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 John Thomas Nolf  (1872 - 1950)

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Lived/Active: Illinois      Known for: agrarian figure and genre painting, commercial art, teaching

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Ad Code: 3
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Farmer Plowing a Field
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
"1948 Best of Show Figure Composition by John Nolf (1871 – 1950)"
A biography written by Duane Paulsen, Grand Detour

The unofficial leader of the Grand Detour artist colony that flourished during the second quarter of the 20th Century, John Nolf called himself the “Mayor of Grand Detour.”  Of all the artists, quite possibly he best fit in with the inhabitants and life in this quaint, out-of-the-way village.
Nolf was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and his father was a soldier at Gettysburg.  He was originally a tramp printer, and he wandered across the United States working at his trade.  His poker winnings in Spokane, Washington, enabled him to move to Chicago, where he worked as a compositor for newspapers during the day and attended art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago during the evenings.  His series of cartoons In the Days that Wuz in the Inland Printer, a trade publication, brought him national recognition.  At one time, he drew pictures to accompany farm pamphlets written by Sherwood Anderson, who later gained fame as a playwright.  As a commercial illustrator, among other things, he created the “Old Dutch Cleanser” lady.  His catalog of commercial artwork can be seen in the Loveland Museum.

John and his wife Mandilla, “Dillie,” lived in Oak Park, and began spending summers in Grand Detour during the 1920’s, boarding at the Sheffield Hotel.  In 1926 he purchased a riverfront lot at the west end of the village, and in 1928 after the Sheffields burned down, he had a cottage built on the site that he named “Whip-Poor-Will.”  His studio was upstairs where he also held art classes, and many future painters of this area took lessons from him.  Other artists lived nearby – Fred Garner across the street, Holger Jensen several houses away downriver and Oscar Soellner a block away.

Nolf said, “If you can’t paint in the Rock River Valley, you can’t paint anywhere.”  In a typewritten note, speaking of the winter in this area, he said: “But it is the silence – that ineffable, indescribable, tender silence that gets you.  Then as the sun sinks behind the horizon and the sky changes from rose to purple and the lights in the little village of Grand Detour across the river peep forth in the semi-darkness, you feel that you are under the spell of a magnificent work of art the like of which no human being  can approach.”

Writing in the May 1929 Inland Printer, Nolf said: “I have built a beautiful little studio cottage at Grand Detour, Illinois, near Dixon, in the Rock River Valley, and paint here all summer.  I possess a fine wife, lots of paint, good books, and a radio, and here we live as the Almighty intended that people should.”

Chicago art critic C.J. Bulliet called Nolf’s style “honestly ‘American’ and rustic.  The kids like him and the women listen spellbound when he talks on art to their clubs. He was  a local Will Rodgers, without the chewing gum and Lariat.”  Another said, “He paints in a convincing fashion and often mixes humor with his philosophy.”  Said another, “Nolf has always been interested in people rather than places and it is people not landscapes that he paints.”  

From the Christian Science Monitor: “He frequently paints the gentle landscape of the Rock River Valley, but his outstanding pictures are of the young farmers, clean-cut lads with muscular bodies, fine-shaped heads and intelligent faces, sturdy, simple folk, but with great dignity.”  

There is a plaque on the porch of Whip-Poor-Will that best describes John Nolf’s life: “I shall pass through this world but once.  Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now.  Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.  (1928 Author unknown)”

Submitted by Tom Shaw

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Specializing in paintings of rural America, especially agrarian figures, John Thomas Nolf often used persons as models from his home town of Grand Detour, Illinois where he lived for many years.  Grand Detour was on the Rock River one-hundred miles from Chicago and in 1842, turned out the first steel plows in America. However the town became a ghost town as a result of citizen's driving away railroad track layers and, in turn, their economic future.

Before settling in Grand Detour, Nolf led an itinerant life. He was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and he and his family moved to Joplin, Missouri, and then by the time he was a teen-ager to Pendleton, Oregon. He apprenticed as a printing compositor and, upon earning his union card, traveled widely in the Northwest taking a variety of printing jobs. In the early 1890s, he moved to Chicago because of having won first-class train fare in a poker game. He took a job at the Chicago Tribune and became interested in art and enrolled in night classes at the Art Institute and the J. Francis Smith Art Academy.  His teachers were Walter Ufer, Wellington Reynolds, Francis Smith and John Vanderpoel.

By 1900, he determined to focus on an art career, and started as a commercial artist for advertising agencies.  He was active in local art organizations including the Oak Park Art League and the Chicago Association of Painters and Sculptors.

After several years of earning money that way, he moved to Grand Detour, where he became a local celebrity and was described by a journalist as "being on familiar terms with all his neighbors, witty and full of homespun philosophy, a sort of local Will Rogers without the chewing gum or the lariat". The 1920s were especially successful for John Nolf, and paintings such as Boys Plowing won awards for him and reflected his preference for depicting people that he met rather than the countryside he had traveled so extensively. His work is characteristic of American Regionalism with his extolling of "the qualities of a specific rural region" including the local farm boys whom he showed as "strong, confident figures" that were heroic and exalting of the virtues of the agricultural way of life.

John Nolf died in 1952 in a nursing home in Dixon, Illinois.  Paintings by John Nolf are in the Chicago Municipal Art League collection, which was sold to the Union League Club; Northwestern University; and the public schools of Oak Park and Chicago.

Sources include:
Union League Club of Chicago biography of the artist
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who's Who in American Art, 1936-37, p. 310.

Courtesy of Sidney Hamper, President of the John H. Vanderpoel Art Association.

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