Charles Reiffel (American, 1862-1942) internationally known landscape painter and lithographer. Charles Reiffel was born on April 9, 1862 in Indianapolis, IN to Georg Jacob Reiffel (1836-1903) and Nancy “Ellen” (née Marshall) Reiffel (1840-1928). He had a younger brother William “Willy” E. Reiffel (1864-1945), also an artist and printer/pressman. Reiffel’s father had immigrated to the United States from Bavaria in the late 1840’s and his mother was from an established Virginia family. His father, a butcher by trade owned several meat-packing stores around the city with Charles’s uncles, Charles and Louis Reiffel.
Charles Reiffel’s early education was in the public schools in Indianapolis, IA and also Kansas City, MO where he spent his early adulthood. At the age of sixteen, Reiffel was employed as a clerk at the Jacob Mitchell & Co. clothing, wholesale and retail store located at 2 Bates House, W. Washington St. There he first expressed his artistic ability by making ornamental designs for envelopes or drawings on wrapping paper. By 1881, he was listed in the Indianapolis City Directory as a crayon, worker with his line drawings eventually making their way to stone. This began his early career in lithography. It was stated in newspaper articles from the 1880’s that his parents turbulent marriage ended in divorce with Ellen moving to New York City with their two sons.
In 1885, Reiffel moved back to Indianapolis and worked as a designer residing at 117 N. East Street. In 1888 he moved to Cincinnati, OH, where he was listed in the city directory as a lithographer, working for the Strobridge Lithographing Company making theatrical posters, playbills and other commercial designs. He briefly visited Cleveland, OH, where he met the well known watercolor artist Henry George Keller (American, 1869-1949). While working for commercial lithographic businesses in New York, he met San Diego painter, Charles Arthur Fries (American, 1854-1940).
Reiffel traveled to Europe with his mother Ellen on November 24, 1891 aboard the steamship “Lahn”. He spent two years working in England as a journeyman printer for the prominent lithographic printing company Stafford & Company Ltd., where he worked on poster designs for English businessmen. While there, he was able to take an extended nine-month trip around Europe visiting numerous museums as well as Spain, Italy, Morocco and North Africa, where he made hundreds of pencil, watercolor and oil sketches. As an artist, he was almost entirely self-taught with the exception of studying portrait painting briefly with Carl von Marr at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany which was his only formal training.
Reiffel returned to the United States in 1895 and exhibited with the American Watercolor Society’s show at the National Academy of Design in February with a ‘Moorish’ sketch (No. 237). He moved to Buffalo, NY where he became a member and served as vice-president of the Buffalo Lithographic Artists and Engravers’ Association from1895-1896, a local branch of the international organization, and also as a delegate to the United States Trades and Labor Council. While employed with the Courier Litho. Co. in Buffalo he developed his artistic style, taking more of a modernist approach to his paintings. He also became a member of the Buffalo Society of Artists (BSA) where he was encouraged to submit some of his sketches produced abroad to their annual exhibition in 1896 held at the Albright Art Gallery. Three watercolors that were exhibited included, “Moorish Blacksmith” (reproduced in the Buffalo Courier), “Dull Times” and “Market Place, Tangier”.
In 1897, Reiffel traveled again to Europe and visited Italy, sending back works to be exhibited with the BSA at the Albright Gallery that same year. By 1898, he returned stateside to work as an artist in Cincinnati, OH, residing at 333 E. 4th Street. Around this time he married Elizabeth Frances (née Flannagan/Flanagan, 1875-1944) who was born in Ireland, the couple had no children. Around 1899, they moved to Buffalo, NY and resided at 11 Whitney Place. That same year Reiffel exhibited at the Fifth Annual Spring Exhibition of the Cincinnati Art Museum with scenes of Spain, England, Paris and Tangier. Around 1901, he and his wife traveled to England where he continued to work as a designer and lithographic artist for Stafford & Co. in Nottinghamshire for the next couple years, residing in Gedling, Nottinghamshire.
After learning of his father’s tragic death in 1903, Reiffel and his wife made their way back to Buffalo in 1904 where he again worked as a lithographer for the Courier Litho. Company. In January, 1908, he exhibited with the BSA his painting “After the Day’s Rain, Shottery, England” (No. 20). From March 11-18 of that year, he exhibited forty pictures in oil and black & white for one week at the Twentieth Century Club in Buffalo. Prior to the opening, six sketches he had completed while in Tangiers and Morocco were purchased by Dr. Charles M. Kurtz, director of the Albright Art Gallery. Dr. Kurtz was an enthusiastic admirer of Reiffel’s work, so the success and sale of his works motivated Reiffel to paint more regularly. Two months later in May, he again exhibited with the BSA with his first large oil landscape, “Misty Moonlight, Evening: Niagara River”, which won the BSA’s Fellowship Prize. By 1910, he was residing in Jersey City, NJ at 25 Boyd Avenue and exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting in Washington, DC. His second large oil painting, “Railway Yards–Winter Evening” (No. 196), was purchased by the Corcoran Gallery. This was the beginning of an impressive list of awards and honors bestowed upon the artist throughout his professional career and prompted prestigious invitations to major national museums as well as international venues.
In 1912, Charles Reiffel purchased a home in Silvermine, CT, and commuted to New York to continue in the lithography business. He exhibited in February 1914 at the Albright Art Gallery’s first “Local Salon”, seven canvases including his 1908 award winning painting “Misty Moonlight, Evening: Niagara River”. He exhibited that December at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which included his painting titled “Early Autumn”. After seeing some of his works on view in New York, Robert Henri, a most respected artist of his generation, invited Reiffel to exhibit at the Panama-Pacific Exposition of San Francisco in 1915. Henri had found something original and “modern” in his works - a freshness of vision of the American landscape. Critics had compared his work to prominent European and American artists such as Cezanne, Lawson, Twachtman and Whistler and he was often referred to as the “American van Gogh”. During his years in Silvermine, Reiffel painted locally in the artist colony informally known as “The Knockers Club” which later formally incorporated in 1924 as The Silvermine Guild of Artists, with Reiffel becoming the colony’s first president.
In September of 1916, he moved back to Jersey City, NJ, and the next year received the Norman Wait Harris Silver Medal at the Art Institute of Chicago which was the Institute’s first “modern” annual. Reiffel exhibited with The Society of Independent Artists in NYC, and earned honorable mentions with the Buffalo Society of Artists as well as the Connecticut Academy of Arts. The couple later maintained residences in Norwalk, CT, Fairfield, CT and also Wilton, CT. In addition to presenting regionally he taught painting and regularly sent works back to Buffalo for exhibitions, as well as various other cities including Boston, New York City, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit through the mid 1920’s.
Around 1921, he left lithography to paint full time and exhibited at venues in the early-mid 1920’s including: The Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts (1922); The Hill Galleries in NYC (1922) with three paintings “Broad River”, “Old Stone Bridge”, and “Cedar Mill”; The Ehrich Galleries in New York City (1923) with his spiral composition “Spring”; The Silvermine Guild of Artists (1923); and the North Shore Association of Gloucester, MA (1924). In 1925, after Reiffel and his wife had begun a one-year trip through Santa Fe, NM, a storm unexpectedly forced their train off route and they had to follow a more circuitous detour which led them through San Diego, CA. He and his wife were so enamored by the city that they decided to relocate there permanently.
Reiffel played an important role in San Diego’s developing art and cultural scene and began to establish himself in the community by joining multiple local art groups, including; The California Art Club, the San Diego Art Guild (Pres. 1928), the San Diego Press Club and in 1929 he co-founded the Contemporary Artists of San Diego with eight other painters and sculptors. That same year, he became a member of the San Diego Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees.
Other professional memberships and associations included: American Watercolor Society; The Society of Independent Artists; The Allied Artists of America; The American Federation of Arts; The Art Club of Washington, D.C.; The Chicago Galleries Association; The Cincinnati Art Club; The New Canaan Art Club, New Canaan, CT; The Connecticut Society of Artists; Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts; The Indiana Federation of Artists; Academy of Western Painters (Los Angeles); Internationale des Beaux Arts et des Lettres; The Laguna Beach Art Association; The New Canaan Art Club; The North Shore Art Association of Gloucester, MA; The Salmagundi Club; The Buffalo Lithographic Artists and Engravers Union (Vice President 1896); Artist and Illustrators’ Club of Buffalo, NY (Director 1906)
Reiffel’s paintings were exhibited extensively throughout the 1930’s. He was commissioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Project Administration to create art for the San Diego County Administration Center which was completed in 1938. “The success Reiffel had enjoyed in the East eluded him during his last fifteen years on the West Coast, even though he continued to win most of the important awards in major California and West Coast shows. It was here, it should be noted, that he produced the largest portion of his life’s work as a serious painter. The modernism and originality cited by writers which made him so noteworthy in Eastern art circles was apparently a drawback in the West. In conversation with many who knew him, his work was “too modern” and many of his colleagues helped support him by purchasing works out of friendship.”– (The Journal of San Diego History, “Success at Mid-Life”, Thomas L. Scharf, Editor, By Martin Peterson, Curator of Paintings, San Diego Museum of Art, Winter 1985, Vol. 31, No. 1.)
Reiffel passed away at the age of seventy-nine on March 14, 1942, one month before his eightieth birthday and is buried in Greenwood Memorial Park in San Diego, CA. “An exhibition intended as a celebration of his birthday became, instead, a memorial tribute.” His wife Elizabeth passed away two years later on January 19, 1944 and is also buried with her husband in Greenwood Memorial Park, San Diego, CA. The artist is sometimes listed as Charles P. Reiffel and also Charles C. Reiffel from old records, though there is no direct confirmation as to the artist’s middle name as his grave marker simply states Charles Reiffel.
Works by Charles Reiffel are included in collections at the Phoenix Municipal Collection, Phoenix, AZ; San Diego Museum of Art, CA; San Diego History Center, San Diego, CA; San Diego County Municipal Building, San Diego, CA; Russ Auditorium at San Diego High School, San Diego, CA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Los Angeles, CA; Santa Cruz, Art league, Santa Cruz, CA; Irvine Museum, Irvine, CA; Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, both in Washington DC; The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; and the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY.\
(Written & compiled by Mark Strong of Meibohm Fine Arts, East Aurora, NY, 14052, meibohmfinearts.com. Sources: Too long to list here and are furnished upon request.)