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 Anton Gag  (1859 - 1908)

About: Anton Gag


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Lived/Active: Minnesota      Known for: portrait, still life, landscape, mural

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BIOGRAPHY for Anton Gag
1859 (Walk, Bohemia)
1908 (New Ulm, Minnesota)


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portrait, still life, landscape, mural

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
From New Ulm, Minnesota and born and raised in Walk, Bohemia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which is now in the Czech Republic, Anton Gag seemed to fit the stereotype of the Bohemian artist--always poor, pursuing a talent that did not bring in much money, allowing his children much freedom, and non-conforming in his personal behavior with a reputation for womanizing. Indeed his life and art were formed by the liberal humanist values of the German-Bohemian culture.

He was the last of five children born to George Gaag, the original spelling of the name. His father was a wood craftsman and his mother, Theresa Heller was the daughter of a sheepherder. The family was landless and lived in a broad valley between two mountains. Walking through a dense forest to school and church, young Gag developed a love of the forest, and its dark mysteries became the source of themes in his paintings that dealt with fairy tales, superstitions, and a strong sense of family or clan.

In 1873, when he was fifteen, he emigrated to the United States with his family, who were searching for economic opportunity. They sailed on the USS Ohio from Bremen, and a few months later reached St. Paul, Minnesota where they lived for several years to earn enough money to move farther west. The neighborhood, near the river front area called Upper Levee, was very rough, and in the truest sense, Gag received a liberal education. It is unlikely he had formal education, but the City Directory of 1877-78 listed him, now called Tony, as an artist. His sister, Wanda Gag who later became a famous artist and illustrator, said that the family story was that her father had drawn incessantly from childhood. Apparently his success in St. Paul was modest because the City Directory of the next year listed him as cigar maker.

Around 1880, he moved to New Ulm, Minnesota, where his family had purchased land several years earlier, following the oldest daughter, Anna, who had found work as a domestic servant in that German-Bohemian settlement. The town had been founded in 1854 by Germans from Chicago, and by the 1870s many German Bohemians had settled there, attracted by the expansive land that resembled their homeland.

A local wealthy man, August Schell who founded the Schell Brewery, welcomed Gag into his social circle and became his first patron. One of Gag's early commissions was decorating a guest house on the Schell property where he created murals depicting the Bohemian forest with animals and birds and scenes of Bohemian people.

In 1880, Schell paid for art-school education for Gag in Chicago, likely the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts that had just opened under the sponsorship of Marshall Field and other businessmen. Gag also studied in Milwaukee for a few weeks, and saw scrolled panoramas that later influenced his large paintings of Minnesota history.

He returned to New Ulm to establish himself as a professional artist, and painted portraits and still life, but his main income came from operating a photography studio. He also did more decorative commissions for Schell, and during these projects met Ida Berndt, whom he married in 1886 and whose social position was much higher than his. He later told his daughter, Wanda, that it was a "perfect marriage," but only 13 months after their wedding, Ida died from childbirth and a month later, the baby died. Reportedly he was inconsolable. He spent much time alone in the surrounding landscape and at this time began a series of small landscape paintings, which in style are linked to impressionism.

After a period when he earned a reputation as a local lothario, he married Elizabeth Biebl in 1892, and her well-educated German immigrant parents objected to the union on the grounds of uncertain livelihood. He worked hard for several years as a portrait photographer, and then sold the business because of his delicate health and desire to be an artist. His family was growing including the birth of Wanda Gag in 1893, and to support them, he along with a partner named Christian Heller took many jobs doing church decoration, house painting and interior decorating, stage curtains, and advertising banners including a set for a local cigar company. He also did a panorama on a single roll of cloth of eleven panels, each 7 by 10 feet of the 1862 Dakota Indian War, telling the story of the battle of New Ulm.

Meanwhile, he continued to do easel paintings of landscapes and portraits, some for his own pleasure and some for patrons. He mastered the art of glazes, and his still lifes,so realistic they fooled the eye, were remarkably luminous and translucent.

By 1906, his health was failing with tuberculosis, and in 1908 at the age of fifty, he dissolved his partnership with Heller. He died a few months later on May 21, reportedly saying in German to his daughter, Wanda: "What Papa was unable to accomplish, Wanda still have to finish."

In retrospect, Anton Gag was an artist in the venerable European tradition of the jobbing painter who combined the workman traditions of his birthplace with a strong feeling for nature that linked him to nineteenth-century Romanticism.

Minnesota History, Fall 1999. "Anton Gag, Bohemian" by Julie L'Enfant and Robert J Paulson.

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