A look at German immigrant Max Schroeder


Paris has overtaken everywhere else in memory, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the French capital had rivals for its status as global Mecca for the arts. In particular, the German-language centers of Munich, Vienna and Dresden were in contest with Paris for art academies, museums and galleries, as well as la vie Boheme.

Germany was ranked as one of the world’s most cultured nations, and yet many German artists, troubled by their nation’s militarism and politics, chose to emigrate. Often, they were drawn to concentrations of other German immigrants, and for creative minds lured by the promise of America, New York often seemed less attractive than the Midwest cities of St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago, where German culture flourished. Hundreds of artists from the German-speaking lands of Europe flocked to the Midwest before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 severed the lines of transportation. The U.S. declaration of war against

German art

“Shepherdess in a Landscape With Flock,” 20th century piece by Max Schroeder, signed M. Schroeter.

Germany and Austria in 1917 sent German-American culture into a steep decline from which it never recovered.

One of the many German immigrants, Max Schroeder (or Schroeter as his name was sometimes spelled), was born in Dresden in 1880 and moved to Chicago at the start of the 20th century. Managing his own studio, he worked in oil and watercolor and paint on porcelain, occasionally executed sculpture in wood, and even worked with tapestries. Suffused with a sense of nostalgia for a Europe he left behind and for historical periods from before his time, his romantic imagery of supine women in languid pose and frolicking children at play struck a chord with his new-found admirers and soon established a client base for his art. The scope of his repertoire was portraiture, including a 1908 painting of the then-renown Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba, who sang at premiere opera houses including New York’s Metropolitan and London’s Covent Garden. Her namesake remains, forever linked with Melba Toast and Peach Melba, designated by a now-forgotten French chef who named the aperitifs in homage to the beloved prima donna.

Opera became an important and sustaining part of Schroeder’s career. During the 1920s he served as chief set designer for one of America’s esteemed performing arts groups, the Chicago Civic Opera, the company that morphed into today’s Lyric Opera of Chicago. Schroeder designed miniature opera sets, which were then constructed to scale. He gained notoriety from an October 1928 photo feature in the Chicago Evening American, showing the artist at work inside the Civic Opera’s warehouse, posing with a maul stick and looking very Bohemian while a group of college women attentively looked and listened to his wise counsel on the art of making art. A studio photograph taken of the painter in mid-life shows the artist seated in perhaps his studio, wearing a high collar shirt, bow-tie and a painter’s smock, looking very much the master of his craft.

Schroeder earned his living in Chicago but left his heart in Dresden. Among his surviving paintings are city scenes of his hometown and its environs. An oil on canvas, executed with impasto effects, shows the Saxon capital with the Elbe River and the Kreuzkirche in view. Other paintings depict lush pastoral landscapes and lovers courting in the summer sun.

The problem Schroeder poses to an appraiser or an auction house is a common one. The world is crowded with capable work by talented artists who carved a niche in their lifetimes but never enjoyed anything beyond local fame and were largely forgotten in death. Finding biographical information on Schroeder is no simple matter. Most Internet searches turn up nothing. No biography on him were published and no catalog raisonne was ever assembled. He is not even mentioned in books on the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

A cross-reference from Artprice, which listed an auction result of Schroeder in February of this year, took me to the William Doyle Auctions (New York) Decorative Arts Sale, Belle Epoque: 19th & 20th Century, held on February 6, 2013. Included in the auction was a painting called “Shepherdess in a Landscape With Flock,” dated 1918 and signed M. Schroeter in the lower right corner. The signature was a dead ringer for signatures on paintings positively identified as Max Schroeder’s work. “The Shepherdess,” a summer landscape with a woman tending her sheep, had the hallmarks of Schroeder in theme and manner. These are the clues that often inform the work of humble appraisers and great art historians alike.

A professional appraisal of several of Schroeder’s paintings and miniature set designs, dated from the 1980s valued his works up to $5,000. The hammer result for the February sale was a less enthusiastic $650. Had the auction attracted the attention of a Schroeder collector or an enthusiast of that genre of Romantic European scenes, the result could have been higher.

But as with any relatively unknown artist from the past, value in the art market hinges on the current popularity of their subject matter or genre.

A posthumous exhibit (Schroeder died in 1972) at the Balzekas Lithuanian Museum of Culture (Chicago) in the 1980s featured many of his works, including the artist’s portrait of Nellie Melba.

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