Ahrens (von Ahrens), Carl Henry (baptized Carl Heinrich, he also appears as Charles Henry in church records), artist; b. 15 Feb. 1862 in Winfield, Upper Canada, son of Herman Frederick Ahrens (von Ahrens) and Isabella Penelope Laird; great-grandson of Friedrich Gaukel*; m. first 25 Aug. 1886 Emily Marion Carroll (1861–1929) in Toronto, and they had two sons and a daughter; the marriage ended in separation; m. secondly 10 Oct. 1906 in a civil ceremony in San Francisco, and again on 14 Feb. 1907 in a religious rite there or in Corte Madera, Calif., Martha Elizabeth Niles (1882–1976), and they had one son and three daughters, of whom the eldest girl died in infancy; d. 27 Feb. 1936 in Toronto and was buried in Park Lawn Cemetery, Etobicoke Township (Toronto).
Carl Ahrens’s childhood was an unconventional one. Born into a family that embraced the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg, he was raised mostly by his father in Berlin (Kitchener, Ont.) after his parents separated. As a boy, he contracted tuberculosis. The disease settled in his hip and permanently affected his mobility; it also condemned him to a lifetime of chronic, debilitating pain. Young Carl’s frailty did not alter his rambunctious nature, and he became known in the community as a prankster. He left school at 16 and a year later moved to Winnipeg to work in a law firm. The sedate pace ill suited him, and he struck out for adventure in what is now northern Alberta and then in the American west. In years to come, he would immortalize his western experiences in his art.
After he returned to Berlin in 1881, Ahrens dabbled in several professions – one as a dyer in a button factory run by an uncle. His second wife would later comment that the job had taught him the fundamentals of colour. He was then apprenticed to another uncle as a dentist. Lacking the formal qualifications to pursue this profession in Ontario, he left to practise in Nebraska. On an extended visit home in 1886, he met and married Emily Carroll of Toronto, who shared his Swedenborgian beliefs, and he returned with her to the United States. He subsequently became interested in art. With Emily and their infant son, he moved to Toronto late in 1887 and rented a small atelier. A gregarious soul, he opened his studio to fellow artists, such as Lucius Richard O’Brien* and Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith*. Learning from these experienced painters, he honed his emerging talent and technique. Actors and writers also found their way to his home. They included Mohawk poet and recitalist Emily Pauline Johnson*. The Toronto Daily Star would later give this description of him as a young man: “He had a great shock of black hair, penetrating dark eyes and an unusual candor of speech. He had humor and he had a quick indignation. He was, therefore, excellent company. And he had industry as well as talent.”
Ahrens’s early paintings, in watercolour and oil, feature a variety of subjects: First Nations tepees, harvest scenes, waterscapes, and expansive landscapes. They reveal the influence of European Romanticism, with pastel skies and moody, mysterious dusks. For one with no formal training, Ahrens showed great promise, and he drew notice when he presented his work. In 1889 he exhibited with the Ontario Society of Artists, of which he became a member the following year. Two years later he was elected an associate member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
His first formal instruction came in 1892, when he travelled to New York City to study with William Merritt Chase, a member of the Hudson River School, and sculptor Frank Edwin Elwell. Ahrens’s paintings from this period attest to the effect Chase’s Impressionism had on him. He also made the acquaintance of landscapist George Inness, a fellow Swedenborgian who became his mentor. Inness admired Ahrens’s work but felt that conventional training was obscuring his raw talent. He persuaded him to go back to Canada and paint using his own inherent gifts. Ahrens followed his advice. He returned to Toronto in 1896, resigned from the professional artists’ associations to which he belonged, and went on to develop a style that a writer for Brush and Pencil would later describe as “an amalgam absolutely his own.” During this period he began working for magazines, including Saturday Night, to which he provided illustrations for a number of items, including his own article “Song of the rapids” in 1894 and Pauline Johnson’s short story “As it was in the beginning” in 1899.
He continued to experience wanderlust. From 1896 he and his family lived off and on in the United States. In 1900, when they were residing in Lambton Mills (Toronto), they moved to East Aurora, N.Y. Ahrens had been invited by businessman Elbert Green Hubbard to join the Roycroft artisans’ community as a potter, a craft he had learned from family members, pottery being a thriving trade in the Waterloo County of his youth. Little evidence of his ceramic work there has been uncovered, however. Ahrens’s Roycroft sojourn would be brief, partly because he clashed with Hubbard over artistic standards. He had also fallen in love, in his late thirties, with teenage artist and singer Martha Niles, whom he called Madonna. Their affair caused great scandal. At some point Madonna left Roycroft for New York, and in 1905, when he felt his sons were old enough to help support their mother, Carl abandoned his family and joined her there.
Jobs were few for artists with no stable clientele. Ahrens’s prospects improved when he was commissioned by author George Wharton James to paint old Spanish missions in California. He and Madonna travelled by covered wagon to these outposts. In her memoirs of her husband, Madonna recalls Carl’s mood at the time: “This, to him, was not work.… That he was earning barely enough for our frugal way of life never crossed his mind.” The couple married in 1906, one month before their first child was born. That year, according to Frederick Sproston Challener*, Emily Ahrens visited Toronto and told Challener and others that she was not pursuing her husband for bigamy because she was “glad to be rid of him.” Whether the accusation of bigamy was justified is not clear since Challener did not record the exact date of her visit. He may indeed have been wrong about the year since he also recorded that Carl arrived back in Canada in 1906. In fact, Carl returned in 1907. It would have been risky for him to do so without having regularized his marital situation, but no divorce papers have yet been found.
Carl, with his new wife and son, settled in the village of Meadowvale (Mississauga) before moving to Toronto in 1908. Carl’s health was poor and he was creating little. A second mentor, the barrister and militia officer Malcolm Smith Mercer*, came to his aid. Mercer offered to purchase all of Ahrens’s paintings over the next three years. Freed from financial restraints, Ahrens was highly productive. Most art historians consider the Mercer Collection of 31 canvases to be technically the artist’s strongest work. The pictures were shown at the Toronto Public Reference Library in 1911 and met with good reviews. Offers of up to $100,000 were made by Europeans to buy them, but Mercer refused to sell. Instead, he accepted an invitation to exhibit the collection in Belgium. This marked the first time any Canadian artist had been asked by a European government to mount a show. The start of the First World War intervened, however, and the exhibit never took place.
The wartime death of Mercer brought an end to Ahrens’s financial good fortune. In 1920 he moved his family to Woodstock, N.Y., where he continued to paint and taught landscape technique in the artists’ colony there; the following year they settled in a similar community at Rockport, Mass. By 1922 he was again in ill health. The couple and their children returned to Toronto, penniless. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King*, whose father Ahrens had known in Berlin years before, pushed to have some of the artist’s paintings purchased by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). Reporting in his diary a conversation with Ahrens about two particular works, King noted: “He had been holding them trusting the nation w[oul]d buy them. I have made up my mind we will.” But Ahrens’s vocal criticisms of the Canadian art scene had incurred the wrath of many, including Sir Byron Edmund Walker*, chairman of the NGC’s board of trustees. In 1916 Ahrens had publicly criticized recent works by some of his contemporaries, claiming that they showed “an absolute lack of the knowledge of drawing, color, and design.” No one was in any doubt that he was referring to the paintings of James Edward Hervey MacDonald and other future members of the Group of Seven. Time had not tempered Walker’s anger towards Ahrens. Only King’s threat to fire Walker, and his appointment of three new trustees to overcome opposition on the board, resulted in Ahrens’s oil The road (1922) being purchased in 1923, for $1,500. It remains his sole work at the NGC.
Ahrens’s windfall allowed him to acquire an old farmhouse outside Galt (Cambridge). He called it Big Trees. The wooded landscape surrounding the residence provided the inspiration for many of the works that are his most pleasing in terms of colour. Executed confidently in a rainbow of hues, the paintings earned him the moniker Artist of Trees. He was, his friend the critic Hector Willoughby Charlesworth* said, “a poet with the brush if ever there was one.” The exceptional oil Woodland ford, completed in 1928, represents Ahrens at his finest – bold and free of constraints. The painting was exhibited at the Canadian National Exhibition that year. At Big Trees he also took up printmaking, using a press fashioned from an old mangle and dental tools, and he taught students, including Grant Kenneth Macdonald*.
After two successful exhibitions, in 1933 and 1935, Ahrens and his wife left for England in the hope of selling his work there, but Carl had a series of strokes and they returned home. Poverty and illness dominated his final years. When Madonna could no longer care for him, she wrote to King for assistance. The prime minister appealed to Dr James Albert Faulkner, Ontario’s minister of health. “I … told him of Carl Ahrens’ condition,” he recorded in his diary in November 1935. “I said I hoped it might be possible to get him into one of the provincial institutions.” Since Ahrens had suffered some mental disturbance as well, he was admitted to the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital. He died there, aged 74, on 27 Feb. 1936.
Ahrens’s descendants believe that their relative has been overlooked by the Canadian art establishment. His impulsiveness and tendency to speak before thinking – especially his attack on MacDonald and his associates – dogged him throughout his life. He was viewed as an outsider, an assessment that has continued and affected his collectability. In the early 21st century Carl Ahrens’s work remains underappreciated.
A list of public collections holding Carl Henry Ahrens’s work, as well as much additional information about his life and art, may be found at the website of Kim Bullock of Dallas, Tex., a great-granddaughter of the artist, at “Carl Ahrens: painter of trees”: carlahrens.com (consulted 27 Jan. 2022). Ahrens’s article for Saturday Night appears in the issue of 6 Oct. 1894: 7, and E. P. Johnson’s story in the Christmas no. for 1899: 15–18.
Art Gallery of Ont., E. P. Taylor Research Library and Arch. (Toronto), Frederick S. Challener coll., Carl H. Ahrens file. LAC, “Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King,” 20 Oct., 10 Nov. 1922; 14 Nov. 1935: www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/politics-government/prime-ministers/william-lyon-mackenzie-king/Pages/diaries-william-lyon-mackenzie-king.aspx (consulted 5 Sept. 2018); MG26-J1, vol.213, pp.183429–31 (Madonna Ahrens to W. L. M. King, 22 Oct. 1935). Toronto Daily Star, 16 March 1916: 1; 29 Feb. 1936: 6, 22. Kim Bullock, “Rediscovering Carl Ahrens: the painter,” Waterloo Hist. Soc., Annual report (Kitchener, Ont.), 94 (2006): 58–89. National Gallery of Can., Canadian art, ed. C. C. Hill et al. (2v., Ottawa, 1988–94), 1. [M. E. [Niles] Ahrens], “Carl Ahrens: his life and work by his wife” (typescript, n.p., n.d.; copy in the TRL). Edwina Spencer, “Carl Ahrens and his work,” Brush and Pencil (Chicago and New York), 14 (April–December 1904): 16–23. J. C. Watson, Carl Ahrens as printmaker: a catalogue raisonné (exhibition catalogue, Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, [Kitchener], 1984).