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Elbert Hubbard: An American Original - WNED | PBS

Early Artisans

Carl Ahrens

Carl Ahrens Carl Ahrens
Courtesy of the Roycroft Arts Museum

Carl Ahrens (Canadian, 1862-1936)

Born: Winfield, Ontario
Died: Toronto, Ontario

One of Canada's most distinguished landscape painters, Carl Ahrens was a gifted and versatile artist, a writer and a teacher who is probably best known for his woodland impressions.

Ahrens took up painting in 1886 when he was 24 years old. He moved to Toronto and opened a studio and within three years earned acclaim as an up-and-coming artist. His first exhibition was mounted with the Ontario Society of Artists. Two years later, he was elected Associate Painter in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He eventually went to New York City to study painting, but at the urging of his friend and mentor George Inness, Ahrens stopped taking classes and returned to Toronto to focus his attention on painting landscapes.

Ahrens met Elbert Hubbard at a lecture in Toronto. Hubbard, who must have learned from Ahrens about his family's heritage in pottery, invited the young artist to East Aurora to start up a line of Roycroft ceramics. In May, 1900, Ahrens, along with his wife, their three children, and his cousin moved to East Aurora. With the help of the fellow Roycrofter Jerome Connor, a young sculptor who hailed from Ireland, Ahrens and his cousin Eleanor Douglass opened the Roycroft pottery shop.

Carl Ahrens - Eight OClock Eight O'Clock
Courtesy of Meibohm Fine Arts, Inc.
East Aurora, New York

Like a number of artists, Ahrens may have become frustrated or disillusioned. He was a true craftsman who needed time to produce works of quality. Hubbard was a businessman who simply needed goods to sell. Even with the help of his two sons in the pottery shop, Ahrens was not able to satisfy both his need for artistic integrity and Hubbard's demand for sellable wares.

Ahrens' experience at Roycroft still proved pivotal. Not only was he able to collaborate with artists such as Jerome Connor and other Roycrofters, he also met and fell in love with Martha Niles, a young artist and singer who illuminated books for the bookshop. He was 38, and she was 16, but in the bohemian environment of the Roycroft community, their friendship was allowed to develop. The East Aurora milieu also afforded Ahrens the opportunity to develop his technique as a landscape painter.

Arguably, Roycroft allowed Ahrens to discover himself.

When a rift developed between Ahrens and Hubbard over money and ownership of Ahrens' paintings, both threatened lawsuits, but they eventually settled the dispute out of court, and Ahrens decided to pursue his artistic ambitions elsewhere.

In the following decades, Ahrens lived and worked in Woodstock, New York and Rockport, Massachusetts before returning to Canada in 1922. Although a tubercular hip Ahrens had had since childhood left him confined in his late years, he continued to paint until the end. Ahrens died on February 27, 1936 at the age of 74.

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