Carl Gaertner was one of the greatest painters to emerge from the Cleveland School. Born in Cleveland on April 18, 1898, he graduated from East Technical high school in 1918 and attended Western Reserve College. From 1920 to 1923 he studied at the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art) with Henry Keller. In 1922, he entered his first May Show at the Cleveland Museum of Art and was awarded a prize for an industrial oil painting. From 1925 until 1952, he was known as a pillar of the Cleveland School and one of their most prestigious painting instructors.
Gaertner’s subject matter was always drawn from the world around him. Early in his career, he focused on Cleveland and its environs. This interest never left him, but as he matured, his choice of subjects broadened. He painted watercolors and oils of Bermuda in the mid 1920s and began making frequent trips to Provincetown beginning in the 1920’s. Like other Cleveland artists, he culled inspiration from travels within the United States, notably trips through Pittsburgh’s dramatic industrial landscapes and Cambridge Springs in Pennsylvania, to the mountains of West Virginia, and to Cape Cod. From the mid 1940s until his death, he also produced paintings based on sketches made during train rides to visit galleries in New York City.
At the time of his premature death in 1952, Carl Gaertner enjoyed a considerable reputation as a master of American Scene painting. By the 1940s, Gaertner was represented by the venerable Macbeth Gallery in New York City and his paintings were exhibited in shows throughout the United States. In 1944 and 1952, Gaertner received the National Academy of Design’s highest award for individual work in a group exhibition, and his work was exhibited in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show for 27 years. Gaertner’s works are in the collections of many prestigious institutions, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Chicago Institute and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The reflective eye of Gaertner chronicled three decades of Cleveland and the landscapes of the Midwest and its people. It is all there: the growing might of industrial Cleveland; the mass-produced promise of the assembly line, giving way to a dawning awareness of lost freedom and the surrender of individuality; the love affair of Americans with nature and the ideals of Thoreau and Whitman and Frost; and the conflict between that love affair and industrial promise.
Gaertner was just achieving national acclaim at the time of his early death at the age of 54. A resurgence of enthusiasm for Gaertner and his works began in the 1970’s and has steadily increased and incrementally boosted the value of his work, with a fine rare example, “The Popcorn Man” reaching $250,000 at auction.