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 Paul Detlefsen  (1899 - 1986)

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Lived/Active: California/Illinois      Known for: genre-nostalgic, illustration

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"Spring Morn"
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following comes from the artist's website, and was submitted by Ben Richmond:

Many may not know his name, but the serene, nostalgic charm of Paul Detlefsen's paintings is familiar to just about everyone. It is no surprise since he was one of the most widely reprinted artists or our century. His art was lithographed into reproductions, calendars, jigsaw puzzles, playing cards, and even place mats for the table. Paul Detlefsen, I am proud to say, moved to Hollywood, California after completing high school and some training at the Chicago Art Institute. There he worked a long and happy career in special effects.

After 30 years he retired and began a new career as a calendar artist. In Detlefsen's own words: "And so it is that I set out to 'dream up' beautiful places and try to make them come to life in my paintings . . . concentrating on realism, beauty and nostalgia. What I hope for most is that people will look at my paintings, smile and say: 'I'd like to be there!'"

Paul and his wife, Shelly, moved to Del Mar in 1964 where he continued his painting till passing on in 1986. Shelly was also a very talented artist. His only daughter, Karen Kozlow, has been an artist her entire life, creating in may different mediums, but settling on bright and whimsical ceramics for the last 20 years.

An Autobiographical Sketch by Paul Detlefsen

The nineteenth century had less than three months left to go when I had my beginning. I was born in Chicago on October 3, 1899.  The doctor who brought me into this world was already known as one of the great pioneers of artistic photography.  He was also my father - Dr. Frederick Detlefsen.  Art and photography were his chief interests all through life.  The walls of our house were lined with book cases full of fine old volumes on art - histories of art - magnificent full color reproductions of the old masters, and beautiful art magazines arrived every month - even from abroad.  His favorite periodicals were Photo Era and American Photography - some containing reproductions of his prize-winning studies and articles on his newest methods, processes and inventions.

Though my father never painted, my very modest mother saved a few pencil portrait sketches that she made as a girl.  They are amazing examples of fine draftsmanship, reminiscent of Holbein.  Her chief interest and education, however, was along the lines of music.

All through the first twenty years of my life at home in Chicago runs the happy memory of our closest and dearest family friend, Alfred Juergens, the famous Oak Park painter.  No Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas would have seemed right without that jovial, lovable character in our midst.  He loved children and the feeling was mutual.  I worshipped him to the point that I wanted to be like him in every respect.  He did magic parlor tricks - made funny faces - balanced things on his hands, toes, chin or nose - juggled balls, fruit or even raw eggs - made a puppet of his hand and turned ventriloquist.  I can remember my mother's alarm when she caught me trying to balance our heavy, hand-carved parlor chair on my chin just like "Uncle Alfred"!

Manual training in grammar school got me interested in the idea of making things at home in my spare time - toys, push-mobiles, gadgets for my electric train - models of steam shovels - miniature theaters and model warships.  This phase was thrown into high gear when my father gave me a magnificent workbench complete with vises, a full set of high quality hand tools and a thorough lecture on safety, handling and proper care of them.

I never lost interest in my basement workshop and spent far too many hours down there to suit my folks who felt that a growing boy should be out of doors exercising and filling his lungs with good fresh air.

How right they were, but I do recall getting out enough to thoroughly enjoy vacant lot baseball, football, duck-on-the-rock, flying kites, spinning tops, playing marbles, stilt walking, skating, shoveling snow (no, I didn't enjoy that), sledding, fighting, wrestling and sneaking a smoke behind the alley fence.

Even though I was born and raised in a big city, my father always managed to take the family into the "north country" for ten weeks each summer.  Almost all of those summers were spent on "Washington Island" in Wisconsin, about fifteen miles off the end of the Green Bay Peninsula in Lake Michigan.  It was very remote and primitive - no fancy resorts, no "autos", no electricity - no running water, and you got there on the big, Goodrich steamships.  Old times lingered longer there - the days of oil lamps, out-houses, hand pumps, scrub boards, wringers, buggies, wagons, horse-drawn plows, ice houses and the blacksmith shop.  Most of all I loved hanging around the blacksmith shops, even in Chicago when horses still shied at the sight of a "gas-buggy".  I remember it well.

I always hated school and insisted that I just wasn't cut out to be a good scholar.  In truth my mind was constantly on some exciting spare time project instead of on those boring letters, words and numbers we had to memorize.  I didn't mind gym and manual training at all, and art classes were a snap from the start.  All my efforts were generally pinned on the wall as the best. Art work in any form always appealed to me and I never stopped pumping Uncle Alfred for all the knowledge and training I could extract.

As long as I can remember I went to Saturday art classes, first at local schools and then at the Chicago Art Institute.  Later, during the high school years, I went to night school at the Academy of Fine Arts as well.

By the time I entered high school (which in those days started after graduating from the eighth grade of grammar school), I had decided to become a cartoonist.  My cartoons were accepted and published in the school paper in the first quarter after which I as made art editor.  From then on I filled the paper (The Red and White of Lake View High School) with my own cartoons and headings and signed my nick-name - Doc.

Because it took me four and a half years to get through high school, I finally became editor in chief and virtually monopolized the whole graduation issue from stem to stern.

By falling behind I could be (and was) voted the one most apt to succeed.  You see, a boy called John Gunther was "inside" the class that left me behind, and a blond, Scandinavian "threat" with a bouncing gait was coming up behind me to steel the show. His name was Edgar Bergen.

From high school I went to the Art Institute full time, but I was too impatient to stick it out for long.  Every class seemed a monotonous repetition of the very same training I had received for the past six years.  I was full of ideas and wanted to try my wings - to make my own way - to earn my keep.

I had developed a new wrinkle for animated cartoons and had made up some samples to take right to the heart of the motion picture industry in Hollywood, California.  After much heavy persuasion my good family not only agreed to let me quit school and go west, but paid my fare, set me up with a palm beach suit and a hundred dollars to get me started.  We didn't know that there was a bad slump in the motion picture business, nor did we suspect that the one and only animated cartoon studio would fold the day I arrived in town.

The slump that killed animated cartoons had also put thousands of skilled picture people out of work and the chance of getting any kind of a job at all looked mighty slim.

Six weeks later I finally got wind of an independent producer who was making a version of  The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam using paintings and trick photography instead of the usual built sets. By this time, though I was completely penniless and in debt, I was offering to work for nothing until I could prove my worth.  This approach gave me my start, and I was soon raking in a good round twenty-four bucks a week.

The producer was Ferdinand Pinney Earle, a remarkable artist with a truly marvelous background of art training under such greats as James NcNeill Whistler and Bouguereau. In the first six months I worked for him I learned more about art than I had in the previous six years.  From this beginning I spent the following thirty years creating pictorial illusions for the screen.  It was my business to combine realistic paintings with actual settings and live action by means of technical photographic processes.

Personally, I loved the challenge of doing the impossible, finding ways to achieve new effects or to improve on old practices.  In the early days of silent movies I was my own camera technician, following a stint with C.B. DeMille on "The Volga Boatman" and "The King of Kings".  The most rewarding and satisfying experience I had as an independent special effects man was with Douglas Fairbanks on "the Man in the Iron Mask".  That was when he was married to Mary Pickford and it was the last of the "Musketeer" pictures.  He was so pleased with the way my partner and I did the ending, (in which all four musketeers are joined again in Heaven), that he just couldn't do enough for us.  He gave us a print of the whole last reel in addition to paying us handsomely.

Before long I became a department head at Radio Keith Orpheum and was able to design and equip my studio as I had long dreamed.  That was just before the big stock market crash and the depression.  I was just married, (1930), bought a home overlooking Hollywood and we had two cars.  At first the crash didn't affect us and we were blessed with a beautiful baby girl.  But then R.K.O. changed hands and virtually closed down.  I thought I was temporarily out of work. No so. After we lost our home and all of our savings it became apparent that I'd have to find work elsewhere.

At long last I received a call from Warner Brothers Studio.  They needed a scene with vast fields of cotton for "Cabin in the Cotton" with Richard Barthelmes and Betty Davis. There was a strong wind on locations and I knew that my painted trees would look strange without a single leaf stirring so I devised a way of getting movement into them. The clouds I painted transformed the scene into a thing of beauty, exceeding my own expectations.

The director, who made it very clear when we met that he had no faith in me, was so pleased that he insisted I be put under contract at once.  That was the beginning of a long, fascinating and lucrative association with Warner Bros. Pictures.

Gradually I was able to build up a wonderful department with a crew of top-notch camera technicians, versatile electricians and craftsmen plus truly great artists such as Mario Larrinaga and Chesley Bonestell, famous for his book The Conquest of Space featuring his fabulous and incredibly accurate paintings.  The great unsung hero of our department was cameraman John S. Crouse who loved every challenge and never failed to find a way of doing the impossible, a flawless technician and inventor, loved by all who knew him.

By 1936 my good wife Shelly and I had designed and built our dream-house on a hill-top acre over-looking the San Fernando Valley and Laurel Canyon.  About five years later I was bitten by the model railroad bug and proceeded to have a lot of the foundations blasted out from under our house to make room for a pretty ambitious "O" gage layout. The minute I discovered that grown-up men played with trains I took right off full steam. That project kept me down there in the basement till the wee hours, night after night.  It was like being a kid again only ten times more wonderful.  I could buy things I didn't care to build and build things no one could buy.  Naturally my lay-out favored scenic effects, mountains, trees, waterfalls, rock formations, detailed structures and painted backgrounds.  Also tricky gadgets, sound effects from hidden speakers, real train noises and whistles that seemed to emanate from the models, push-button uncoupling without ramps and a huge RR terminal that was largely a painted illusion.

Word of my trains got around and I had visitors from all over the country and I made many wonderful friends.  Among the most notable and truly the most wonderful was Walt Disney.  We hit it off beautifully and the memory of his warm friendship is one of my greatest imperishable treasurers.

These marvelous years came to an end in 1949-50 as the motion picture business virtually ground to a halt.  With the advent of Television and other contributing factors, box office receipts took an unprecedented nose-dive in the midst of a boom and threw the whole picture industry into panic.  I suddenly found myself among those whose incomes were slashed by more than two-thirds while prices kept on rising and other industries were going great guns.

It behooved me to find a new application for my talents.  For some time I had felt that the general public would welcome a little variety in its rigid diet of extreme modern art.  I felt there was an abundance of "Art for Artists" (who seldom buy paintings) and very little in the form of illustrative or definitive landscape painting that can be understood and appreciated by anyone.

And so it is that I set out to "dream up" beautiful places and try to make them come to depict the kind of landscape with which most Americans are quite familiar.  I have heard people say: "I know just where that place is - I've been there!"  It's really a break when I make a landscape seem that familiar, but all of them are strictly figments of my imagination, with the exception of those depicting historic homes or landmarks.

When I started on this new venture I hoped that I might interest Brown and Bigelow, the calendar company, I did, and my very first painting broke all previous calendar sales records for landscapes.  It tied for second place right after Norman Rockwell's Boy Scout calendar, which was always in first place.

That was the beginning of a very wonderful and rewarding relationship with a firm that was not afraid to praise and compensate those who served it well.  In those days it was a big happy family and everyone "split a gut to go all out" for the company.  In a few years I did almost as well financially as I did at Warner Bros., and for the first time in my life I was becoming known to the public.

Before long, large framed prints of my calendar paintings began to appear in maple shops, department and furniture stores.  These prints were manufactured and sold by Brown & Bigelow to art print publishers who in turn sold them to picture frame manufacturers.  Most of the people who admired and bought these framed prints had no idea that they were painted for a calendar company and found it almost impossible to get any information about me.  To this day virtually all of my fan mail comes from people with great patience and determination who keep on making inquiries until they discover that I am actually a calendar artist and not known in fine art museums and galleries. 

In 1960 we moved to Kauai, the "Garden Island" of Hawaii and sold our home in North Hollywood.  We completely rebuilt our newly acquired home and added a Japanese garden with a small pond-like swimming pool.  The place was situated on the edge of a steep tropical bank about 300 feet above the Wailua River - beautiful beyond words.  But after two years in paradise it became evident that my good wife, Shelly, could not adjust to the humidity, nor to the distance between us and our two wonderful grandchildren.

Moving back to the mainland meant that I'd have to give up calendar painting and concentrate on finding a suitable location and designing a new home for two very spoiled people - a big order!  It took a lot out of us but we now have a home that we think is both charming and livable with much Japanese influence - especially in the matter of combining indoor and outdoor living. Our screened-in Japanese garden and free-form swimming pool are almost an integral part of the living-dining room and our bedroom.

Then suddenly, in 1964, I was completely free to paint whatever I pleased.  There was no longer any need to please a soul on earth with my creations - no one but myself.  At last I was in a position to try out a theory of mine - the belief that an abstract painting could transport untrained beholders emotionally through the eye as Beethoven's symphonies touch the soul only through the ear.  Some abstractions have affected me deeply - (notably certain creations by Paul Jenkins and the Chinese painter Liu) but I soon discovered, sadly, that even their greatest creations do nothing for the majority of laymen, and even less for some noted contemporary artists whose learning's are somewhat different.

After many months of experimentation I finished one and then two and three others but no one was transported, least of all yours truly!  A few good friends faked enthusiasm, for which I was grateful buy had an empty, frustrated feeling and wanted to go on experimenting to prove something.  I don't give up easily.

It was my daughter, Karen Kozlow, a recognized "far out" contemporary painter, who did the best job of bringing me to my senses.

"Daddy," she asked, "Why are you knocking yourself out on something so many fine artists can do so much better - especially when you are tops in your own art - touching the hearts of so many people with your nostalgic realism?  Especially when you know darn well you enjoy all the letters - the praise and adulation that comes your way for doing your own thing!"

That did it! I had to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed dreaming up old time subjects and working on them until I could find no way of improving them.  It's always a struggle but a joyous struggle when you know your efforts are going to be appreciated by so many good people.  Retirement is not for me!

For old times sake, I submitted a landscape without figures to Brown & Bigelow - not an "Old Time" subject because they had promised the artist who took on that assignment a steady job.  After long deliberation they returned my painting with regrets and I was free to look elsewhere.

I soon discovered that many of my good old friends from Brown & Bigelow had moved over to Osborne - Kemper - Thomas, Inc. where I was welcomed with open arms.  In no time I was back under contract and developing my own ideas as in the past, except that my judgment was final - (I'm never asked to make any changes) and am better compensated than ever before. In addition to that, this growing organization has the wonderful spirit I found at Brown & Bigelow in the "Good Old Days".

So far I have entertained no thought of retiring again. There are fully a dozen choice "Old Time" subjects taking shape in my mind and yearning to be brought into being, and there will be as many more when those have been completed.

In answer to those questions I am asked most often - - -

1. I spend at least two or three months on each painting - often more.

2. The originals are painted in oil on masonite, about 20" x 28", as a rule. I have worked on other surfaces but stick to oil color because I know just what I can do with it. My brushes are mostly fine point red sable in sizes from #1 to #12. For blending skies and such I stipple with (hard to find) large, thick, Russian sables with a flat end surface. My best one is "Artsign 36 821". Delta Filbert, style 800 #10 is also good. I'm ashamed of the fact that I've never learned to use an air-brush well enough to get the results I want.

3. How does one get to see the originals? Now that I sell only reproduction rights and retain the originals, there are enough for occasional small shows - so far only in California. Mr. Cliff Aronson handles all such matters.

4. Where can one see reproductions of all my old time paintings? Unfortunately that is impossible at this writing. I wish some mail order house would stock all of the prints for retail distribution and print a catalogue to send out on request.

5. Is there a Detlefsen book on the market? A very deluxe edition is in preparation at this time. It may be available in late 1972.

6. As for awards, I have entered only two competitions in all of my years. The first was at a Chicago Art Institute toy exhibit in 1920. I won the George Arthur Stephens prize for "Pigeonville" judged to be the most original toy. Then years and years later I won the $1,000.00 award at the Third Annual Invitational Lake San Marcos Art Exhibit in 1967 for "The Best in Oil". That's all.

7. As for family, my father was the only doctor in Chicago by that name. Charlotte, my sister, still lives in the old house - the only Chicago home I really remember. I was born in a quaint, "old time" structure in Ravenswood, but at about age three we moved to Eddy Street (too close to the "El" and the Railroad tracks) then moved very soon to the other end of the block near Woolcott - the home of very happy boyhood memories for me.

Shelly, my beautiful and talented better half is the real artist in the family. She suffers the frustration of most wives who find little or no time to paint, being saddled with all the housework, cooking, sewing and taking care of the grounds plus activities outside the home, art classes, etc. Nevertheless she has turned out a good number of fine works in various mediums, some of which have been reproduced in full color. Her Hawaiian prints are in great demand on the islands to this day.

Our daughter, Karen Kozlow, was the top Christmas card artist with "California Artists" for a time - then went seriously into contemporary fine art in the San Diego area where she is a highly respected prize winner. Her son, Gary, and daughter, Kimberly, aged 19 and 17 respectively (in 1971) are also talented to a great degree, but it's too early to predict just how their gifts will be utilized. They have always been a source of great joy to their grandparents - that's for sure.

Because there were too many interruptions and temptations to "goof off" when I painted at home, I rented a large studio not very far from home where I "hide out" to get more work done. Even so I consistently remain way behind schedule. I like people and enjoy company, but in my kind of work it's imperative to be a loner. Time - time - time! Life is so wonderful to me in every respect but one - how to find enough time! Time to live, love and work joyously.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Chicago, Illinois on October 3, 1899, Detlefsen studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.  He moved to Hollywood, California about 1922 and was apprenticed to Ferdinand Pinney Earle, an artist and independent movie producer, who trained him in set decoration.  He soon became one of the early masters of special effects in the silent movies. He created backgrounds and worked for Cecil B. DeMille in "King of Kings" and others. He later was with Warner Bros for 20 years and shared a close friendship with Walt Disney. 

Due to the advent of television and other factors, by 1950 the motion picture business had fallen on hard times and Detlefsen then moved into calendar art.  His paintings of nostalgic American themes (á la Norman Rockwell) were reproduced by the thousands by Brown & Bigelow Company and later by Vernon Company.  Most of his paintings are oil on masonite, size 20"x28".  Upon retirement, Detlefsen moved to San Diego, California, where he remained until his death on Aug. 1, 1986.
Source:
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Los Angeles Times, 9-4-1978; Death record.
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.

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