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Charles Frederick Ulrich (1858-1908)
Waifs "Children in a Schoolroom", ca. 1884
Oil on cradled panel, 20 x 25 inches
Signed lower right: Ulrich

Waifs (Haarlem, Holland) by Charles Frederick Ulrich

The New York-born artist Charles Ulrich belonged to a cosmopolitan generation of American painters, and like countless other artists who came of age in the late nineteenth century, he sought training and experience in Europe. His first sojourn abroad occurred in 1875 when he left New York, where he had been studying at the National Academy of Design and Cooper Union, for Munich. In the Bavarian city, he enrolled at the Royal Academy. There he trained with Ludwig von Löfftz and Wilhelm Lindenschmidt. The former was also the teacher of John H. Twachtman, whom Ulrich befriended. Ulrich also became part of the circle of American artists who associated with the influential American painter Frank Duveneck, and Ulrich painted with the “Duveneck boys” in Munich as well as in the small Bavarian town of Polling.

Ulrich returned to the United States at some point between 1879 and 1881, and joined his compatriots among the young foreign-trained painters who were exploring new stylistic methods. Ulrich adhered to a more traditional realist approach than many of his Munich-trained friends, such as Twachtman and Duveneck, who were then emulating the alla prima bravura approach pioneered in the early 1870s by the German realist Wilhelm Leibl. Ulrich chose a precise method of painting that links his art with the interiors painted by Dutch seventeenth-century painters such as Pieter de Hooch and Jan Vermeer. He was one of the few painters of his time to address a social theme. Painted in 1884, his well-known In the Land of Promise—Castle Garden (1884; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) depicted immigrants arriving in New York City, capturing an important phenomenon overlooked by other painters of the day.

But the United States would not hold Ulrich long, and in the summer of 1884, he returned to Europe. He had probably met the Cincinnati-born painter Robert Blum in New York, and he now joined Blum in Holland, where the two artists rented an apartment together in Haarlem. For the next three years, the two artists were almost always together. During the summer of 1884, Blum painted quiet interiors featuring women knitting, while Ulrich demonstrated his interest in social themes, portraying a scene of an interior of a print shop staffed by youths (1884; Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago) and images of a local orphanage. Ulrich devoted several paintings to this subject, including Waifs (Haarlem, Holland), which he exhibited at the National Academy of Design 1885.

Several reviews of the exhibition described the painting. The Art Age reported:

“Waifs” is the sentimental title of an unsentimental, realistic, careful rendering of a scene in the Orphanage of Haarlem, Holland, by Mr. Charles F. Ulrich. The orphans, coarse, honest, everyday types of female youth, in their quaint uniform, are gazing with delight upon an older orphan left in charge of them. It is understood that the technique of this picture, as the work of Mr. Ulrich, is of the first order in the class to which it belongs. What is further noticeable, as a decided advance on the artist’s other works, is the distinctiveness of individualization possessed by each figure—as the result of a certain literary habit of observation, indicating the approach of maturity in the painter’s development.

The New York Times commented:

Mr. C. F. Ulrich shows in the South Gallery a well-painted and lifelike group of orphans and foundlings in the bare interior of the orphanage at Haarlem, Holland. The effect of light falling on this realistic group of young girls is such as to confirm all that has been promised by Mr. Ulrich’s earlier work. The idle play with soap bubbles is neither forced nor pointless; it occupies that agreeable middle line between meaning much and little that is the special province of art; which is not, on the one hand, literary, nor on the other, “art for art’s sake.” It tells a story without trying to insist too much. The Dutch type is strong in the girl seated on the deal table who holds the clay pipe from which a bubble oozes. The interior is nicely treated, neither finicky nor slapdash, while the outlook on the green and sun-flooded bit of garden is capitally given.

True to these descriptions, the painting portrays the scene from midst of a stark room in which the only furnishings are crude wood benches and tables, used probably for work and meals. The walls are bare, and the floor consists of knotted wood planks. In this space, six girls of about ages eight through twelve are seated in a casual fashion, wearing simple, traditional Dutch clothing. They are shown during a moment of leisure, and two sew while three others gaze at a somewhat older girl, turned mostly with her back to us, who blows bubbles. One large bubble at the end of the long pipe glistens in the light, while another floats upward. Each of the figures is carefully realized, so as to depict them as individuals, rather than showing them as generalized types, as in so many genre scenes of the era. The translucent bubbles, rising easily into the air, play up by contrast the constrained nature of the children’s lives, demonstrating the kind of sensitivity and social awareness that Ulrich demonstrated in Castle Garden. Providing a narrative moment without moralizing or storytelling, the painting has pathos without descending to sentiment.

The scene is illuminated by natural light, which enters the room through two windows that look out on a courtyard marked by trees and the rose-colored brick buildings typical of Dutch towns. Yet, in the tradition of such Dutch artists as Jan Vermeer, Ulrich also revealed another unseen light source. Sunlight enters also through a window at the right of the scene, grazing the shoulder of the near figure, illuminates the profile of a seated figure, bounces across the surface of a table and brushes up against the girl at the left side of the scene. This light parallels the movement within the composition. Sunlight also falls on the empty space at the left, balancing the darker forms of the figures, which are enveloped in the soft, diffused light that enters from the courtyard.

The painting exemplifies the qualities for which Ulrich was acclaimed. Waifs (Haarlem, Holland) is rendered in clear and realistic terms, with each of the figures modeled carefully and integrated into the scene’s chiaroscuro. At the same time, the arrangement is sophisticated, with a gentle curve drawing us through the figural grouping and unifying the design. The waving line of the figures is echoed by the placement of the benches and tables, which create an angular counterbalance to the figures. The surfaces of the walls, wainscoting, floors, and tables are treated with attention to the different textures. Throughout, the light plays a prominent role, but its presence, illuminating and revealing aspects of the figures, underscores the scene’s realism, resulting in a work that engages our sympathies without descending into sentimentality.

Unlike most of his compatriots, Ulrich did not eventually return to America after a period of European experimentation. Instead, he remained abroad as an expatriate, perhaps aware that his interest in genre subjects that explored social realities were out of step with the desires of American audiences for evocative images of tonal landscapes or depictions of young women in vibrant gardens. Although he maintained ties with American artist-friends, after 1886, Ulrich’s home was Europe. He lived first in Venice, later in Rome, and finally in Berlin. For this reason, much of his oeuvre is unknown today, and it is only rarely that works such as Waifs (Haarlem, Holland) come to light, making us aware of the strength and distinctiveness of Ulrich’s quiet and exquisitely crafted realist images.


Charles Frederick Ulrich was a noted late nineteenth-century realist painter of portraits and genre scenes who spent much of his life as an expatriate in Europe. He was born in New York, the son of a German migrant photographer and painter. His first studies were with little-known the painter and lithographer, Francis Venino. In the early 1870s, he enrolled at the National Academy of Design and may have attended classes at the Cooper Union School of Art.

In the mid-1870s, many American artists were seeking training in Munich, and by October of 1875 Ulrich had followed their lead, enrolling that month at the city’s Royal Academy, where his instructors were Ludwig von Lofftz and Wilhelm Lindenschmidt. He quickly became part of the circle of American painters led by Frank Duveneck. Indeed, Duveneck submitted a portrait of Ulrich as his diploma piece to the National Academy of Design in 1882 (National Academy of Design, New York). Ulrich also associated closely with John Henry Twachtman, who was a fellow student in Löfftz’s class. The two traveled together to Polling, Germany, where an American artists’ colony had formed; they signed the guestbook sequentially in the spring of 1876.

In Munich, Ulrich became dedicated to a realist approach, influenced by the circle of German realists who gathered around Wilhelm Leibl, an artist who followed in the mode of Gustave Courbet. By contrast with other Americans, such as Frank Duveneck and Frank Currier, who adhered to the painterly bravura approach that Leibl pioneered in the early 1870s, Ulrich developed a fastidious method of painting that reflected his study of the works of the old masters and of the seventeenth-century Dutch Little Masters. In this respect, his art was close to that produced by Leibl in the mid- and late 1870s as well as to such German genre painters as Franz von Defregger and Ludwig Knauss rather to that of his American contemporaries. He focused on images of peasant life, a subject that would remain of interest to him throughout his career.

At some point after 1879, Ulrich returned to New York. The next five years were highly productive, resulting in most of the artist’s best-known works. In 1882 he exhibited at the National Academy of Design for the first time, showing a painting entitled The Wood Engraver (location unknown). This work signaled his interest in creating portrait d’apparat, a type of image portraying a worker surrounded by his or her tools that was rooted in European painting traditions. A reviewer for the New York Times singled out the work, remarking: “it is excellently painted both in figure and interior . . . the figure has the air of patient application.” In 1883 Ulrich became an associate of the academy as well as a member of the Society of American Artists. In the following year, he exhibited a work entitled Glassblowers (1883; Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico) at the academy, which was set in New York. By the next year, Ulrich was focusing his attention on the United States when he painted his noted In the Land of Promise—Castle Garden (1884; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), a starkly candid portrayal of immigrants arriving in New York. When it was shown at the academy that year, it won the prestigious Thomas B. Clarke prize for figure painting. The work was later shown at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889, where it was awarded an honorable mention, and at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where it was awarded a bronze medal.

In the summer of 1884, Ulrich returned to Europe, traveling through Belgium and Holland with the artists William Merritt Chase and Robert Blum. The latter became a close friend and was frequently in Ulrich’s company until 1887. In Haarlem, Ulrich painted one of his best known works, The Village Printing Shop, Haarlem (1884; Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago) and found motifs during visits to a local orphanage.

Ulrich had returned to New York in late 1884, but he left the city once again in the following year, planning to remain abroad for several years. According to a critic of the era, his abrupt departure was due to his “proclaimed disgust at the sordidness of an unappreciative public, which refused to bankrupt itself in the purchase of over-priced pictures.” Ulrich went back to Holland and then to Venice, where he established a home in 1886 and painted Glass Blowers of Murano (1886; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). His movements during his later career are unclear. Although he maintained contact with Blum and Chase, organized exhibitions of American art in Munich in 1888 and 1892, and visited New York briefly in 1891, he remained in Europe. He exhibited at the London Royal Academy in 1889 and 1890, in Munich at the Glaspalast, and after 1893 at the Secession exhibitions. In 1897 he was married in Germany. He also worked in Rome at the turn of the twentieth century, and he died in Berlin.

Ulrich’s works may be found in many important private and public collections, including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts; The Brooklyn Museum, New York; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the Kunstmuseum der Stadt, Düsseldorf; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico; and the Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago.

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