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 Jan Van Empel  (1880 - 1940)

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Lived/Active: New Hampshire/Alaska / Netherland      Known for: religious painting, Alaskan genre

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Jan Van Empel
An example of work by Jan Van Empel
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following, submitted April 2005, is by Steven Brennan.

Jan Van Empel is no doubt the first modernist style painter of Alaska scenes, which makes him very important to Alaska. He was born in Amsterdam in the late 19th century. Jan emigrated to the United States and by 1918 was already regarded as an important modernist painter. Jan Van Empel's work was featured in the inaugural exposition of the Whitney Club in 1918 along with the other great American modernist painters, Robert Henri, William Glackens, John Sloan, George Luks, and Arthur B. Davies. Jan Van Empel was a close friend of Robert Henri and "Who Was Who of American Art" biography states he was a student of Robert Henri.

Jan Van Empel traveled to Alaska to make his mark. It is recorded by the Seward, Alaska Preservation Society that Jan Van Empel arrived in Seward, Alaska in 1924. Newspaper clippings called him a "Dutch trained artist" and he was painting modernist scenes of the coast around Resurrection Bay and Seward, Alaska. In 1925 the people of Seward gathered donations of $650 and commissioned Jan Van Empel to paint a "Reredos" mural for Saint Peters Church. He painted from September to November of that year. The work of art is a modernist scene of the resurrection for the rear of the churches altar. Instead of Apostles the painting includes Eskimos, a trapper a fisherman and a pioneer woman make up the foreground. The prospector is a self-portrait of Van Empel with the two angels being portraits of his two sisters. The empty tomb is shown against the mountains and waters of Resurrection Bay.

Records show that Van Empel exhibited paintings at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. The Anchorage Museum of History and Art has nine published works in its collection. Jan Van Empel is mostly known for his coastal landscapes. He is most certainly the most early modernist scene painter in Alaska during the early 1920s.

Sources:
1. The Anchorage, Alaska Museum of History and Art
2 The Seward, Alaska Preservation Society.
3. The Whitney Museum and the Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Club Exhibition Records
4. Exhibition Records of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art 1914-1940
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The following, also from Steven Brennan, is an article from the "Houston Page Dispatch" [Texas] October 19th, 1930 'the music page'. By Maxine Tindall, music editor.


Traveling from Kodiak, Alaska to Augusta, Maine from British Columbia to Texas...." an enchanted wanderer" searching for he knows not what. Living near nature in her roughest moods, Jan Van Empel a landscape artist of Dutch origin, found his way from the bleak north to the more gentile climes of Houston and was so impressed that he plans to stay for the winter. He finds people here energetic and prosperous " the palm trees are congenial" and he wants to paint the "great skys of Texas" down on the bay.

Truly individual in his painting, Van Empel is equally so in his selection of a stopping place in Houston. One must go up a steep flight of steps and through a narrow hall in one of the older buildings on lower Travis Street before finding the door to his "studio". It is a loft of a place, one huge room with two windows at the back, giving a remarkable amount of light, and a single door. At the rear of the room are his living quarters. His furnishings make up for their scarcity in uniqueness and history---- a surgery sterilizing cabinet [now containing bread], a beauty parlor chair and a stool of white enamel metal, a barber chair and a manicurists' table all of which had accumulated there before the place was rented and are being used for the practical needs of the artist.

And on the walls are his treasures. To describe the work as virile and as cleverly done as his is not an easy task. The subjects he chooses and his general method of treatment is all one could do to explain. His paintings are all in oil and are the kind one "feels" as he looks at them. Van Empel himself declares that he is striving to express mood in each of his canvases rather than to merely reproduce a landscape. He has been said to approach Richard Jack R.A. in his ability to convey the sense of mass and innumerable planes. This is surely the most impressive thing about his work and the prodigious vastness of his mountains has won him mush praise from Canadian critics. His perspective is also very good. He has achieved a striking aptitude for portraying sagging huts on an incline.

Rugged coastal scenes in Alaska and British Columbia, the Canadian Rockies, a hillside village in New Hampshire, an abandoned boat in a shady cove, character studies of a Filipino and a Russian derelict are only a few of his subjects handled to advantage by Mr. Van Empel.

Besides the group of landscape paintings he has with him, Mr. Van Empel has left behind him an inspired mural painting "resurrection" which forms the reredos for the alter in Saint Peters Protestant church in Seward, Alaska, which he was commissioned to paint by the bishop of the Alaskan diocese. Its setting and characters are Alaskan.

Mr. Van Empel's life story is one of romantic wandering. He was born in Amsterdam in 1880 and ran away at the age of 15. He landed first in Florida in 1895 and from there went to Cuba where he got his first inspiration to become an artist by watching the Russian "verechehagin" at work.

He later returned to America, studying art as he could and finally enrolling at the Art Institute of Chicago. He later studied with the well -known portrait painter Robert Henri of New York. He has spent the last five years in a volunteer exile. Painting in Alaska, Jasper National Park, Skeena River country and Alert Bay, British Columbia.
Last winter [1929] he was in New Hampshire and this summer in Maine. He plans to remain here in Houston this winter and plans to paint typical landscapes and especially the "great Texas skys". He plans to leave for Mexico in the spring and may finally return here to settle permanently.

Van Empel has exhibited his work in public exhibitions in Seattle, Washington; Toronto, Canada; Montreal, New York, Philadelphia and several other eastern cities.

Accompanying Mr. Van Empel is Gordon F Peers, a young artist who is studying under his companion. There are forty oil paintings on exhibition at 402 1/2 Travis Street, room 14, and he is delighted to have any interested people to come view his work.


Note from Steve Brennan: "It is an important revelation that the artist Gordon Franklin Peers was traveling and being taught by Van Empel in 1930 ten years before his first modernist exhibition. Peers is remembered but Van Empel is forgotten. I think that should be changed."

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A painter in New York City and Alaska in the early 20th Century, Jan Van Empel was born in Amsterdam, Holland. He ran away from his home town and working as a cabin boy, crossed the ocean to New York City. There he became an exhibiting artist including at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Salons of America and the Society of Independent Artists. He studied with Robert Henri and Roman Kryzanovsky.

By the time Van Empel was age twenty-five, he was living in Seward, Alaska, having gone there with the Canadian National Railroad. There he filled a $650.00 commission to paint a reredos of the Ascencion and the Resurrection for St. Peters Episcopal Church. His approach was unique in that the central figure was the traditional rendering of Christ, but the Apostle figures around the open tomb were images of Alaskans---Indians, Eskimos, fur trappers, prospectors and even a self-portrait of the artist. On either side of the Lord, he placed portraits of his own two sisters. Needless to say, the work and its artist have been regarded as unique in 20th-Century Alaskan art.

Sources:
website of St. Peter's Church, Seward
Old and Sold Antiques Digest' website. Article: "Copper Gate and Iron Musketeers"
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


Jan Van Empel is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Notable Alaska

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