Meet Albert Bloch: America’s Blue Rider

By Margie Fuchs

Albert Bloch (1882-1961) is “one of my favorite artists,” says Jonathan Boos, “and one of the great unsung American painters of the early 20th century.”

A native Midwesterner, Bloch studied at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts before moving to Germany in 1909. It was there that he joined the Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter), a group of early 20th century European modernists. “All the other guys became rock stars,” said Scott Bloch, the artist’s grandson who recently wrote and produced AB – A documentary on the life of Albert Bloch. But, despite early success, including an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1915, Bloch moved to Lawrence, Kansas, withdrawing from fame and attention to teach at the University of Kansas and focus on his studio.

On the heels of the record-breaking sale of Albert Bloch’s masterpiece, Duell (1912), sold at Sotheby’s, New York in November 2018 for over $1,000,000, we are proud to present four of his works at the Gallery. Get to know a pioneer of early modernism with these three facts:

1. He started his career as a caricaturist and illustrator

Albert Bloch in his Munich Studio, 1911. Portrait of a Boy seen above the artist.
Albert Bloch in his Munich Studio, 1911. Portrait of a Boy seen above the artist.

After studying at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, Bloch worked as a cartoonist for the St. Louis Star from 1901-1903. By 1905 he was working as a caricaturist and illustrator for The Mirror, William Marion Reedy’s literary and political journal. Bloch helped rebrand the internationally-distributed journal with his dynamic cover art and caricature series.[1] His “Kindly Caricatures,” which depicted prominent members of the St. Louis elite, often appeared in The Mirror alongside Reedy’s prose. Reedy quickly recognized Bloch’s artistic talent and, in 1909, sent him and his young family to Europe to further his artistic training.

While Bloch did not study at an art academy as Reedy wished, he settled in Munich and immersed himself in the city’s artistic world. Bloch frequented the cafes and bars of the Schwabing district, the epicenter of the city’s bohemian counterculture, and continued to draw cartoons, including for Munich’s satirical journal, Der Komet. 

This Albert Bloch painting shows a young boy standing with his hands in his pockets.
Albert Bloch, American, 1882-1961. Portrait of a Boy, 1911, Oil on canvas, 35 1/4 x 28 inches

Bloch’s training as an illustrator is clear in his work from this period. For example, in his work Portrait of a Boy (1911), which also appears below in the archival photograph of Bloch in his Munich studio from the same year, the artist highlights the individualistic facial features of the boy, drawing the viewer to his wide eyes even as he looks away. “The Blue Rider artists generally focused on landscapes and avoided portraits[2],” notes Albert Bloch and the Blue Rider: The Munich Years, but portraiture, whether depictions of Midwestern elite, early 20th century German urbanites, or friends and family, holds a large place in Bloch’s oeuvre.

Albert Bloch in his Munich Studio, 1911. Portrait of a Boy seen above the artist.
Albert Bloch in his Munich Studio, 1911. Portrait of a Boy seen above the artist.

2. Bloch was the only American artist associated with the Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) group

A mixedmedia work depicting harlequins roughhousing.
Albert Bloch, American, 1882-1961. Harlequins, 1912, Watercolor, crayon, pen, and india ink on paper, 20 x 14 in.
This work depicts a dark Pierrot in grey and red tones with heavy brushstrokes
Albert Bloch, American, 1882–1961. Pierrot, September, 1911. Oil on canvas. 30¼ x 22½ inches. Signed lower left

Artists Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc visited Bloch’s Munich studio in 1911. Impressed with the American’s work, Kandinsky invited Bloch to exhibit with their new group, the Blue Rider. This emerging group rejected the thinking of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München, the first modernist secession, which they saw as too conservative, and sought to express spiritual truths through art. Shortly after Kandinsky and Marc visited his studio, Bloch joined the Blue Rider as the sole American artist; other members were Russian emigrants and native German artists. Though they followed no single artistic manifesto and their individual approaches varied, the Blue Rider artists shared a belief in the connection between the visual arts and music, the symbolism of color, and an intuitive approach to creating modern art

Albert Bloch, [Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5], The Mirror, 1913.
Albert Bloch, [Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5], The Mirror, 1913.

Following suit with this ethos, Bloch created work such as the cover illustration of The Mirror, published on April 11, 1913[3], in which movement, and music, is expressed with a harlequin figure. A similar figure can be seen in Harlequins (1912), an earlier work presented at the Gallery. While Pablo Picasso and other artists also played with the harlequin motif in their work, Bloch was the only Blue Rider artist to do so. Among the six paintings the artist presented at the first Blue Rider show in December 1911, Bloch chose to include Harlequinade (1911). Pictured on the easel in the studio photograph above in section one, this work is now part of The Museum of Modern Art’s collection.

Bloch’s connection with this motif runs deep. Characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte, including clowns, harlequins and pierrots, make their way into the Blue Rider canon through his works, such as Pierrot (1911), seen above. Bloch draws on this historical depiction of the pierrot as a sensitive, melancholic clown in his painting, furthering the mood with the piece’s notably dark palette. Art historian Henry Adams posits that Bloch may have seen himself in the characters of the harlequin and the pierrot, for as an artist he was an entertainer, often forced to conceal his own feelings in order to perform his part.[4] Other commedia dell’arte inspired works include Three Pierrots and Harlequin (1914) and the monumental Frieze for a Music Room (1915). Harlequins can thus be seen as one of Bloch’s most distinct contributions to the Blue Rider and, like Picasso, Bloch continued to play with harlequins and carnival themes in his art for the rest of his life.

3. Many of Bloch’s early works were lost in World War II

This Albert Bloch painting depicts a surreal vision of a man near a city tunnel in wintertime.
Albert Bloch, American, 1882-1961. Vision of a Winter Afternoon, 1915, Oil on canvas, 30 x 23 inches

The outbreak of World War I contributed to the dissolution of the Blue Rider group. Several artists, including Marc, were killed in battle, while Kandinsky and many of the group’s Russian members were forced to move back to Russia due to their citizenship. Bloch returned home to the United States at the end of the war to begin a career in academia.

Bloch had only a few of his works with him when he returned to the U.S. Though he sometimes destroyed his own works, like the first version of Frieze for a Music Room in 1913, for example, many of his early works – dating from his 1909 arrival in Europe – were lost in bombings during the Second World War. Thankfully, Bloch kept two “Record Books” of black-and-white photographs, “with which Bloch created an efficient showcase of his oil paintings[5]” and which “provide a fragile, and yet significant, insight into his Munich years[6];” Vision of a Winter Afternoon is documented in the Record Book pages seen below. This loss renders the four works we have on view at the Gallery extremely rare, and we hope you will come see them in person.    

Inside pages of one of Albert Bloch’s two Record Books, showing Vision of a Winter Afternoon at upper left.
Inside pages of one of Albert Bloch’s two Record Books, showing Vision of a Winter Afternoon at upper left.

Cover image: Albert Bloch, American, 1882-1961. Duell, 1912. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 by 50 ¼ inches.

1. Frank Baron and Jon Blumb. Albert Bloch and the Blue Rider: The Munich Years. Jayhawk Ink, University of Kansas, 2014.
2. ibid
3. Richard C. Green, Music in Art, Vol. 37, No. 1/2, The Courts in Europe: Music Iconography and Princely Power (Spring—Fall 2012), pp. 275-290. Published by: Research Center for Music Iconography, The Graduate Center, City University of New York.
4. Henry Adams, Margaret C. Conrads and Annegret Hoberg, Albert Bloch: The Invisible Blue Rider, pp. 36. Prestel-Verlag, Munich & New York, 1997.
5. Frank Baron and Jon Blumb. Albert Bloch and the Blue Rider: The Munich Years. Jayhawk Ink, University of Kansas, 2014.
6. ibid