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Emil Carlsen

 (1848 - 1932)
Emil (Soren Emil) Carlsen was active/lived in New York, California / Denmark.  Emil Carlsen is known for still life, sea-landscape and figure painting.

Emil Carlsen

Biography from the Archives of askART

Emil Carlsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark on Oct. 19, 1853.  Carlsen studied architecture at the Danish Royal Academy.  After immigrating to Chicago in 1872, he worked as an architectural draftsman and as an assistant to painter Laurits B. Holst.  During the 1870s he spent six months in Paris as a pupil of Vallon.  Returning to Chicago, he taught at the newly formed school which is now the AIC.  Carlsen returned to Paris during 1884-86 and began specializing in still lifes.  Due to the French influence, he painted brighter florals during this period.  He had studios in Boston and NYC during 1886. The following year, at the request of Mary Curtis Richardson, he moved to San Francisco to succeed the late Virgil Williams as director of the School of Design.  He shared a studio on Montgomery Street with Arthur Mathews, a close friend whom he had met in Paris, and taught at the local ASL.  He was an active member of the Bohemian Club during his four years in San Francisco; however, his time in California was not successful due to limited sales and exhibition opportunities.  Returning to New York in 1891 penniless, he taught regularly at the NAD and by 1896 had gained financial success and recognition.   About 1905 he built a home and studio in Falls Village, CT, while maintaining a residence in NYC, and in 1906 was elected a member of the Nat'l Academy.  He was for the most part self-taught, but his greatest influence came in Paris from studying the works of the 18th-century still-life specialist Chardin.  He also painted vaporous, delicate marines, but it was his still lifes which made him one of America's most famous painters of copper kettles, gleaming bottles, fish, game, etc.  The largest and most important exhibition of his work during his lifetime was held at the CGA in 1923.  Carlsen died in NYC on Jan. 2, 1932. 

Member:  NA; AFA; Salmagundi Club; NAC. 

Exh:  Mechanics' Inst. (SF), 1887-88; Calif. State Fair, 1888; Bohemian Club, 1898, 1902, 1904; Louisiana Purchase Expo (St Louis) 1904 (gold medal); NAD, 1907 (medal), 1916 (gold medal); Alaska-Yukon Expo (Seattle), 1909; Buenos Aires, 1910 (bronze medal); PAFA, 1912 (medal); PPIE, 1915 (medal of honor). 

In:  AIC; De Young Museum; Bohemian Club (SF); NMAA; MM; CGA; CHS; Brooklyn Museum; PAFA; Oakland Museum; Santa Barbara Museum; Frye Museum (Seattle); San Diego Museum. 

Edan Hughes, author of the book "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
DAA; Fld; WWA 1918; AAA 1919; CAR; Ben; Art of Emil Carlsen; Impressionism, The California View; Painters of the Humble Truth; NY Times, 1-4-1932 (obit)

Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from the Archives of askART
A painter of still lives as well as landscapes, Emil Carlsen was especially noted for his still lives of humble everyday objects in the tradition of 17th-century Dutch painters. His methods were precise and labor intensive with much scraping, painting, and then scraping again with a build up of impastos. He perceived art as pure aesthetics with its only language being color, masses, and rhythms of line.

Carlsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on October 19, 1848, and not as widely assumed in 1853.  He studied architecture at the Danish Royal Academy before emigrating to Chicago at age 19.  He worked as an architectural draughtsman, and then traveled in Europe to study the Old Masters and also enrolled at the Academie Julian in Paris.

Returning to Chicago, he taught at the newly formed Chicago Art Institute, and this activity was followed by periods of living in Boston and New York, but in 1887, he moved to San Francisco to be Director of the California School of Design. There he introduced his students to the work of his New York associates including Augustus Saint-Gaudens, J Alden Weir, and John LaFarge. He also taught the concept that art, like biological matters, was evolutionary and that America might well be the next center of the art world. His association with Weir and other prominent American impressionists influenced his style of landscape painting and as a result, he "combined traditional representational art with impressionistic approaches to color and light." (Zellman 472)

He shared a studio on Montgomery Street with Arthur Mathews, one of California's leading art teachers and painters. In 1889, penniless and chafing at the long hours required to be a teacher, he resigned in disgust and returned briefly to New York. However, several months later he came back to San Francisco and until 1892 taught at the Art Students League. Then he left for good and returned to New York where he became successful, selling his pictures to major museums, elected to the National Academy of Design, and often referred to as the best still life painter of his time.

Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

Added note:
Recently uncovered evidence (Danish birth certificate) reveals that Carlsen lied about his age and was actually five years older than originally thought.

Information courtesy of Bill Indursky

Biography from Taylor Graham
"Still life painting must be of a well understood simplicity, solid, strong, vital, unnecessary details neglected, salient points embellished, made the most of, every touch full of meaning and for the love of beauty."

-Emil Carlsen

Regarded today as one of the more prominent artists of the late 19th Century, Emil Carlsen spent many years as a penniless painter on the fringes of the art world, while he continued developing his still-life painting techniques that would take the rest of the art world several decades to fully appreciate.

Some historians have described Carlsen as having a rather uneventful life, and while there may be an absence of the kind of unpredictability and turbulence that make for interesting biographies, Carlsen's life seems, in retrospect, anything but dull.  There was something of a bohemian streak in his personality, living in a remarkable number of places during the first many decades of his career.

Born Soren Emil Carlsen in Copenhagen around 1853, Carlsen first began his studies at the Royal Danish Academy as a teenager.  Yet he was not to remain long there, leaving in 1872, at nineteen years old for America where he settled in Chicago, working for an illustration house to support himself.

By 1875, he had saved enough money to travel to both Paris and Copenhagen to paint and study, staying for six months before returning to America, this time to New York.  By this time he had already developed a unique love affair with the still life.  In New York he befriended fellow painters such as John Francis Murphy; yet the city could not contain him, and after only a year he relocated to Boston, where he developed a life-long friendship with Childe Hassam.

Carlsen remained quite poor throughout his time in Boston where he spent the next eight years. Yet his abilities were developing quite rapidly in still life painting, in a style which scholars refer to as "kitchen still lifes."  These were still life scenes that often included fish or birds along with pots and pans which gave implied presence of the cook outside the frame, giving them a more human element than most still life subjects.  This style very much echoed the work of the Dutch and Spanish Masters of still life, particularly that of Jean Simeon Chardin and, to a lesser degree, Johannes Vermeer.  The similarity is not coincidental, as Carlsen spoke and wrote often of the influence of these artists on his own work, and yet he was already beginning to develop the eye for color, light and composition that today we regard as the undeniable Carlsen style.

In 1884 Carlsen moved again to Paris, staying for two years.  Here, as always he kept a low profile, preferring the mediation of working in the studio to the more social and recreational gathering places of artists and expatriates.  In 1887, Carlsen moved to San Francisco, working for the directorship of the San Francisco Art Association School, and in 1891 moved back to New York where he lived until 1901.  It is during this period, in the last decade of the nineteenth century that could be regarded as the most formative in terms of the development of the techniques that produced the paintings for which he is most celebrated today.

Though still life had been an established genre throughout the century, it was not the easiest genre with an artist could earn a place in salons and was less reliable as a salable work of art.  Often encouraged by other artists and would-be patrons to switch over to landscapes and marines to make better money, Carlsen resisted this for many years, remaining stubbornly in his pursuit of the still life. And when one looks at examples of Carlsen's work in this crucial transitory phase, one can tell that he felt himself truly on the verge of something wonderful.  Many other artists perhaps felt the still life genre to have exhausted itself; that it offered few possibilities for new ground, and that it was certainly not a genre on which one bases the core of their work.

Yet as Carlsen began to move away from the traditional arrangements and elements of still lifes, he became increasingly fascinated by textures like the copper, bronze, brass and silver of pots and bowls and the shadows that their curves and lines produced against shaded backdrops.  While the Dutch still life painters had already developed the moody tones of dark pockets and shadows, Carlsen brought out a great range of the emotions that accompany that moodiness.  As he progressed, Carlsen managed to decontextualize the objects in his paintings, until they were no longer just brass and copper pots or the pure effects of the colors they radiated, but something in between; where it was no longer the actual use or purpose of an object that mattered in relation to other objects around them or the arbitrariness of their arrangement together, but the very singular existence of the objects themselves, separated from the people and the ordinary use they would have for it, as well as the ordinary light in which they would usually be seen.  The dimness of the light only added to the mystery.  And yet Carlsen's fascination with surfaces made him often instill his shadows with great textures that played with and complemented the qualities of the objects that seem to glow from the canvas.  The effect is that even the 'somber' darkness of the shadows seem to radiate light and color.

It was not until the 1910's and 20's that Carlsen began to really benefit financially from his painting, even though he'd already had the respect of his fellow artists all along.  Despite his long career and his wide travels, he left few written accounts of his travels, and thus there are many in his biography that historians have tried to reconstruct.  His habit of dating some pictures and leaving others blank has also made it difficult to reconstruct the exact progression of his technique from picture to picture.  He often abandoned certain traits only to pick them up again before finally discarding them as he honed his style and his eye.  The result is evidence of an artistic meditation that progressed with consistency and caution.

Carlsen's death in 1932 was at the height of his popularity, and he left behind an admirable body of work in which he had redefined the cerebral and metaphysical effects a still life can have on a viewer.  Then he broke the mold. Surviving him was his son Dines who had already become very successful in his own right, developing even further the unique techniques of color, light ands texture in still life from his father.

Biography from Hammer Galleries
Emil Carlsen was a still-life and landscape painter noted for his serious, classical studies in the tradition of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.  Part of a nineteenth-century Chardinesque revival, Carlsen depicted gleaming bottles, copper kettles and dead game animals with a rich, sensuous beauty.  His still-life subjects, shining with light, merge into a dark background, creating an emphasis on subtle light and form.  By contrast, his large, square landscapes and studies of flowers employ light, bright impressionistic colors.

Carlsen, born in Denmark, studied architecture for four years before coming to the United States in 1872.  After a brief, unsatisfying apprenticeship in architecture, he turned to painting, studying under Danish painter Laurits Holst.  He was primarily a self-taught painter, however, and eventually became one of New England's most successful still-life artists.

In 1875, Carlsen traveled to Europe to study the Old Masters.  He was captivated by the work of Chardin; his subsequent subjects and their treatment - the wet scales of a fish, the glint of a glass bottle or the sheen of a copper urn - reflect the influence of the French painter.

Carlsen struggled with poverty until he was nearly 30.  By 1884, however, with an established reputation, he was retained by a dealer to produce an annual quota of still-lifes even as his style was changing.  After a second visit to Paris, he returned in 1886 with a lighter palette and an interest in landscapes.  His backgrounds can be found in some of the fox-hunting scenes of Alexander Pope.

Formally established as a landscape painter, Carlsen spent the next four years in San Francisco, sharing a studio with Arthur Mathews and teaching at the California School of Design, where he also served as director.  Eventually, better money and opportunity drew Carlsen back to the East Coast, where he spent the rest of his career in New York and Connecticut, associating with prominent American impressionists.

He is recognized particularly for combining traditional representative art with impressionistic approaches to color and light.  Carlsen was faithful to the visual truth of his subjects and is credited with endowing still-life painting with a dignity that would soon be lost in changing artistic fashion

Biography from Edenhurst Gallery
Emil Carlsen is counted among the important early California painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1853. At first pursuing a career in architecture, he, by the age of twenty, had emigrated to the United States, finding himself in Chicago and beginning a career in painting.

He studied briefly in Paris and returning to Chicago, began to teach at the Art Institute. He then moved on to San Francisco and shared a studio with his close friend from the Paris days, Arthur Mathews.

Finding sales difficult in California, Carlsen again left for New York and Connecticut where his career turned more into a mode of success. He became a member of the National Academy of Design in 1906.

Carlsen, though chiefly self-taught, was most influenced by his stay in Paris and his study of French art. He is considered an impressionist, and his most successful period is characterized by softly colorful and delicate landscapes, seascapes, and in particular beautifully rendered still lifes in an almost oriental manner in terms of objects and compositions. There is always a very ethereal sense of light in Carlsen's most successful canvases.

Carlsen was well-honored in his lifetime and won medals at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 and the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. He died in 1932.

Biography from Owen Gallery
Danish by birth, and originally trained as an architectural draftsman, Emil Carlsen was distinguished for his still-life painting as well as later in his career for his Impressionist land and seascapes.

He first came to the United States in 1872, teaching for three years at the Art Institute of Chicago. He then traveled to Paris to study painting, but was forced to return to the United States after only six months because of financial difficulties. Upon his return, he settled in New York where he built his reputation as a still life specialist, but he returned to Paris from 1884 to 1886.

The earliest criticism written on Carlsen's work emphasizes the relation to the work of Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, the principal artist that got the attention of Carlsen in Paris.

Of Carlsen's work, William Gerdts wrote: "the tonal harmonies are very close and evince Carlsen's preference for the monochromatic-grays, silver, and beige tones-embodying an aesthetic in still life that closely resembles the contemporaneous tonalist or Quietist movement in landscape painting.

Credits by Owen Gallery: "Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life" by William Gerdts; and "Pots and Pans or Studies in Still- Life Painting" by Arthur Edwin Bye.

Biography from Caldwell Gallery Hudson
Emil Carlsen was born in 1853. His extensive art training was all European, starting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Copenhagen, and then the Danish Royal Academy and Academie Julian from 1884-86. Carlsen immigrated to the U.S. in 1872 and worked as an architectural assistant before teaching at the Chicago Institute of Art. In 1875, he returned to Paris for 6 months of study, and then settled in California for four years.

There he became the Director of the San Francisco Art Association's California School of Design. Carlsen moved back to New York City permanently in 1891 to teach at the National Academy of Design.

Carlsen's early career was marked by still lifes of yellow roses and other bright flowers. However, he gained critical recognition for rich, sensuous paintings of dead game and kitchen still lifes that made him an important figure in the Chardin revival of the 19th century. With an emphasis on subtle light and form, visual truths such as wet scales or gleaming copper became completely believable. Carlsen is recognized for his traditional representation with an Impressionistic approach to color and light.

Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art - Santa Monica
Emil Carlsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1853 and studied architecture in his native land before immigrating to Chicago in 1853. While in Chicago Carlsen found work as an artist's assistant. Returning to Europe, Carlsen enrolled at the Academie Julian, and set about studying the old masters.

Returning to Chicago, he found work at the newly formed Chicago Art Institute. In 1887, at the request of Mary Curtis Richardson, Carlsen moved to San Francisco to accept a post as Director of the California School of Design. Carlsen would remain in San Francisco four only four years, returning to New York for financial reasons. There he taught at the National Academy of Design, and found an eager audience for the meticulous still lifes for which his is now best known.

Emil Carlsen died in New York City in 1932.

Biography from Heritage Auctions
Considered an American Impressionist, Soren Emil Carlsen immigrated to the United States from Denmark in 1872. Although best known for his still life and even dubbed "The American Chardin," he branched out later in his career and painted luminous, poetic landscapes and seascapes in both New England and California.

Carlsen's mature style features feathery brushwork and a nuanced palette of soft greens.

His works are featured in museums throughout the country, notably the Art Institute of Chicago; National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and San Diego Museum of Art.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Soren Emil Carlsen emigrated from Denmark and arrived in the United States in 1872, settling in Chicago.  Although trained as an architect, he initially worked with Laurits Bernhard Holst, a Danish painter in Chicago, who gave over to Carlsen his studio when the instructor returned home.  Carlsen remained mostly self-taught, and his early ventures to France included no formal instruction.

Ironically, Carlsen began teaching art in Chicago, at a school that would later become part of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Carlsen's early career also included subsequent moves to New York and Boston.  Although he established himself as a painter, economic misfortune led him to work as an engraver and designer.  By the 1880s, Carlsen was exhibiting his paintings more consistently, and he received a significant commission from a New York dealer to paint still-life images.

Art education played a role continuously throughout Carlsen's career; he served as the Director of San Francisco Art Association's school, and he taught at the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. (1)  Although Carlsen's oeuvre contains impressionistic landscapes and academic portraiture, his still-life paintings indicate his strongest and most successful painting explorations.

During the artist's lifetime one critic noted, "Emil Carlsen is unquestionably the most accomplished master of still-life painting in America today. …It is evident that Carlsen has lifted his art to a height it has never reached before." (2)

Carlsen's first trip to Paris in 1875 fortuitously introduced him to the work of the eighteenth-century French artist Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Chardin's incorporation of the seventeenth century Dutch still-life tradition.  Compared to Carlsen's contemporaries and considering his influence as a teacher, little has been written about Carlsen and his dedication to the still life.  More than likely these biases results from the low esteem, which is relegated to still-life painting within the thematic hierarchy of painting. "Great art should be aesthetically demanding and it should be edifying and inspirational; still life is neither." (3)

 In his position as a teacher of younger generations of artists, Carlsen postulated on the status of still-life painting in an article he published in 1908. "…still life painting is considered of small importance in the Art schools, both here and abroad, the usual course being drawn from the antique, the nude, and painting the draped figure and from the nude. …Then why should the earnest student overlook the simplest and most thorough way of acquiring all the knowledge of the craft of painting and drawing, the study of inanimate objects, still life painting, the very surest road to absolute mastery over all technical difficulties." (4)

Sources include:
1. For biographical information, see The Art of Emil Carlsen, 1853-1932 (San Francisco: Rubicon-Wortsman Rowe, 1975).  Also, see Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Quiet Magic: The Still-Life Paintings of Emil Carlsen (New York: Vance Jordan Fine Art, 1999).

2. Arthur Edwin Bye, Pots and Pans or Studies in Still Life Painting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921), 213-214.

3. William H. Gerdts, Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life, 1801-1939 (Columbia, Miss.: University of Missouri Press, 1981), 22.

4. Ibid, 30. Quoted from Emil Carlsen, "On Still-Life Painting," Palette and Bench  (October 1908): 6-8.

Submitted by the staff, Columbus Museum, Georgia

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About  Emil Carlsen

Born:  1848 - Copenhagen, Denmark
Died:   1932 - New York City
Known for:  still life, sea-landscape and figure painting