Charles J. Rohrbach (Swiss-American, 1892-1967) noted Western New York painter, graphic commercial artist and illustrator primarily known for his paintings in oil and watercolor of landscapes, cityscapes, harborviews, floral still lifes, charcoal drawings and wood carving.
Rohrbach was born January 9, 1892 near Berne, Switzerland to Ulrich Rohrbach and Elizabeth Bucher in the midst of Switzerland’s most picturesque scenery. His early education was in Berne where he became steeped in old world culture. He had a thorough knowledge of European history, and the English, French, and German languages as well as their respective classic literature, such as Goethe and Schiller. With a youthful desire to see the world, Charles emigrated from Switzerland at the age of 18. He first went to England, and two years later embarked for Canada before moving to the United States in 1915.
Rohrbach studied art for a brief time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia under Prof. McArthur, before arriving in Buffalo in 1916. He worked for two years as a draftsman for the Acme Steel Company, and furthered his commercial art studies during that time through correspondence courses at the Federal School of Commercial Designing, Minneapolis, MN (founded in 1914 and precursor to the Art Instruction School). “The Federal’s Schools claimed over 3,000 home study students annually enrolled and offered "a well-rounded, practical preparation for a profession”. The Federal correspondence method ensured students a place in that lucrative world through "the conscientious individual attention of the Federal faculty” which included teachers in advertising, fashion and animal illustration, booklet and catalog construction, general commercial art and posters.”
In 1918, Rohrbach was hired by the Larkin Company to work as a commercial artist (AKA Larkin Soap Company). For the next eight years, he worked as an assistant to his friend and mentor, Alexander Oscar Levy (German-American, 1881-1947) who was Art Director for the Larkin Company at that time. In 1925, Rohrbach succeeded Levy as Art Director, who soon left Larkin and had worked out of his own studio at 41 Berkeley Place for the next few years, where he supplied work for many of the largest national advertisers and national ad agencies, while also exhibiting. In October of 1928, Levy accepted the position of Art Director for the Addison Vars, Inc., advertising agency, Buffalo, NY. “Mr. Levi’s friendship and unfailing interest proved of the greatest value in my work, for he showed me many of the shortcuts to improvement in drawing and painting.”
Charles married Josephine (née Eichorn, 1895-1985) on September 4, 1919. They permanently settled in East Aurora, NY, at 432 Linden Avenue where they had resided since 1923 with their two sons, Carl (1920-2000) and William Robert Rohrbach (1921-2006). For two months in the summer of 1929, Charles and his family traveled to his homeland of Switzerland and toured the Klausen Pass in the Alps, visiting some of the most beautiful and historic scenes including the first three cantons (member states) to form the Swiss Confederation and the William Tell country. He made several sketches of the Lake Lucerne region which he intended to transfer onto canvas that following winter.
Rohrbach filled the post as Art Director for the Larkin Soap Co. until 1943 and over the course of his long association with them, his homey designs utilized unique perspectives and bold stylized imagery. They were featured on numerous covers of the company’s corporate publications and mail-order catalogs including designs for, “The Larkin Idea” and “Cozy Home Club” catalogs. By the end of the 1930’s, sharp declines in sales as well as, “…internal struggles among the next generation of Larkin executives and the loss of key executives, precipitated the demise of the company”. The Larkin Co. was ultimately forced to sell in 1941 and liquidated the following year in 1942—though the new owners continued a mail-order business until 1962.
After his departure from Larkin Co., Charles worked for The Courier-Express Newspaper’s rotogravure department and three years later accepted the art directorship of The Roizen Advertising Agency where he worked for the next four years. In 1950, he began a 16 year association with the Addison F. Busch, Inc. advertising agency, while also working as a freelance artist for various agencies until his retirement in June 1966.
From the beginning of his career in art, Rohrbach immersed himself in the local art community. He was a member of the Saturday Sketch Club in Spring Brook, NY and the ‘revived’ Paint and Varnish Club of East Aurora, NY which later became the East Aurora Artists’ Club, and finally the East Aurora Art Society. He was also a member of and exhibited with The Arts Club of Buffalo, the Guild of Allied Artists, the Buffalo Chapter of the Society for Sanity in Art and the Buffalo Society of Artists, where he won several awards including the Fellowship Prize (1936) and two Gold Medals (1946 & 1949). Rohrbach exhibited regularly in his hometown of East Aurora, NY as well as in Rochester, Auburn and Binghamton, NY, Chicago, IL and Ogunquit, ME. Notable posthumous exhibitions included: “The Wayward Muse”, Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY (1987), “The Larkin Way, a Retrospective Exhibit”, The Amherst Museum (now Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village), Amherst, NY (1991), and several Meibohm Fine Arts exhibitions including, “Charles Rohrbach: The Larkin Idea”, East Aurora, NY (1999) and the Special Winter Feature, “Charles Rohrbach: Larkin Illustration” (2013). Additional membership included The Greater Buffalo Advertising Club. Being involved in the various local art clubs and groups improved Rohrbach’s skill as an artist and he credited his fellow artists with by stating, “The association with artists has been most helpful to me in my work, for the artist’s critical eye detects faults that the average spectator overlooks.”
Rohrbach continued his passion for painting after retiring but within a few months, in October of that year, he suffered a stroke. He was later able to return home in June after lengthy rehabilitation at Sacred Heart Home in Clarence, NY, but in early December, he suffered his second stroke. Charles passed away a week later on December 16, 1967, and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in East Aurora, NY. Charles’ grandson Rob Rohrbach currently occupies the family home in East Aurora and continues to advocate for the preservation of his grandfather’s legacy with a website devoted to his artwork and life at charlesrohrbach.com.
Exhibited: The Arts Club of Buffalo, NY (1917, 1918, 1925 & 1926); The Buffalo Society of Artists, Buffalo, NY (1927 Prize, 1930 Honorable Mention, 1934 Prize, 1936 Fellowship Prize, 1946 Gold Medal, 1949 Gold Medal); Society for Sanity in Art, Buffalo, NY (1937-38, 1943); “The Wayward Muse”, Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY, 1987; “The Larkin Way, a Retrospective Exhibit”, The Amherst Museum (now Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village), Amherst, NY, 1991; Several Meibohm Fine Arts exhibitions including, “Charles Rohrbach: The Larkin Idea”, East Aurora, NY, 1999 and the Special Winter Feature, “Charles Rohrbach: Larkin Illustration”, 2013; as well as others in East Aurora, NY, Rochester, NY, Auburn, NY, Binghamton, NY, Chicago, IL and Ogunquit, ME.
Memberships/Associations: One of the original members of the Paint and Varnish Club, East Aurora, NY (which later became the East Aurora Artists’ Club and finally known as the East Aurora Art Society); The Buffalo Society of Artists, Buffalo, NY (1925-44); Saturday Sketch Club, Spring Brook, NY; Guild of Allied Artists, Buffalo, NY; Arts Club of Buffalo, Buffalo, NY; Buffalo Chapter of the Society for Sanity in Art, Buffalo, NY; The Greater Buffalo Advertising Club, Buffalo, NY.
Awards/Honors/Citations: The Buffalo Society of Artists, Buffalo, NY (1927 Prize, 1930 Honorable Mention, 1934 Prize, 1936 Fellowship Prize, 1946 Gold Medal, 1949 Gold Medal) in addition to other prizes and citations, Buffalo, NY.
Collections: Burchfield-Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY; Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, NY; WBEN-TV Reception Room, Buffalo, NY.
Other Works/Publications: Cover illustration for the Buffalo Courier-Express Pictorial Magazine, Buffalo, NY; and illustrations for the textbooks of the New York State Education Department, Bureau of Vocational Training.
For additional information on this artist or for other examples of his works, please visit the AskArt link.
(Written by Mark Strong of Meibohm Fine Arts, Inc., meibohmfinearts.com, East Aurora, NY, from sources: Too long to list here and are furnished upon request.)