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 John Henry Mohrmann  (1857 - 1916)

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Lived/Active: California/Alberta / Belgium/Germany/Canada      Known for: ship portrait, landscape, seascape

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John Henry Mohrmann
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following, submitted January 2005, is from Leah Joys of Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. She is the granddaughter of the artist. She writes: "I have been working over ten years on adding to the list of my grandfather's paintings (mainly ship portraits of course), and I have a list of approximately 350 paintings (in museums, private collections, and family owned). Most of his paintings are to be found in Europe (Belgium, Germany, England, the Scandinavian countries, and a few in the U.S. I have also attached the self-portrait of my grandfather, which he painted in 1884 in Antwerp, sent to Fray Bentos, Uruguay, to his prospective in-laws. After World War I, it was sent to my grandmother as a remembrance of her husband.

My grandfather was born in Estebruegge, Germany, a small place close to Hamburg. His name was originally Johann Hinrich Mohrmann, as was the name of his father. Between 1860 and 1863 the family including his father, mother Anna and himself emigrated to Oakland, California. His mother died about 1867, and home life thereafter was not that good for John Henry, called Henry, also because his father favored a younger son Fred who had been born in California.

John Henry Mohrman was naturally drawn to the sea, and about 1870, he ran off to sea as a cabin boy; and worked his way up in the ranks. However, his natural ability to paint played a part even in his early life as a sailor because he used to paint (likely scenes of the sea and ships) on cigar box lids.

Not that much is known about the years betwen 1870 or 1871 when Henry ran off to sea and 1884 when he gave up his sailing career. But sometimes he left sailing and is supposed to have have painted with an Italian artist - doing a number of wall paintings in an unidentified church in Kassel, Germany and some restoration work on paintings in England. Henry is also known to have done some backdrop paintings in theaters. But he kept going back to sea between these artistic endeavour, likely when finances were tight.

On a voyage to South America in 1884, he met his future wife Johanna Meyer when he had to deliver a piano to her in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. It was at this point in his life that he decided to give up life entirely as a sailor and to concentrate on painting, and he decided that he would do this in Antwerp, Belgium, then one of the busiest seaports in the world.

He actually wanted to become a portrait painter, but the only portrait that we know of is his own self-portrait done in 1884 to prove to his prospective in-laws that he could paint and earn a sufficient living to support a wife and future family. He did take some formal training in art . Also early in his career of painting in and near Antwerp, he did some seascapes and landscapes, and it was only when he realized that the steadiest income was to be made doing ship portraits for captains, owners, etc. of ships that he concentrated on ship portraits.

He returned to Uruguay in 1886, married Johanna Meyer, and they sailed back to Antwerp where he had set up a studio. Seven children were born to them. He made a successful career as a painter of ship portraits but, because of being rather a spendthrift when he had money, there were times when money was in short supply.

John Henry Mohrman obtained American citizenship because of the naturalization of his father in San Francisco in 1871; he retained his American citizenship all his life even though he spent the most years of his life in Antwerp (1884 to 1913). He did return to Oakland between 1879 and 1881 and is listed in the Oakland City Directory as a painter (although it is not known what type of painting he was doing). He evidently reconciled with his father at this time.

The emigration to Canada was the result of the fact that Henry realized there was going to be a war in Europe and that he would lose his income as a painter of ship portraits for the Schelde River would be closed to shipping with a war. Also his two older sons were influenced by the idea of free land for homesteading in Canada.

Mohrman realized very quickly that he'd made a mistake in emigrating to Canada in April, 1913. He had gone to the rather backwoods part of Canada northwest of Edmonton, Alberta, where his boys wanted to settle. There was certainly no appreciation or demand for paintings and life on a homestead was very hard on his health as well as the cold winters. He did a few paintings but art supplies as well as the money for them were difficult to obtain. And there was the strain of realizing he was not able to support his family in the way he had in Belgium.

He became ill and died on February 22, 1916, not long after his 58th birthday, his death being attributed to pneumonia and a weakened heart.

The Peabody-Essex Museum holds three of his paintings: the "Paramita" - 1892, the "E. Wilder Farley" - 1893 (a different painting from the same ship sold by Northeast Auctions in 2004 that was painted in 1891), and the "Republic" - 1901.

The Mariners Museumn Newport News, Vermont, has the "La Campine" , 1899, which is a sail-assisted steamship whereas the other three are sailing ships.

The Old Dartmouth Historical Scoiety Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts has a 1902 painting of the "Republic".

The Maine Maritime Museum has the 1888 sailing ship "Samaria".

There is one painting in a Canadian museum, the sailing ship "Balclutha" , 1893, in the Yarmouth County Museum in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. .

The restored "Balclutha" is to be found at Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco.

All the other museum paintings are in European paintings, 31 in the National Scheepvaartmusem in Antwerp, Belgium, and 10 in the Altonaer Museum in Hamburg, Germany, quite a few in Rostock and various ones scattered throughout various Scandinavian museum.

There are however many more of my grandfather's paintings in private collections than in museums. The Compagnie Maritime Belge for example has at least 12 of his paintings.

Additional Note:
An important early source of information on my grandfather - and the one most complete and accurate although even then there were a few errors, was from an article "John Henry Mohrmann, Scheepsportrettist" written in 1965 by Jules Van Beylen, then the curator of the National Scheepvartmuseum in Antwerp.

Unfortunately the article is in Flemish but I have had it translated. It was my mother in 1960 when visiting in Europe who happened to note a painting on the wall of that museum that she recognized. Unfortunately Van Beylen was away but a correspondence arose between him and my mother for at least five years. He obtained information on my grandfather from her and from her older sister living in Holland.

In 1960 nothing was known about my grandfather. The museum in Antwerp had three paintings and they had a suspicion that Mohrmann painted in Belgium. Fortunately back in the early 1960's van Beylen was able to get in touch with people who had known my grandfather or had known of him and he gathered information from various sources and included in his article the paintings he had been able to discover.

So this listing of van Beylen's formed the start of my list in 1991. It was then that my mother (who by this time was in a nursing home and not able to respond) was approached by an Anthony Peluso, an art evaluator of New York who does articles for the "Maine Antique Digest" on marine painters - and who wanted to do one on my grandfather. So he and I worked together doing research and built up the list of paintings to around 100. The article on John Henry Mohrmann was published in the "Maine Antique Digest" in 1993. I am still in touch from time to time with Anthony Peluso and he lets me know if he discovers additional paintings in the U.S. Also I have contact with some of the museums in Europe holding my grandfather's paintings.

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