October 1876 auction sale advertisement in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin establishes that he actually arrived earlier and there is some evidence that he may have arrived as early as 1873. Upon inquiring of the author of this sentence, it turned out that the report was based on a comment in Gerdts, William H., Art Across America, volume 3, page 249:
Another German landscapist who arrived in 1877 (in SF) was Frederick Schafer, who probably traveled via the Isthmus of Panama with a stop at Mazatlan…
The Gerdts book does not provide a citation or source for this information about Schafer but the "probably" and the date of 1877 in his comment together point to his source being the 1985 exhibition catalog California Landscape Painting, 1860–1885 by Dwight Miller. (Gerdts has since confirmed that was his source.6) In that catalog Prof. Miller offers 1877 as Schafer's likely year of arrival and he refers to a painting by Schafer titled "Mazatlan" that appeared in the 1880 Mechanics' Institute Fifteenth Industrial Exhibition in San Francisco, and offering that this painting title
…suggests that he had visited Mexico on the trip West.

Miller's speculation that there was a visit to Mexico became Gerdts's stronger suggestion "probably traveled via Panama" and then was transformed into the statement of fact "…who arrived in California in 1877, after spending time in Mazatlan, Mexico."

The painting titled "Mazatlan" has not been located, so it is not known whether it was a painting of the Mexican seaport or of the German four-masted ship named Mazatlan, another popular subject for artists of that era.

Since those comments appeared, research on ship embarkation records in genealogy databases and 19th century newspapers have identified a Frederick Schafer and family traveling by coastal steamer from New York to San Francisco via Panama in 1873, with a scheduled port of call at Mazatlan. It has not yet been confirmed that this Frederick Schafer is the artist, but the newspaper reports do raise the possibility that Miller's original speculation that the artist visited Mexico while traveling to San Francisco was a good guess. The evidence for that trip is described in detail in Travels of the artist.

A copycat and a sidearm (legend)

The artist's great-grandson, Melvyn Frederick Hughes, inherited a collection of personal effects of the artist, including a pistol. Along with the pistol came a family legend that

…he carried [the pistol] the last years of his life for protection from the painter that was painting copycatting of his & forging his name. From what my father told me this person [was] threatening Schafer's life & etc. if he caused him any trouble! 7

The report of "copycatting" and signature forging may be one explanation for some of the hard-to-attribute paintings with unusual signatures that have emerged while developing this catalog.

[Next section: Other artists with similar names or signatures]


1. Frederick Ferdinand Schafer - The Rocky Mountain School. Undated typescript said to have been prepared by an unidentified museum volunteer from unknown sources sometime before 1998. Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society, Victoria, British Columbia, file 983.795.

2. Elliot Evans to Mrs. [Hendrine] Kleinjan, 21 March 1962, on the letterhead of the California Pioneer Foundation (now known as the The Society of California Pioneers). Handwritten. In the The Alameda Free Library vertical file "Frederick Schafer".

3. William K. Dick notes, pages 30 and 36.

4. Personal communication of the author with Franz Stenzel, M.D., by telephone interview of 3 April 1990. This account is confirmed in a summary note found in the Archives of California Art Schafer file, which appears to have been provided by Dr. Stenzel.

5. World-Wide Web site, retrieved March 28, 2002. (The website has since been changed to omit the quoted sentence and Internet Archive has only later versions.)

6. Personal communication of the author with William H. Gerdts by e-mail of 25 June 2009.

7. Personal communications of the author with Melvyn Frederick Hughes by e-mail of 2 October and 4 October 2015 and telephone interview of 12 January 2016.

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Mar 10, 2024, 11:47 MDT Accessibility