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 Otto Stark  (1859 - 1926)

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Lived/Active: New York/Indiana      Known for: landscape, figure, genre, portrait

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Otto Stark
from Auction House Records.
Cabbage Planter
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following, submitted July 2002, is from material developed for Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana by Tom Davis:

In the the early 1900s the Indianapolis School Board asked eighth grade students to write essays on the topic "Why We Take Pride In Indianapolis." Not too surprisingly, the name of James Whitcomb Riley received the most mention. But Otto Stark, artist and teacher, was a close second. Though mostly forgotten today, this speaks highly for the influence he had on the culture of our town in the first decades of the 20th century and his ability to foster an appreciation of the arts even in those who would not be artists.

He owes his place in art and history to one of the family cows. Otto was planning on following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and become a cabinet maker, hoping to specialize further in organ building. Like many other boys growing up in Indianapolis in the 1860s, one of his daily chores was to drive the cow to a common pasture area on the outskirts of the city in the morning. Then after a day which might include school or swimming in Fall Creek, he had to fetch the cow home each night. "She was a rather obstreperous animal and in chasing her one time I sprained my ankle. Then the doctor refused to let me keep on with my [cabinet making] because it necessitated my standing at the bench. A lithographer came to see my father about that time in regard to making a catalogue for our factory and one evening around the family fireside, we all decided that lithographing would be a good thing for me to take up. So in time, [1875] I went to Cincinnati to take a course and while I was there, I attended art school at night. Before long, I lost sight of [cabinet making] altogether." (Otto Stark, quoted by Leland G. Howard, Otto Stark 1859 -1926: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1977, p. 12)

After several years of being apprenticed to a lithographer and studying in the School of Design at the University of Cincinnati, Stark moved to New York in 1879, finding work as a lithographer, designer, and illustrator while continuing his studies and exhibiting his works. But his goal was beyond even New York, and after six years of saving and soaking in what it had to offer, he left for Paris to study at the Acadamie Julian.

Stark met with success in Paris. First he gained the acceptance of his mostly French classmates with his spirited renditions of Indian war-dances, earning him the nickname "Le Peau Rouge" (Redskin). In May 1886, one of his works was selected from among thousands to be exhibited at the annual Paris Salon. He took this as official confirmation of his talent as an artist. And on December 15, 1886, he married Marie Nitschelm, a Paris girl he had met while boarding at the home of French novelist Anatole France, during one of her many visits to see her friend Suzanne, the author's daughter. In 1887, one of his works was again selected for the Paris Salon, and the young couple's first daughter, Gretchen Leone, was born.

In 1888, the Starks moved to New York City. Otto had four paintings hung in the National Academy of Design Show, and took a job as a commercial artist, supplementing his meager income with magazine illustrations, including at least one work for the popular "Harper's Weekly. " A second daughter, Suzanne Marie, was born, and the family moved to Philadelphia where he took a commercial art position in a publishing house. Two sons, Paul Gustave and Edward Otto were born there, the last leaving Marie so weak that she was taken to a New York City hospital, dying on November 11, 1891.

Faced with raising four young children alone on meager wages, Otto decided to return to Indianapolis, where he would at least have the support of family. His father, not long a widower himself, took care of the three oldest children while his sister Augusta cared for infant Edward.

By January 1892, Otto had returned to lithography work in Cincinnati. In the spring of that year, Otto wrote to his father that he dedicated his life to Christ, a decision which filled his father, a deeply religious man, with joy. The solace of work, which came to include giving art lessons, coupled with his faith, slowly renewed Otto's spirit, and in late 1893, he returned to Indianapolis to set up a household with his widowed sister Amalie, and their unmarried sister Lydia. To provide for his extended family, he opened a studio on East Market Street and began teaching art classes.

Such was his life when fourteen of his oil paintings and nine watercolors were included in the Denison Hotel exhibit along with works by T.C. Steele, William Forsyth, and Richard Gruelle, and then in Chicago. For the next several years, he was kept very busy contributing works for exhibitions and a well-received article on Impressionism for Modern Art. He became one of the members of the Society of Western Artists and the Art Association of Indianapolis. But even this level of success was not enough to allow him to live solely by his painting when he had four children and two sisters to provide for.

So in 1899, he accepted the position of Supervisor of Art at Manual Training High School and began the formal teaching career by which his influence in the city's cultural life was most strongly felt. In 1902, he added teaching classes at the new Herron Art School to his resume, becoming a permanent faculty member in 1905. Another locally famous artist, Elmer Taflinger, also buried at Crown Hill, recalled his days as one of Stark's students at Manual: "Most people don't realize what Otto Stark did for the art world of Indianapolis. He is the man who inspired us all to go to New York, to do something. He was a high school teacher, but he kept abreast of New York, Chicago, Paris. One thing a lot of people don't realize is that Otto Stark had an independent reputation on the East Coast. He won his spurs in Paris, New York, Philadelphia. Then, because his wife died, he decided to raise his four children in a healthier atmosphere. He was a human being above all else. Of all those who could put a picture together, Otto Stark was the best composer. We used to get together in New York, some of us who had studied with Stark and congratulate ourselves on the fact that we were so much better prepared than people from all over the world. We were amazed at the things they didn't know that we thought everybody knew."

Recalling Stark's physical appearance, Taflinger adds,"He was thegodawfulest looking man . . . He had a shuffling, indeterminate gait, every part of his body was at war with another part. He had a real artist's thumb, the size of a spatula, and knobby hands. But he had a firmness and a kindness in his eyes. He fed us with letters, posters, messages from those who had left. He fired our ambition." (Judith Vale Newton, 44)

After living for several years in Southport in a large home with a spacious yard, he moved his family to 1722 North Delaware in 1910 when the tranquility of country life became constantly interrupted by the noise of a nearby railroad. Building a large studio in the backyard, he continued his teaching at Manual and Herron, both now within walking distance. (This house was on the market in 1999 for $120,000. The studio had been turned into a Carriage House with rental possibilities.) His daughters continued to live with him, Gretchen teaching French while Suzanne studied to be a sculptor. He also continued to paint and exhibit, some of his works being included in the 1910 International Exhibition held in South America.

His contribution to the 1914 project at Indianapolis City Hospital was entitled "Toy Parade." It was a continuous frieze around the walls of the kindergarten room capturing a youngsters surprise and joy as his toys come to life and start a circus-like parade. In the words of art historian Mary Burnet "it is almost worth a child's being ill to have one glimpse of such fun; and, once being ill, what child could resist the vigorous vitality of this mural by refusing to grow daily stronger in an altogether admirable manner?" Several other murals were done for schools around this time, including two for the auditorium of the new Shortridge High School. A full length portrait of George Rogers Clark was commissioned by the state to hang in the State House.

By 1919, he felt successful and independent enough to resign all of his teaching positions and devote himself full time to painting. Only Gretchen was still living at home, and she had a living of her own. He spent much time with fellow painter J. Ottis Adams, both at his Leland cottage on Lake Michigan and in Florida, traveling at least once to California and Massachusetts as well. These were great times for Stark. Set free from the pressures of making a living, the spontaneous, playful nature of "Le Peau Rouge" returned, much to the delight of his grandchildren and their friends. Former students honored him with a reception and exhibition at Manual High School in 1925; twenty nine of his former students who were making their living by their art contributing letters, tributes and samples of their works.

A year later, in April 1926, Stark suffered a stroke while visiting his daughter Suzanne. He held on for several more days before dying on April 14th. His fellow artists in the Portfolio Club paid this tribute:

"The Portfolio mourns the death of Otto Stark, one of its earliest members, he was also one of its most beloved. Quiet and retiring, yet genial and friendly, he was a man of profound religious feeling, serious and thoughtful, but always ready to enter into any merriment afoot, often to a rollicking degree. He combined in a very happy way qualities that made him a delightful friend and companion. . . . As a painter, Otto Stark had high ideals and he approached them in artistic work of enduring charm and worth and was himself generously appreciative of the high accomplishment of fellow artists. For many years a teacher, he was an inspiring influence to a large number of students in whom he inculcated a genuine love of beauty and discriminating appreciation---an influence that persists and broadens with the years. His artistic accomplishment was valuable and his personality was lovable. As artist and as friend, we pay reverent and affectionate tribute to his memory." (Leland Howard, 33)

If he had been able to follow his own advice to many of his students, and had remained in New York or Paris to pursue his artistic vision, some speculate that he had what it took to have become a much better and probably more famous artist. But he chose the only route he felt he could choose, coming back to Indianapolis for the sake of his children, and that made him a better human being, one whom even his fellow artists remembered as much for his friendship and inspiration as his art.

copyright 2000 by Tom Davis


Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art - Beverly Hills:
Otto Stark was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1859. Apprenticed to a lithographer, Stark studied at the University of Cincinnati School of Design before moving to New York to work as an illustrator.  Further study followed in Paris at the Academie Julian. Stark met with success in Paris, exhibiting twice at the prestigious Salon.

Returning to the U.S. with his French wife and daughter, the Starks settled in first in New York, then Philadelphia, where Otto painted and sold illustrations to eastern Publications. When his wife died following the birth of their fourth child, Stark returned
to Indiana, where he exhibited with T.C. Steele, Richard Gruelle, and William Forsyth during the 1890’s.  Needing a steady income for his family, Stark took a number of teaching positions in Indianapolis until he could finally devote himself to painting full-time in 1919.

With his children grown, Stark spent a good deal of his time painting with his friend J. Ottis Adams until he suffered a stroke from which he would not recover in 1926.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


Otto Stark is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Impressionists Pre 1940
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915



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