A Damitz watercolor showing his house and vineyards, southeast of Greenbush.

Art Institute of Chicago recognized early Warren County folk artist

MONMOUTH, Ill. — Folk artist Grandma Moses became world famous late in life for her primitive paintings portraying the simplicity of rural life. A Warren County farmer who during his later years employed a similar rustic technique in depicting bucolic scenes did not become globally famous, but his works earned him a solo exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1977, nearly 100 years after his death.

Born in the Schleswig-Holstein region of what is now Germany in 1805, Ernst Otto Wilhelm Franz von Damitz was descended from Prussian nobility, but by 1847 his family’s fortunes had declined, so he and his wife, Pauline, gathered their 11 children and sailed to the United States to begin a new life on the frontier. Arriving in New York, they set off for Chicago, where von Damitz met two farmers from the vicinity of Greenbush and Berwick who had hauled grain there in wagons. He paid them $60 to take his family back home with them in their empty wagons.

A portrait of the young Ernest Damitz, probably painted in Prussia.

Adopting an Americanized name, Ernest Damitz purchased a farm of 100 acres two miles south of Greenbush for $700. He later expanded the farm to 180 acres, before selling it and purchasing a 160-acre farm two miles to the east. On the latter farm, he planted a vineyard and established the county’s first winery.

Beginning around 1860, Damitz gradually turned over the farm to his youngest son, Oscar — his only child born in the United States — and took up watercolor painting. While his first efforts were crude and depicted familiar scenes such as the family homestead, his style gradually became more complex, and he began to paint in vivid color exotic places he had never visited and scenes from folklore, many of them taken from the Bible and travel books he borrowed from the Warren County Library.

Among his diverse subjects were the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a party traveling to meet a Russian sorceress, and scenes from his childhood in Germany.

After the death of his wife in 1866, Damitz painted views of the Bond Cemetery, just north of Little Swan Lake, where she was buried and where he would later be laid to rest.

None of his paintings were ever signed, and most were given away to friends and relatives. At least 93 survived in good condition.

It was not until a fourth-generation cousin and genealogist from Chicago, Helen Sailer, became interested in his work in 1975 that an art expert was consulted. Esther Sparks, assistant curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute, was instantly intrigued. The unusual breadth of Damitz’s work allowed her to observe the development of his unique style over several years, and she sought a grant from the Mobil Foundation to mount an exhibit of 30 Damitz paintings from February through April 1977 at the Art Institute. Sailer and other private donors also supported the exhibit.

Sparks termed Damitz a “naïf” — a self-taught artist whose work is realistic but presented in an innocent, childlike manner. She said naïf art differs from primitive art in that it is technically better.

Concurrent with the Art Institute exhibit, descendants of Damitz living in the Avon area mounted their own retrospective of family paintings, which was presented in the Avon Public Library.

Damitz continued to paint until shortly before his death in 1883. In 1882 he complained in a letter to his son Peter that his fingers were so arthritic that he could no longer paint like he used to.

A biography of Damitz published in the 1905 “Early Days in Greenbush” by William L. Snapp tells a fascinating tale of the Damitz family in Prussia. The grandfather of Ernest Damitz, he wrote, was one of the richest men in Prussia, owning 99 farms — the most a man was allowed to own under the law.

When Frederick the Great attacked Austria in the Seven Years’ War, the grandfather joined Frederick’s army at age 14 and soon became an officer. He was liberal with his money and treated a whole army corps to costly wines and food, spending so much that after the war he was forced to sell off most of his lands.

Two of Damitz’s children were twins. After their baptism in Germany in 1841, Friedrich Wilhelm III, King of Prussia, became their godfather. They were named Fredrick William and William Fredrick, in his honor, and each was given a royal present of 100 thalers.

There are also family legends that when 23-year-old Ernst married 19-year-old Pauline, her wealthy father did not approve of the match, and that Ernst may have eventually emigrated to America to escape the consequences of a duel that went bad.

The graves of Ernest Damitz and his wife, Pauline, in Bond Cemetery, north of Little Swan Lake.

Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than four decades.

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Jeff Rankin

Jeff Rankin

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Editor and historian for Monmouth College. Avid researcher of western Illinois history for 40 years. FB and Twitter. jrankin@monmouthcollege.edu