Carl Gaertner: The Brilliant Work of The Cleveland School’s Most Quietly Radical Artist

Carl Frederick Gaertner (American, 1898 – 1952), Rock Creek, oil on gouache, 14 X 19.5 inches, 1950. Courtesy of Wolfs Gallery.

In November 1952, Cleveland’s then most famous artist complained of a headache after teaching a class at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He went home to Willoughby, and immediately died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

With him died any explanation of what he was striving to achieve in his work. Consistently affable yet non-committal in public, that artist never revealed his underlying vision.

Carl Gaertner exhibited throughout the US: The Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Toledo Museum of Art, other museums, and top galleries, and private collectors all acquired his work. When Gaertner died prematurely in 1952, The Metropolitan Museum of Art had just acquired one of his last works. Gaertner still sells today, regularly fetching thousands and topping $200,000 for one piece.


In recent years, however, some critics have treated Gaertner as either a grim mystery man or as an artistic cul de sac. Particularly when his work stopped being perceived as a celebration of twentieth-century industry, a few became dismissive.

Charles Yannopoulos, reviewing a Gaertner show presented by the Cleveland Artists Foundation in Cleveland Scene magazine in 2000, speculated that because of the Depression and his supposed marginalization by abstract expressionism, Gaertner had become depressed, and his paintings grew sad.

The Plain Dealer critic Steven Litt was even more critical. He acknowledged that Gaertner was unique, but said in his later work he had become a “pessimist.” Litt singled out Shoreway Construction, a highly adverse view of the destruction caused by the construction of the lakefront highway, as too dark.

The last major show focusing on Gaertner exclusively was in Akron in 2003. It received far better reviews. In The Plain Dealer, the late Dan Tranberg commented: “What the Akron show makes clear is that while Gaertner might not be a household name, his paintings are haunted by a mysterious kind of beauty and warrant far more attention.”

The haunting beauty is present in most of Gaertner’s work. Also present is prophetic commentary on the interplay of progress, people, and nature. While Gaertner was stylistically conservative, his themes in his best work were provocative, even radical. He explored the paradox of industry—how its power was both inspiring and destructive, and how it could cause dislocation and loneliness. People appear as small, tragic players in much of the work.


Carl Gaertner was born in Cleveland in 1898, into affluence. His father was longtime general manager of Burrows Brothers, a major chain of stationery stores in Northeast Ohio. Gaertner later moved to Shaker Heights and then to Willoughby.

Gaertner studied at what is now the Cleveland Institute of Art from 1920 to 1923. He was very popular with his fellow students and was elected class president and frequently organized student events. After graduating, he quickly obtained a teaching position there, which he kept for the rest of his life.

Gaertner first rose to local fame with paintings of industrial Cleveland. These early paintings showed post-impressionist influences. However, he quickly developed his own style of expressive realism, an unusual blend of social and urban realism, muted expressionism, touches of magic realism, and landscape watercolor traditions. His also became a master of evocative, moody lighting effects.

Gaertner was ambitious. After marrying and then divorcing his first wife in 1929 because he said she did not support his art, he remarried his second wife in 1938. That woman was Adelle Potter, niece of Horace Potter, famed ceramicist who founded Potter & Mellon. That marriage was more successful. Over the next fifteen years Gaertner traveled widely and exhibited in California, Georgia, Utah, Iowa, Illinois, South Carolina, and especially New York. He was a frequent juror of art shows, including the Carnegie Show in Pittsburgh. In the Cleveland Museum of Art’s then-prominent regional May Show, Gaertner was a perennial winner.

The Harbor, watercolor, sheet, 32.5 X 38.2 centimeters, ca. 1925. Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Anonymous Gift 1953.654.

Gaertner regularly sold his art and lived well. In the late 1930s, he purchased a farm in the Chagrin Valley, built a beautiful home and planted 5000 pine trees to help restore its forested nature.

Gaertner’s star really rose in the 1940s. He exhibited multiple times at Macbeth Gallery in New York, an extremely prominent gallery that had earlier hosted Winslow Homer, and in 1948 first showed Andrew Wyeth’s famous Christina’s World. Gaertner’s work thus was regularly noticed in New York, with reviews in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. Though abstract expressionism was on the rise, Gaertner with his unique vision achieved increasing notoriety.

After he died, he was featured in a major memorial show at the Cleveland Museum of Art and yet another show at the Macbeth Gallery and received tributes around the country.


In the conservative post-war era, Gaertner maintained a carefully cultivated image as a friend to all, who did not seek to impose radical perspectives on others. He had many supporters, including the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Director William Milliken. Milliken commented in 1953 that “he was wise and generous, untiring in his efforts to help and encourage those he touched.” Harold Kitner wrote in the Akron Beacon Journal about Gaertner in 1953: “Above else, he was a good man” even while “he was the only one of the city’s painters who consistently won national awards and whose name was known well beyond the limits of Ohio.”

Yet, the great mystery of Gaertner is what was his real vision was. He never discussed it.

He certainly was not as conservative as he conveyed. In a master class he taught at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1947, in a recording kept at the Smithsonian, Gaertner talked about his technique, which despite the realistic results could be quite non-realistic in process. He stated he would use two suns as light sources if it gave him a better effect.

He was also not a nostalgic “American Scene” regionalist from the time. Rather, Gaertner’s best work shows a unique, highly expressive and sometimes frightening vision. In fact, throughout his career, Gaertner was concerned with the social ills of his time, and most importantly, the environmental effects of what he saw around him. He explored the relation of industry, people, and nature. This was a decade before the US conservation movement.


The Pie Wagon (oil on canvas, 41 5/8 X 60 1/4 inches, 1926. Collection of The Cleveland Museum of Art), Figure 2, is one. In that painting, below cloudy smokestacks and walking over snowy railroad tracks, steelworkers mill by a food wagon. While the mill dwarfs the workers, Gaertner uses dramatic lighting and sharply angled composition to create a compelling image of men just surviving in the shadows.

The Watchman, gouache on Masonite, 23.5 X 39.5 inches, 1942. Private collection.

There is no ambivalence in The Watchman (gouache on Masonite, 23 1/2 X 39 1/2 inches, 1942. Private collection), Figure 3, a frightening picture of a night watchman standing before an industrial wasteland, with distant lights of a huge factory in the distance. The overall effect is one of creepy, magic realism, as if industry has already swallowed up the foreground but hums malevolently in the background, devouring more.

Gravel Fish and Soya Beans, (oil on fiberboard, 28 x 38 inches, 1947, Smithsonian American Art Museum).

The effect is even more striking in Gravel, Fish and Soya Beans (oil on fiberboard 28 X 48 inches, 1947. Smithsonian American Art Museum), Figure 4. In front of a loading tower, three drifters loiter in a desolate industrial scene, with yellow skies above and brownfields below. Not one blade of grass is visible. Besides the people, there is nothing alive in the painting. The lone tower speaks to ruin.

Similarly, in another late Gaertner work, Rock Creek (oil on gouache 14 X 19 1/2 inches, 1950. Wolfs Gallery), Figure 5, a small industrial town clings to life on a tired landscape. While that the town survives is faint cause for hope, the overall tone is one of lost opportunity.

Gaertner could paint “happier” paintings. They were almost inevitably scenes of nature or of people leaning on each other despite adversity. In Spring Comes to the Hudson (oil on fiberboard, 27 15/16 X 47 15/16 inches, 1944. Whitney Museum of American Art), Figure 6, Gaertner painted an early spring scene, where organic green clings to the steep hillsides and the riverbanks. The feeling is quiet and tranquil.

Also happier is The Popcorn Man (oil on canvas, 42 X 60 inches, 1930. Private collection) Figure 7. In a rundown, industrial part of a large city, there is not a tree in sight. Yet, the mood is festive, as people keep company and connect under streetlights in this otherwise pitiless scene.

Perhaps this is why Gaertner’s art still resonates as understated tragedy or existentialist persistence. Even though he never talked about it, he continuously explored three themes in his work: the power of industry (both to build and to ravage); through their struggles, the poignancy of people trying to connect with other people; and the ultimately transformative power of nature.

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