Cincinnati Art Club & Wessel Gallery, 1021 Parkside Place, Cincinnati, OH 45202 513‑241‑4591

History - Early Years

Early Years of the Cincinnati Art Club

In the second half of the 19th century, there was rising flux of activity in the Cincinnati area to create Institutions of culture containing the performing and visual arts.

  • 1869 The McMicken School of Art (later renamed the Cincinnati Art Academy)
  • 1887 The Cincinnati Art Museum
  • 1895 Cincinnati Symphony with first regular concerts

The city was truly the Art Center of the West. To emphasize this is a quote from William Gerdts, “Of all the states between the East and West coasts, it was Ohio that developed the greatest and most continuous artistic tradition. Even though Chicago had become the artistic center of the American heartland by the end of the nineteenth century, Ohio's achievements had greater longevity, and the work of Ohio artists had, on the whole, a greater national impact. No Chicago painter of the period made a national impression equal to those of Cincinnati's Frank Duveneck, John Twachtman, or Kenyon Cox.” 1

duveneck photo twachtman photo kenyon-cox photo
Notable Cincinnati painters, from left: Frank Duveneck, John Twachtman and Kenyon Cox

Although Cincinnati was the most artistically enlightened city in the Midwest starting in the early 1800s, there was a reluctance to accept the use of female figure models in art classes as late as the 1880s.

This situation led a local group of artists to set up their own sketch group in 1885 which met in John Rettig’s studio. They advertised in the Enquirer for a model to pose for their group. The story goes that one woman was interviewed for the role as model. She asked for $50 for this service but soon compromised to pose for three hours for $2.50 wearing trunks and a mask.

In 1890, a few of the members of this group, Joseph DeCamp, Kenyon Cox and Will Baer, left Cincinnati for greener pastures in Boston and New York where they later gained national recognition.

It was in the Spring of 1890 that 13 members of this sketch group decided to establish the Cincinnati Art Club. In order to eliminate a jinx, they designated a pet dog as the 14th member. John Rettig was designated as the first President of this Art Club. The Charter Members included Clarence A. Bartlett, Edward S. Butler, Matt A. Daly, Albert O. Elzner, Edward Johnson, Remington Lane and Louis C. Lutz.

Initially these professional artists referred to themselves as Regular Members but soon changed the term to Active Members. The concept of an Art Club in the community was an immediate success. The 1891-92 roster listed 35 Active Members and 36 Associate Members.

Some of the more notable new Active Members were Henry Farny, Frank Duveneck, John Hauser, C. T. Webber, Thomas Noble, Vincent Nowottny and Clement Barnhorn.

A number of the Associate Members were professionals in other fields such as Business, Law, Education and Medicine and were interested in associating with artists, i.e., C. P. Taft, A. B. Closson, Dr. John Cilley, Hon. M. F. Wilson, Col. James Pettibone and Prof. J. A. Broekhoven.


John Rettig and Frank Duveneck were a unique blend of talents for this fledgling art club. Rettig offered an open Bohemian approach of glorifying all forms of artistic expression while Duveneck was the linchpin for the prestige of fine art expression.

This blend turned out to be very enticing not only to most of the professional artists in the community but also to a number of the members of society at that time. They wanted to be a part of it, and many of them joined the Cincinnati Art Club for that purpose. They liked art but also liked the fun that could be had with the activities of the Art Club.


The earliest meetings were held at Hager’s Cafe, then at Walnut and 9th Streets, where the sketch group was accustomed to stopping by after their sessions.


The earliest activity at Club meetings was for the members to bring in illustrations for critiques on subjects agreed to at previous meetings.


Not only did the Cincinnati Art Club have numerous notable artists from it’s earliest years, it had a drive to impress the community of it’s significance in the art world. The first annual exhibition of members' work took place in 1891. It was held at Barton's Gallery on Race Street, similar exhibitions have been held each year ever since at different locations, and these were interlaced with tombolas, auctions, thumb box and calendar sales and other art sale events.

historic photo historic photo
The Crusader Dinner (above) and Spanish-American War Party exemplify the socially extravagant dinner parties that were in vogue at the Art Club during the Gilded Age.

In August of 1892, they had new quarters at 128 E. 4th Street that were spacious enough to accommodate ambitious costume affairs which were covered in the local press each year. Some of those events were the Norse Dinner, The Garter Run, New Amsterdam, Parody on the Cuban War, The Unveiling of Isis, A Night in Granada, the Japanese Festival and the Crusader Dinner, etc. The term 'Blow Outs' for fantastic costume banquets was coined by John Rettig who was the Art Club’s first President and a man of great notoriety not only in Cincinnati but also in the country at that time. These affairs were terminated about 1905 due not only to eviction from the 4th Street meeting site but because of the great labor and expense involved.


In April, 1915 the Art Club celebrated it’s 25th anniversary. A banquet was held at the Gibson Hotel where over one hundred and fifty club members and community leaders were in attendance. The speakers included: The Mayor of Cincinnati, Frederick Spiegel, Charles P. Taft, Nicholas Longworth as well as the Art Club President Paul Eschenbach, Henry Farny and John Rettig, called the Father of the Art Club. The Art Club has a large photograph of this banquet.


After moving from one location to another, the Art Club purchased it’s own building at 527 East Third Street in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, this location was not initially set up for a Sketch Group class.


When Carl Zimmerman became President of the Art Club in 1935, he noted that the Club was one mostly of ‘old men'. He realized that for any organization to exist it must have young men to perpetuate that association.

Carl formulated a very constructive plan to get young artist in their twenties. This was during the worst years of the great depression of the 1930s. To overcome this situation, Carl dropped the first year dues. This was approved and the Club acquired much needed new members, especially new young energetic blood into its membership. Some of the young men taken in at this time were: Lou Kabrin, Norman H. Doane, Ken Ozier, Milton R. Kinder, Carlos Marletto, and Carl Sand. Others included Wilber Wright, Nelson Maxey Donald Schueman, Gustave Nepper, John Smith and George Roth.

Carl's 'twenty year olds' almost immediatley got themselves into the spirt of the Art Club and its activities. They asked and were given permission to reincarnate the Duveneck Sketch Group. This action was very well received by the older members because the Duveneck Sketch Group had been dormant for too many years. By this time, Norman H. Doane had emerged as the leader of this young group.

Plans for a new studio with a larger skylight, canvas racks, built in cupboards for sketch group members' personal property and sketching benches, wash basin and steam heat was drawn by Norman Doane.

Carl Zimmerman gave them all the encouragement that any group would wish for. Each active member donated one or more of their better paintings to be auction with all proceeds going to the Studio Fund. Frank Duveneck's son donated one of his father's portrait paintings.

The members' paintings were auctioned in the Edward Building on Walnut Street, between Fifth and Sixth Streets, in May 1937. It was a great success realizing $2,321.50.

At a special Board meeting on June 19, 1937, bids were opened for the new studio. The bid accepted was for seven hundred and fifty dollars. The auction was so successful and the bids for the depression years was so low that the Board of Management decided to return to the participating artists 50% Of the auction price of their paintings.

1 Gerdts, William. Art Across America - The South and The Midwest. New York City: Abbeville Press, 1990. 179. Print.