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 John Zwara  (1880 - 1951)

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Lived/Active: Indiana / Hungary      Known for: landscape, frontier scene, still life

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Ad Code: 3
John Zwara
from Auction House Records.
Brown County Landscape
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following, submitted April 2005, is from Edward Bentley, art collector and researcher from Lansing, Michigan.

Commenting on the appeal of the Omaha, Nebraska landscape featured in his work, the artist John Zwara stated in an interview in 1927: "We are indebted to nature for everything we have and we should love and enjoy her beauty. People have eyes and see not. They hurry by the most wonderful pictures, the natural beauty of streams, forests and fields."

But to the people of Indiana that is not the artist anyone is familiar with. Indeed, the only known artist named Zwara was a bedraggled schizophrenic who spoke only through the beauty and appeal of his artwork. Furthermore, although Indiana has been the location of the majority of the painter's known work, it currently represents only a portion of his life.

Jan Zwara (he changed his name to John upon entry into the U.S.) was born December 27, 1880, in Horni Stepanov, Hungary, now a part of the Czech Republic. He was the son of Joseph and Mary Zwara. The family eventually moved to Turdossin, a city now part of Slovakia. His primary education consisted of three years at the grammar school in nearby Trsztenen - from 1891 to 1894 - and four years at "Civic" school (our High School). His father, a wealthy businessman, was able to provide his son with four years of artistic training; one year at the Academy of Fine Art in Prague (1900/1901) under Professor Roubalik, and three more years in Poland at the Warsaw Academy of Art. Further study has also been mentioned in biographies of the artist that include Hungary and Berlin, Germany but cannot be documented because of the destruction caused by World War II.

Commencing his life's work, John Zwara took advantage of a brother in Chicago who offered to set him up there with his own studio. No doubt he realized the unique opportunity that America presented a beginning artist. Coming to this country at about the age of 24, the artist soon succumbed to wanderlust. When his studio was open he would be gone sketching. The studio was a failure. For the next eighteen years he workedand wandered.

In 1928 the "Omaha World-Herald" published an article by Bobbie O'Dare - a revealing piece in praise of the artists' paintings that also described how he lived and worked. With help from personal writings kept by Zwara, the author traced the artist's route from Chicago and Pittsburgh to Cleveland and Wisconson; from Ohio and Billings, Montana to Nevada and San Bernadino: from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Salt Lake City and then Denver.

Zwara worked at any and all kinds of menial jobs in mines, smelters, lumber camps, on the railroad and even digging ditches, all the while living in seedy hotels, hovels and even among the hoboes. While time on the job usually varied from several days to several months, he did spend six years on the construction of the Los Angeles aquaduct. And the jobs could be rather interesting. While in Chicago he spent several weeks modeling; "For the ladies sculpture class," declared Zwara, with a twinkle in his eye.

Commenting on his wanderings Zwara stated: "I get tired. I go." On one job in California for a Mr. Dunn, cattle king, he commented: "I paint his house. I paint him pictures of his ranch till his house is full of them. He tell me to go out and paint the barn. I go, but not to paint that barn." It was during his time in Salt Lake City spray painting locomotives that he entered an exhibit sponsored by the railroad. "I put in my paintings." he stated, " I got First prize and at night the big building burn down, the paintings burn up."

Finally arriving in Omaha sometime in 1922, the artist was befriended by Albert J. Samuelson of the Acorn Press. Samuelson purchased some of Zwara's work and helped him sell others. In 1927 he entered four landscapes in the Sixth Annual Exhibition of Nebraska Artists where one of his paintings was the first to be sold. This was a few months after his "discovery" by Marion Reed, art supervisor for the Omaha schools, who declared him a genius. A short time later an exhibit of his work was held in the art department of the Anton Hospe Music Publishing Company warehouse where 19 of his 22 paintings sold. He was finally a success.

But then Zwara's constitution began to fail him. The hard lifestyle he had made for himself, the almost fanatical quest for the next sketch, his bad eating habits and eventually his personal hygiene began to change. As late as 1931 the artist maintained a residence in Omaha, but by the time of the artists' next "discovery" in Indiana, the people of Omaha would not have known him.

In 1931 and 1932 the artist could be found in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area. There he entered his work in the Salt Lake City Museum annual exhibition for 1932 and won a second prize. The wandering vagabond then seems to have landed in Indianapolis, Indiana, as dates on his landscapes of the local Indiana scenery indicate his arrival there by 1933. Indianapolis became his new home, and, while Zwara continued to take sketching trips, for the remainder of his life he returned there. Numerous trips were made to Nashville, Indiana - the Brown County area - and as far as Knoxville, Tennessee and other areas are noted on works that have turned up at auction.

Zwara's first contact in Indianapolis seems to have been with the Lieber Company, who sold art supplies and also bought and sold artwork. The company sold his paintings and watercolors and also gave him a place to call a studio. Kurt Lieber, having known the artist, stated in an interview in 1976: "He had a fine talent and didn't seem to give a damn about money. When we started, we gave him a dollar per painting and sold them for five. We framed them and made a little on the frames." As far as subjects, Lieber recalled: "Zwara had no favorite subjects - if it would sell he painted it. He went to Brown County for the Lieber firm and brought back a sizable portfolio." Zwara apparently had a similar arrangement with the Lyman Brothers, Incorporated - also art dealers - for sale of his work a few years later.

It was also in 1934 that Zwara was befriended and "taken in" by Alex Vonnegut. He had met the artist after seeing his work for sale in the windows of the H. Lieber Company. Zwara's fall into schizophrenia, or dementia praecox as it was initially labeled, was by then complete. He apparently lived by sleeping in the streets and subsisting on a diet of bread and coffee. Vonnegut described Zwara at his first meeting as "a lone man. His glasses were terribly messed up with dirt and with scratcheshis hair was terribly messed up." In the spring of 1938 Vonnegut, in attempting to help Zwara with his problems, had him admitted to the Indiana Central State Hospital.

In a letter to the Superintendent there Vonnegut stated: "During the last months he has become a financial burden on those who tried to help him to eke out a livelihood. He is hopelessly inarticulate in his speech, but a consummate master with his brushes and watercolors." On Zwara's admission papers he added the following: "since I have known the patient, he has been almighty queer; incapable of handling money. Language is one of his great difficulties; (he) has apparently forgotten his native tongue and can give an account of himself only incoherently. He lives in a world far removed from the one which most people recognize."

Zwara stayed at that institution for six months, all the while producing numerous watercolor studies of the grounds. Then he just walked away - to return to the earlier life he knew. Of the artists' life in the 1940's, it is only known that he continued to sketch and paint. Somehow he was also able to arrange for his work to be exhibited at the yearly Hoosier Salon in 1943, 1944 and 1945.

Toward the end of his life the artist was taken in by The Little Sisters of the Poor of Indianapolis. On May 4, 1951, Zwara died while in their care as a result of a heart attack. In gentle appreciation of the man and his work, Alex Vonnegut later commented: "I was asked by friends, who thought Zwara was a very strange person, why I respected the man. Because he could paint."

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