Works of Viennese master who became Hallmark professor on display
MIDDLEBURY — EastView at Middlebury is hosting an exhibition of more than 20 paintings by Professor Frederick Jaeger, an exceptional artist and teacher who was active in Europe and America in the last century. Most of the 24 paintings have not been seen since before World War II, and never in the U.S.
The paintings come to the retirement community located off South Street Extension on loan from Jaeger’s son, George Jaeger of New Haven.
The exhibition opened to the public this past Monday and will be on view to anyone until Oct. 31, daily between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
George Jaeger tells the story of his father:
Frederick Jaeger was born in Vienna in 1895, the son of a leading ostrich feather merchant, whose comfortably bourgeois family was, for a time, the beneficiary of that era’s fashion craze.
Young “Fritz” grew up in Vienna in the years before World War I in a villa with several servants, near the imperial summer palace of Schönbrunn. He attended and graduated from a local “Realschule” — a rather selective secondary school focused on math, design and other more concrete subjects than the emphasis on Latin and Greek he would have got at a classic “gymnasium.” In the process he discovered that he loved drawing and painting and was not drawn to the commercial life his father wanted him to pursue. This created tensions, particularly when the ostrich feather business abruptly declined just before the war and the family’s finances became wobbly.
The issue was postponed while Fritz served as a lieutenant in charge of an artillery crew on the Italian front for 18 months. There the armies exchanged fire across a high alpine valley in the Dolomites, troops on both sides ensconced in rat-infested mountain caves supplied by mule trains. Jaeger came home in 1918 after some months of Italian captivity, during which he improved his lot by drawing and painting portraits.
But his welcome was cool when he reaffirmed his intention to study art at the University of Vienna. And things got worse when he announced his engagement to Emma Stachura, a young Catholic financial advisor helping his Jewish father with his struggling business, to whom he had dedicated a small painting even before he had left for military service. While she was clearly much valued by the family as a business counselor, interfaith marriages in those days were a major no-no. After Fritz and Emma married anyway, the breach with his parents became final and Fritz converted to Catholicism, or at least its mellower Austrian version. This flavor of Catholic sensibility is reflected in his oil painting of Father Lamprecht, seen in the EastView exhibition, as well as in other works.
Starting a new family in Austria’s collapsing post-war economy was not easy. Fritz finished the University of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts to qualify as an art professor. His new wife, one of Vienna’s early self-made women business professionals, continued to help run a Viennese shoe company.
It was only when my father graduated and got his first professorial appointment, that my parents reversed roles. When their son George was born in 1926, Emma, the once hard-working administrator and breadwinner, became an equally devoted mother.
It was during these years, the late ’20s and ’30s, that Fritz Jaeger produced his most important work and exhibited in Viennese galleries, including the famous “Sezession.” Among earlier works were two brilliantly sunlit paintings of palm-fringed Adriatic villages in Italy, which recently changed hands in Munich. He became fascinated with Adriatic fishermen, made many sketches and finally the oil painting of them sitting in the sand mending nets, which is in this exhibit. He used this Italian village theme again in a later neo-cubist painting to show that cubism does not require abandoning reality.
He had also shown increasing talent as a portrait painter. This exhibit includes an early work, “The Three Ages,” a human theme which fascinated him. He came into his own as a portrait painter in the ’30s, as evidenced by the oils of the village carpenter holding his measuring stick, the portraits of the young Count Foscari, of Father Lamprecht, of the gnarled hundred-year-old peasant, the young Austrian girl, the young woman seated amid flowers, as well as the life-size paintings of the young musician and the village girl in brilliant native costume. There is also a wistful fragment of a pensive young woman, which, together with the “Raven of Wisdom” were once part of a larger work. That his son George should also turn up in this line-up at various times was inevitable.
In the late ’30s, when the growls of Austrian Nazism became louder, he also did some major landscapes of the Drau valley in Carinthia, then still a largely lost peasant world, where he and his family had spent increasingly anxious summers.
It all ended in 1938 when Hitler marched into Austria. Within months Fritz Jaeger, who had for many years been a loved and respected Viennese art professor, was sacked from his tenured appointment and his brother Paul who had been taken to the concentration camp in Dachau, died from the effects of medical experiments. Other relations were taken to and died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Emigration was the only option left.
So young George, by then in gymnasium, left that November for the U.K., helped by English Quakers. Fritz Jaeger managed to be off for New York a bit later, where he restarted life as a floor sweeper at Herbert Dubler’s, a small Madison Avenue firm importing Sister Hummel’s Christmas cards and figurines from Munich. The plan was that his “Aryan” — therefore, under Nazi rules, officially safe — wife would follow as soon as he had made a footfall and saved enough for ship tickets. As it turned out Pearl Harbor intervened. She spent the war in Vienna and came to America only after the American Embassy had reopened in 1946. She received visa No. 1.
Pearl Harbor’s other effect was that it put an end to importing Sister Hummel’s products, since we were at war with Germany. As this sank in at Herbert Dubler’s, Fritz, now Frederick, leaned his broom against the wall and announced that he could do anything Sister Hummel did. He was promptly promoted to art director, built the business into a real success, changed the tone of America’s greeting card industry and, at a memorable lunch at the Plaza Hotel, was asked by Joyce Hall to become Hallmark’s in-house art professor in Kansas City. “I have 200 artists, none of whom can draw a horse,” Joyce Hall said. “We need you to teach them.” Fred Jaeger retired from Hallmark 17 years later, a loved and respected figure who had helped generations of young Hallmark artists perfect their craft.
Particularly after his retirement he produced a large number of lighter paintings of imaginary landscapes, fairy tales and even portraits, some of which are also in this exhibition. He loved teaching to the end, surrounding himself in his last years with flocks of local children, whom he taught the rudiments of drawing and painting. Needless to say he became a local legend.
Frederick Jaeger died in Kansas City in 1980. He and Emily, as she had come to be known in America, are buried there.
The exhibition at EastView at Middlebury is at 100 EastView Terrace, in Middlebury. For more information, contact [email protected] or call 802-989-7500.
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