The stylized realism of Catharina Klein graces millions of postcards worldwide


That’s what they were, hanging from a thorny branch like paper lanterns. I found the postcard in a thrift store in Elyria, Ohio in 1971 and bought it because a college friend grew a variety of this once common fruit called Pixwell. But it was the card’s design that intrigued me most. The fruit was painted realistically, and yet with style. I loved it.

Thirty-five years passed.

 Catharina Klein postcard art
After 1906, postcard backs had space available for both a message and an address, leaving the front clear of handwriting.

My postcard collecting was in fits and starts with multi-year intervals of quiet. I bought a house with a yard, became interested in roses, and once again dragged down my collection to see what flower cards I owned. The Internet became a source of new cards at reasonable prices. By searching for roses, I found and bought several bearing the “C. Klein” signature. They were, by far, the most breathtaking roses I’d ever seen painted and they were on postcards.

Simple searches for “C. Klein” produced more and more examples of her astonishing output: flowers, birds, butterflies, fruit, and still lifes – all displaying her characteristic inventiveness. I found conflicting information about her though, so I wrote to libraries in Germany for some facts on this phenomenal person whose work seemed to be everywhere but whose life is nearly forgotten.

“C. Klein,” her trademark signature, stands for Catharina Klein. She is also referred to as Catherine Klein, but that’s not a name she ever used herself. Publishers anglicized her name during World War I to avoid any disinclination against buying her work becasue she was a German national and enormously popular on our side of the trenches. She is sometimes wrongly referred to as “Christine.” Her signature, “C. Klein” usually accompanies her work, especially in those postcards and prints closest to the original paintings, which were in oil or gouache, an opaque watercolor. If her signature is underlined, it’s an indication of an earlier work. Klein rode the crest of chromolithography at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century. Millions of copies of her paintings were made. They appeared in book illustrations, on calendars, advertisements, bookmarks, and postcards. They were put on stencils and fired onto tea cups. They were converted into patterns and embroidered onto pillow cases.

Catharina Klein was born in 1861 in Eylau, East Prussia, a town now called Bagrationovsk in Kalinigrad, a part of the Russian Federation on Poland’s northeast border. (It is actually separated by the Baltic States from Mainland Russia.) Its population couldn’t have been more than 3,500 or so when she was a child, thus making her quite well acquainted with rural life and the subject matter she would so beautifully capture on canvas and paper.

Catharina Klein moved to Berlin where she studied at the vocational school. In her earliest days, she exhibited at various shows and her paintings proved popular among the German nobility. Prophetically, one of her paintings was exhibited as part of the Columbia Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 when she was 32. (The Columbia Exhibition is often heralded as the catalyst of the postcard craze.) Klein became one of the most respected and popular still life painters of all time. She captured the essence of her subject matter and made it appealing on a 3 1/2-inch by 5 1/2-inch card.

Occasionally, an early oil painting will come to a German auktionhaus. During the past 10 years, I found documentation on only three original paintings for sale. All listed for less than $1,000. Also on the market, and listed as being hers, were several copies of her works done by students, which are clearly inferior and only have value as curiosities.

A popular teacher, Klein also ran a studio in Berlin and trained young women how to paint. In 1911, she published two short books: one on how to paint fruit, the other flowers. She was a single woman from the country in a male dominated world and she earned her living through her talent which was a remarkable feat for that period. She died in Berlin in 1929.

Ever industrious and clearly in demand, Catharina Klein submitted paintings to several publishers. According to Don Barnard’s encyclopedic work “Catharina Klein: A Postcard Catalogue” published in 1998, Klein painted more than 2,250 different still life images and had 75 major publishing companies, and several smaller ones, producing her work. Her best paintings appear on cards printed by Meissner & Buch of Leipzig. She was their star, accounting for 20 percent  of their total output creating about 1,000 different works for them. Meissner & Buch used good card stock and expensive ink, which is why many of these 100-year-old pieces of paper are still in excellent condition. Quality cards also came from the large printing firm of  G.O.M.  (Obpacker Brothers, Munich), a couple of Swiss firms, several other German firms, and Adolphe Tuck of London. (Adolphe and his father Rafael were Germans prospering in England and had no problem securing Klein’s work from the Fatherland.)

Once her paintings were delivered and she was paid, the publishers could do what they wished with her work and often resold them to other publishers. This accounts for why the same design was produced by different publishers. Many printers often embellished her work by altering the backgrounds, embossing the image, giving it a linen finish, or printing just an enlarged detail of the original work. The larger her signature is in proportion to the card, the greater the likelihood that the card depicts only a detail of a painting.

Much of Klein’s work appeared prior to 1906 when the reverse side of a postcard was intended for the address only. The message appeared on the front. Her artwork was often printed to one side to leave room for a message or, with work intended to be printed on a postcard, Klein displayed phenomenal ingenuity by creating designs with open spaces for a message. After 1906, postcard backs had space available for both a message and an address, thus leaving the beautiful front, unmarred by handwriting. Actually, handwriting on a pre-1906 C. Klein card is considered normal and doesn’t affect the price too much.

 Catharina Klein postcard art
Vibrant florals are a recurring subject in Catharina Klein postcards.

Chromolithography allowed publishers to manipulate the original art; take figs from one design, for instance, and a crock from another, overprint them on yet another design and come up with a new piece of art to sell. The card was recognizable as work by the artist. In Klein’s case, these bizarre concoctions can be spotted because the components are out of proportion to one another. Usually, the light is also wrong. Aware of this practice, Klein frequently placed her signature close to her subject matter (instead of at a bottom corner which could easily be omitted in reproductions). Like all great artists, Klein knew how good she was and a signature appearing on every work contributed to her self-promotion. If a postcard looks like her work but doesn’t have a signature, be skeptical. Most have one.
Klein’s gouache paintings exist now only on postcards, calendars, and advertisements. Where are the originals? The scarcity today of such a vast output may be due to the two world wars. Several warehouses which may have contained Klein’s originals in London, Berlin, and Leipzig were burned to the ground during these conflicts.

 Catharina Klein postcard art
Most Catharina Klein cards can be had for less than $20; however, having just 25 of the 26 letters of her flower alphabet will motivate a buyer far beyond that limit when the missing “Z” comes on the market.

Klein also had an avid following among amateur painters, many of whom used her flower and fruit paintings as models for their efforts at painting plates. As late as 1970, The China Decorator magazine was still publishing her advice on what paints to use to achieve various effects, such as the transparency of grapes. Occasionally, a hurricane lamp or dish will turn up with her signature on it. I’ve found no documentation that she ever used glass or porcelain as her canvas.

Sadly, in the 1950s, an investigation of her grave site took place. As no relatives were known to have visited her and the art establishment (whoever they were) decided she wasn’t significant enough to have her grave preserved, they dug her up and destroyed the remains so that someone else might be buried in her spot.

Even more tragic, several buyers of her postcards today cut them up to make jewelry, scrapbooks, or decoupage wall hangings, thus destroying what could be the only remaining copy of this brilliant artist’s work. Admittedly, some Klein designs are ubiquitous but others are quite rare.

Recent auctions of her cards have fetched close to the $250 mark. Most, however, can still be had for under $20. Catharina Klein is a postcard collector’s dream, or nightmare, depending on one’s success rate at acquiring complete sets of her creations. I know from personal experience, having just 25 of the 26 letters of her flower alphabet escalated my willingness to spend serious money when that missing “Z” finally came on the market!

Klein painted real life subject matter. In doing so, she unintentionally documented examples of fruits and flowers grown during her lifetime, varieties we now consider heirlooms.

Which brings me back to the gooseberries. My original card bore no signature. It was printed in America, postmarked 1919, and was most likely a copy of a copy of a copy of the original. Turns out, it originally came from Meissner & Buch, Series 1287, Fruchtspenden (“A Donation of Fruit”). Its set mates were plums, blackberries, and cherries, arranged similarly. Imagine my thrill when, after all these years, I realized those sentimental gooseberries that I liked years ago came from the hand of a person I now admire so much, the great Catharina Klein.

More on Catharina Klein

More Catharina Klein Videos 

Central Coast Rose Manual
Catharina Klein Video I: The Birds 
Catharina Klein Video II: Fruits and Vegetables
Catharina Klein Video III: Flowers (Part One: A-L)
Catharina Klein Video III: Flowers (Part Two: M-Z)
MBRS Display Garden

More postcard articles from Antique Trader

Video: How to Paint Roses Like Catharina Klein


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