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 Henry Leon Roecker  (1860 - 1941)

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Lived/Active: Illinois/Tennessee/Iowa/Michigan      Known for: figure-genre, landscape, still life paintings

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Henry Leon Roecker
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Henry Roecker was the son of Margaretha (Engler) and Reverend John William Roecker, a Methodist minister, both born in 1836: John in Adelshofen (Baden), Germany and  Margaretha, in Sevelin, Austria.  Both parents came to America at an early age. 

Henry Leon, born in Burlington, Iowa on 22 July 1860,  grew up in Chicago, attended the public schools, and enrolled at the old Academy of Design on the corner of Van Buren Street and Michigan Avenue.  This was the original school that would eventually become the Art Institute of Chicago.  After Henry had graduated, he decided to go to Munich for further art studies in 1887.  Roecker was impressed with all of the Americans associated with the Munich School: “Chase, Duveneck, Walter Shirlaw, Frank Currier (who I think had more ability than Duveneck) — even the Germans said he was rotten with talent, put Munich on the map as an art center.” (Weimer, 1940, pp. 520-521).  When Roecker arrived in Munich, the Royal Academy had already said adieu to Chase, Duveneck, Theodore Steele, and Shirlaw, who returned to America.  However, Currier, William Forsyth, and Carl von Marr were still there.  Since Carl Theodor von Piloty, the top-ranking professor at the Academy, had died in 1886, Roecker studied under Nicholas Gysis, himself a former student of Piloty, Hermann Aschütz, and Alexander von Wagner. Roecker appreciated that the Munich Academy professors allowed students to develop and be innovative after grasping the basics.  The experience was “a good drill for foundation of future and creative work.”  Roecker seemed to agree with the more progressive Leibl that spontaneous execution and the “elimination of the superfluous” were goals to strive for (Weimer, 1940, p. 524).

Roecker’s name was at the top of Honorable Mentions and when he returned home, he declared that his award certificates “were almost worn out in my father’s pockets.” (Weimer, p. 521).  Roecker showed a preference for landscape painting; he went sketching in the areas around Munich during the two summers he spent there.  In addition, he became an ardent concert-goer and a frequent visitor at the Max-Emanuel Café, where American artists discussed or quietly read in the evenings. 

Roecker might have won a scholarship but his father’s illness required his return to America.  Before he sailed back, Roecker had the opportunity to see an exhibition of impressionist paintings.  The show made a strong impact, and back in the States, he investigated the effects of color and light by exploring the theory of impressionism.  Roecker joined his father in Nashville, Tennessee and opened a studio there in the Vendome Theatre Building and taught at the East End College for Women.  In 1891, Roecker’s father died and a fire destroyed almost everything in his studio, including most of his paintings and drawings from Munich.

Roecker first exhibited nationally at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1892, where he would return in 1909 and 1928.  His selection of three genre pieces and portraits obviously represented the remnants of his Munich experience, salvaged from the fire. In 1893, Roecker settled in Chicago at 481 E. 42nd Place in the Hyde Park area and exhibited at the Art Institute for the first time in the following year.  He won the Yerkes Prize for landscape and was praised by Hamlin Garland, one of the “Critical Triumvirate” in Impressions on Impressionism.  Garland’s sculptor companion in the dialogue, Lorado Taft, agreed with Garland’s estimate of Roecker’s work, Autumn Landscape, Tennessee, but the sculptor had reservations about Roecker’s “diaphanous” approach: “There is a richness here and beautiful color. . . . My only trouble is with that diaphanous cow; she looks as though a light breeze would float her away. I suppose it is part of his scheme of keeping the foreground out of focus . . .  However the picture is fine and its beauty is not accidental, but a style all his own. We gave him a prize for something similar last spring at the [Chicago] Society of Artists. (A Critical Triumvirate, 1894, p. 2).

Roecker was to participate in the Chicago annuals and watercolor shows at the Art Institute with few interruptions until 1933.  Many of his works exhibited there had titles referring to Washington Park and Jackson Park locations in Chicago.  In 1897, Roecker took part in the Tennessee Centennial, exhibiting On the Brow of a Hill, Lake in Washington Park, and Study from My Studio Window.  The catalogue described Roecker’s canvases as representative of the impressionist school, as the works were marked by lively, broken brushwork.  His technique was called “broad and simple.”  Here was “an impressionist who catches the spirit and movement as well a the vibrations of color and light in nature.” (Fine Arts Department, Tennessee Centennial, 1897, p. 84).  Later in 1909, Roecker won the Medal of Honor at the Chicago Society of Artists.  Maud I. G. Oliver, the Chicago art critic who reviewed the show that year reported on “the excellent canvas by Leon Roecker, Plowing in Spring: . . . a painting which brought forth universal  admiration from  the  assembled visitors. . . .”  She concluded, “. . . there is always such a grave dignity about his compositions, combined with a rare poetic strain, that [his canvases] are singularly appealing.  Sound, refined, logical conceptions, they always are deserving of whatever honors they may receive.” (Oliver, 1909, p. 3).

During his busy years in Chicago, Roecker joined Chicago’s major artistic and cultural organizations: the Chicago Society of Artists, the Water Color Club, the Cliff Dwellers, and
the Cosmopolitan Art Club of Chicago.  Competition among artists in Chicago was intense, and Roecker had to hold his own, vying for attention among jurors at the Art Institute against such contenders as Adam Emory Albright and others (Love, 1989, p. 99).  In 1911, Roecker was awarded the Carr Prize for the best landscape at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Roecker took part in San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1915), where he submitted Calves Resting.  That October, he participated in a group show at the Fine Arts Building in Chicago, in the company of such distinguished artists as Albright, Pauline Palmer, Lawton Parker, Bolton Brown, Carl R. Krafft, Wilson Irvine, Frank V. Dudley, and well-known Indiana impressionists Steele and Louis O. Griffith (Love, 1989, p. 213). 

At the age of sixty-six, Roecker married Julia Roberts of Saginaw, Michigan, also an accomplished artist, and moved to Winthrop Harbor in Illinois.  At that time, Roecker began to assume a more Cézannesque accent, but despite his veering toward modernism, Roecker was part of Chicago’s “Old Guard.”  At the Century of Progress Exhibition, held at the Art Institute of Chicago, Roecker submitted one oil painting, Wisconsin Farmyard, executed in 1931.   The decade of the Great Depression was Roecker’s last.  The Roeckers moved to Saginaw where they could share expenses with Julia’s relatives.  There, Henry Roecker died on the first day of December 1941, just six days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.


A Critical Triumvirate, Impressions on Impressionism. Chicago: The Central Art Association, 1894, p. 2; Fine Arts Department, Tennessee Centennial, Catalogue. Nashville, TN: 1897

Oliver, Maude I.G., “Work of Chicago Artists on View,” The Sunday Record Herald, 7 February 1909

Weimer, Aloysius G., “The Munich Period in American Art,” Diss., University of Michigan, 1940, pp. 520-525

Quick, Michael, Eberhard Ruhmer, and Richard V. West, Munich & American Realism in the 19th Century. Sacramento, CA: E. B. Crocker Art Gallery, 1978

Love, Richard H., Louis Ritman: From Chicago to Giverny. Chicago: Haase-Mumm, 1989, pp. 99, 213

Wendy Greenhouse, in Chicago Modern 1893-1945. Pursuit of the New. Ed. Elizabeth Kennedy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. 33.

Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.

Biography from Arlington Gallery/Marlene Miller:

Born in Burlington, Iowa, he studied at the Academy of Design in Chicago, and with Gysis at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany.

Hon. Mention, Munich, 1894; Arche Club price, Art Institute of Chicago, 1897; Chicago Society od Artists medal, 1909; Carr prize, Art Institute of Chicago

Chicago Society of Artists; Chicago Water Color Club.

Label on verso of a painting

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Henry Roecker is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915

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