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Karl Zerbe (1903-1972)

The Baker


Encaustic on canvas, 36 x 24 inches. Signed lower left: "Zerbe" and dated "July 1945" on stretcher


Wight, Frederick S., biographical essay in "Karl Zerbe" (undated exhibition catalogue, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston); Lafo, Rachel Rosenfield, Nicholas Capasso and Jennifer Uhrhane, eds., Painting in Boston: 1950-2000 (DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, 2002).


Estate of the artist (purchased October 19, 2009 from the artist’s daughter, Maria Zerbe Norton). Appears (as no. 80) in inventories of The Downtown Gallery, New York, NY from mid- to late- 1940s or early 1950s (no notations indicating exhibition or return to the artist); with Mercury Gallery, Boston and (later) Rockport, MA at time of purchase (exhibited at Mercury’s Boston location probably in the 1990s).


Recently reframed in 2 1/2-inch silver frame.


Fig. 1 - Photograph of inscription of date on stretcher.

      Beginning with his appointment to the faculty of the Museum School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1937, Karl Zerbe became the most influential force in the rise of figurative expressionism in Boston (and beyond) during the decades bracketing the Second World War. Born in 1903 in Berlin and raised in Paris and Frankfurt, Zerbe studied art in Munich from 1921 through 1923 under the tutelage of Joseph Eberz and Karl Caspar, an adherent of the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch. Influenced by German Expressionists including Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann and Georg Grosz, Zerbe enjoyed early success in Europe; his works entered a number of public and private collections including the National Gallery in Berlin by 1930. 

     By the time he was thirty, the political and intellectual atmosphere in Germany had become toxic and the artist resolved to defect.*  In January of 1934, Zerbe, with $160 in his pocket, arrived in Boston. His reputation and American connections facilitated his immediate acceptance in Boston and New York art circles and he was the subject of exhibitions by major commercial galleries in both cities as early as 1936 and 1937.

     During his tenure with the Boston Museum School from 1937 to 1954, he revolutionized the anachronistic focus and teaching methods previously in place and fostered artistic experimentation. According to one art historian, Zerbe “almost single-handedly established expressionism as the basis of pedagogy in the visual arts in Boston for over two decades.”**  In addition to experiments in style and content, he also experimented with medium. By 1938, he had refined a technique of painting in encaustic, a challenging process with ancient roots involving the suspension of pigment in heated wax.

      Zerbe’s powerful portrait of The Baker, painted in 1945 utilizing the medium of encaustic, relates more to Zerbe’s German expressionistic background than to the more complex and highly symbolic works which characterized his later career. The artist portrays this working Everyman as the no-nonsense master of his domain, a character of unusual strength and dignity.

      While his career as an artist flourished (Zerbe had dozens of solo exhibitions at commercial galleries, primarily in Boston and New York, as well as museum shows at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Whitney Museum of American Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum and public galleries in Argentina and Germany) and his art won numerous awards (sixteen alone from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts arising from its annual exhibitions between 1944 and 1966), his contributions as an art educator may represent his most enduring legacy. After 17 years at the Boston Museum School, Zerbe moved in 1954 to Tallahassee, Florida, where he continued teaching for another 17 years at Florida State University until his death in 1972.


*Zerbe’s work was eventually included in the infamous exhibition of “degenerate art” (the Entartete Kunst exhibit) mounted by the Nazis in Berlin and other German and Austrian cities beginning in 1937.

** Capasso, Nicholas, “Expressionism: Boston’s Claim to Fame” in Lafo, Rachel Rosenfield, Nicholas Capasso and Jennifer Uhrhane, eds., Painting in Boston: 1950-2000 (DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, 2002), p. 147.

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