As a young man, Karl Drerup lived and worked in pre-World War II Europe’s most exciting cities—Berlin, Florence, Madrid—and in the colorful market towns, fishing villages, and beaches of the Canary Islands. This exhibition invites you to journey with him from Europe to New York to the fields and mountains of New Hampshire. Here he became a legendary Plymouth State art professor, as well as a nationally known American enamelist and New Hampshire Living Treasure.
Drerup was drawn to the work of Cezanne, Picasso and, especially, Paul Klee. The young artist seemed to absorb the entire spectrum of European modernism during this period, and continued to adapt and tailor its concepts and techniques in his own work throughout his life.
Drerup studied painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Florence. In the tradition of the great 16th-century Florentine portraitists Pontormo and Bronzini, Drerup’s portraits probe for the person within. He painted the people he loved—friends and colleagues—and self-portraits that seem to be a critical self-examination conducted at various stages in his life.
A selection of Drerup’s paintings appeared in 1932 in one of the first exhibitions of contemporary German art in the United States, preceding his arrival in New York by five years. One reviewer noted Drerup’s painting technique showed “astonishing confidence and delicate effect … the still youthful artist is indisputably gifted with great promise.”
Karl Drerup met the love of his life, Gertrude Lifmann, in Florence. As Italy fell to fascism, Karl and Gertrude knew returning to Germany was impossible. Karl had assured himself a place on the German authorities “undesirables” list by designing anti-government posters; Gertrude was Jewish. For several years the couple found safe haven on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Memories of Florence, southern Spain and Tenerife inspired Karl’s work throughout his life.
By 1937, fascism had reached Spain and its islands. Gertrude escaped the Canaries before Karl, who sheltered with friends in London before the couple was reunited in New York.
The new émigrés were drawn to New York’s large community of artists and intellectuals who had been forced to flee their homes in Europe. While he was studying in Florence, Karl had learned to decorate ceramic tiles and bowls. He created lively mythical figures, fish and other animals with a few expert brushstrokes. In order to make a living in New York he painted “carloads” of vases and lamp bases for Fifth Avenue shops.
Karl seized upon designer Tommi Parzinger’s hint that “nobody in New York makes good enamels.” Drerup studied 16th-century examples of Limoges painted enamels at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and began experimenting. Almost immediately, his jewel-like painted enamels on metal were awarded prizes and exhibited across the country. In 1940, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased its first Drerup enamel. By the 1950s his work had drawn a national audience and inspired other artists in the field of American enameling, metalwork, ceramics and glass.
Karl and Gertrude Drerup moved to the New Hampshire countryside In 1945, but Karl continued to exhibit his enamels nationally. As his teaching responsibilities grew at what was then Plymouth Teachers College, he often painted only in the summer or during vacations. Drerup occasionally painted directly from nature but, more often, he painted his memories of other places, other times.
Whether on canvas, metal or ceramic, Drerup’s painting radiates self-confidence, energy and delight in the myriad complexities and variety of life in the natural and mythological worlds. Exquisite line and color catch the eye and draw us into an intimate conversation with the artist—at once intellectual and nostalgic, mostly joyful, but often tempered with a mischievous wink.
- 1902 born in Borghorst, Germany.
- 1926 Master’s degree in graphic arts working under Hans Meid at the Academy in Berlin.
- 1932 included in exhibition at U. S. International Art Center, Roerich Museum, N.Y., with members of the Deutscher Künstlerbund
- 1937 immigrated to New York City.
- 1940 Drerup enamels being sold in N.Y. by Hudson Walker on 57th Street.
- 1941- the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York began buying his enamels.
- 1944 gained U.S. citizenship
- 1946 Drerup and his wife moved to Thornton, N.H.
- 1948 became Plymouth Teachers College’s first art professor and then department head.
- 1968 retired from college teaching.
- 1986 Plymouth State awarded honorary degree and named art gallery for Drerup.
- 1989 declared a New Hampshire Living Treasure’s Award.
- 1995 became a Fellow of the American Crafts Council.
- November 22, 2000, Karl Drerup died at the age of 96.