Drawing on the history of native’s artistic fame
By SKEETER TOWER
George William Eggers, artist, museum director and art educator was an extraordinary man, one we dare not allow to slip away into local obscurity. He was one of Dunkirk’s bright and accomplished native sons.
As a youngster, he was so motivated and so driven to pursue his passion in art that he rode his bicycle from Dunkirk to the Chautauqua Institution for advanced art lessons. His relentless doodles and sketches as a young boy in the past century served to hone his skills as he sat by the Dunkirk fishing shacks, paying attention to details in the natural landscape, and recording landmarks no longer present.
George William Eggers was born in Dunkirk in 1883, the eldest child of George and Josephine Eggers. His father, George A.H. Eggers had come to this country from Bremen, Germany when he was only two. His mother, Josephine (Smith) Eggers, had been raised in Sheridan. His three younger siblings were Josephine, Frances and Dorothea.
In his father’s photography studio, located first in their home at 438 Swan St., and later next door at 436 Swan St; George W. found encouragement to pursue his talents and opportunity to apply them with the crayon artistry, an innovative technique to color and fade out the photographic images being practiced by his father George A. H. Eggers.
The Dunkirk Herald special edition of Feb.1, 1905 describes George A. H. Eggers as “the leading artist photographer of Dunkirk, who has been established at the present quarters, corner of Swan and Fifth for 15 years.”
George W. modeled for his father’s created advertisements for the Eggers studio, documenting the good humor and close relationships within this first generation German-American family. This experience may well have led to his later facility in theater costume design, an interest noted by the Burchfield Penney registrar, Mary Helen Miskuly. George also never forgot the inspiration of his Dunkirk high school teacher, Maude Andrews, who introduced him to a classical education, the love of learning and travel, and admiration for the teaching profession.
George W. studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and was fortunate to study lithography with master printer Bolton Brown. In 1906 he took his first job as head of the graphic arts department at the Chicago Normal College. He prepared students to teach art. His commitment to art education in the schools was strong. In a paper presented in 1908 to the National Education Association in Cleveland, Ohio he predicted a student with access to art education would “go into far subtler discriminations, harkening to those whispered preferences with his own naturemaking himself sensitive to finenesses in things beyond the mere adequacy of them.”
Eggers became a popular lecturer and a juror of museum exhibitions all over the country. By 1916 he had become the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“His appetite for art, scholarship, and travel; his genuine versatility with brush and pen, and his innate aptitude for commanding the ardent attention of all with whom he associated were soon to open to him positions of great trust and challenging magnitude” wrote Albert d’Andrea, chairman of the Dept of Art at City College of New York in a tribute to his professor.
Eggers went on to direct the Denver Art Museum during its critical formative stage, served as art editor of the Rocky Mountain News and Webster’s Dictionary, moved east to direct the Worchester Art Museum in Massachusetts, and wrote a biography of George Bellows, American artist.
In 1930 he prepared a Comprehensive Exhibition of American Art for Sweden, the first exhibit of the development of American art ever to be sent abroad. Among the American collection were over 100 artists whose works were gathered from the most prestigious museums and private collectors. Included were a group of “Santos”, primitive religious paintings from New Mexico, and paintings by Pueblo Indian artists. For this accomplishment the government of Sweden decorated him with the Order of the North Star, an award comparable to our congressional medal of honor.
During these years Eggers’ drawings, lithographs and water colors were on exhibit in significant locations all over the country and he is represented in permanent collections in the Rhode Island School of Design, the Los Angeles Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, New York Public Library, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Burchfield-Penney Center for Art in Buffalo. Eggers was awarded the Logan Prize from the International Watercolor Exhibition in Chicago. In 1930 he also assumed the duties of professor of art and chairman of the Art Department at City College New York where he remained until his retirement in 1948.
Continuing his tribute d’Andrea concludes that “There are those among his former students and faculty colleagues who can truly say that knowing Professor Eggers was both a milestone and turning point in their careers. He cherished their unbounded loyalty, forged out of the substance and spirit with which he enriched their lives, as they in turn, will ever cherish his memory.”
The George Eggers archive numbers over 1000 items, including two hundred drawings and lithographs, selected notebooks, sketch books and publications by the artist. It was deposited with the Burchfield Penny by Bernard Karpel, a former student and associate of Eggers. Karpel was editor of the Bicentennial Bibliography of American Art, Archives of American Art-Smithsonian Institution and former chief librarian at the Museum of Modern Art.. After the death of Eggers in 1958, his widow, Cornelia Dorothy (Bingham) Eggers counted on Karpel, to organize and classify the collection. Karpel chose the Burchfield Penny Museum for preservation and research.
Dr Edna Lindermann, director of the Burchfield at the time, said that acquisition of the collection was notable for several reasons. “First the intrinsic worth of the work of a sensitive draftsman, excellent technician and artist-teacher; second, the organization of the resource material for teachers and students is innovative and functional and finally the Eggers archive parallels in time that of Charles Burchfield, artist and naturalist, and thereby enriches the documentation of the first half of the 20th century.”
Michael (grandson of George W.) and Katie Smith of Lakewood have recently presented the Dunkirk Historical Society with a substantial remainder of the collection which had remained in family hands. This is an enormous and valuable gift to the city of Egger’s origin. A separate ceremony and dedication of this collection will be celebrated within the year by the Dunkirk Historical Society after it is inventoried and appraised, reports Director Diane Andrasik.
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