Observers note a growing esteem for Edgar Yaeger’s wit and art
“What a charming man!” freelance photographer Betty Carpenter confided to me while awkwardly adjusting her 35mm lens with numb fingers. I was frozen in a crouched position supporting the object of focus, a painting whose hues evoked memories of hot summer days. I desperately clutched the artwork with trembling arms, hoping to absorb some of its tremendous warmth, keenly aware of my responsibility as temporary guardian of a piece that once graced the halls of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Now it was decorating the corner of my front porch, and I was not about to let it fall into the pachysandra. Barely trusting my teeth to stop chattering, I heartily agreed with the photojournalist. “He’s very cute!” I gushed, alluding to the eighty-five year old artist who was safely sipping tea in my living room. “Yes, cute! That’s the word!” Betty Carpenter exclaimed above November’s gusts.
There are many ways to describe lifetime artist Edgar Louis Yaeger. He is a small, pleasant man with friendly eyes and a high-pitched voice. He laughs easily and often. An intelligent observer, he comments favorably on the colors and objects around him. As a writer, I should do better than “cute,” although I think it suits him. A close friend and founder of The Friends of Edgar Yaeger, John Joseph, Jr., depicted Yaeger as a humble man. “He’s not like any other artist I have ever met. Some can really be full of themselves and their work. Edgar is not like that.”
I asked Yaeger to tell me how he would like to be remembered as an artist. He chuckled. “Oh, I don’t know. That is for the people to see, because you never know about yourself.” I continued with a question I had heard Barbara Walters throw many famous celebrities: What three words best describe you as a person or an artist? Yaeger laughed again. “I can’t think of it,” was the simple reply.
I quickly learned that Yaeger disregards labels. He is often referred to as a “depression era” artist, a term attributed to artists whose works date just before, during, or after the great depression. The label surprises him. “It’s just a time period. I was painting long before then.”
In fact, Yaeger opposed the radical style of the social realists who focused on the desperate people in the depression. “I didn’t care for it. They (the social realists) said that my work would go out of date quick. The trouble was, they went out of date quicker!”
When asked to describe his philosophy as a painter, he smiles. “I keep changing every time! About every six months it changes. I try to make people feel better, anyway. One of my teachers in Ann Arbor, head of the school department – have you ever heard of Jean Paul Slusser? He said every time he brings home one of my still lifes, when he gets up in the morning, it makes him feel good!” Another chuckle indicates his delight with the effect on his friend. “He passes by the painting and it makes his day. He says the colors make him feel good.”
What Mr. Yaeger most enjoys discussing are his experiences as an artist. He was born August 26, 1904 as a fourth-generation Detroiter. He lived on a street that housed several international embassies and recalls watching dignitaries walk by his home. At the age of six, he began to draw. “My grandfather came from Switzerland, and he taught me how to carve soap for my grandmother. He taught me woodworking, metal casting and all sorts of things. I received scholarships for all my schooling since I was 12 years old.” He attended Eastern High School, the University of Detroit, Robert Herzberg’s Detroit School of Fine and Applied Arts, and the John P. Wicker School of Fine Arts. Yaeger remembers, “After a year at Wicker’s on scholarship, he told me to keep on coming, and that he wouldn’t charge me as long as I kept on winning prizes.” He also studied woodcarving under Leonard Jungworth in Detroit and fresco painting under Jean Paul Slusser in Ann Arbor.
In 1932, Yaeger received two honors that proved his serious dedication to art: The Founder’s Society Purchase Prize, which was awarded by the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Traveling Scholarship, awarded by the Detroit News. Unfortunately, the one thousand dollar Whitcomb Traveling Scholarship had to be cut in half due to the depression. Yaeger’s family discouraged him from traveling on such a meager sum and told him to quit art because he would never make a living at it. Despite these obstacles, Yaeger accepted the scholarship and managed to live one year in Europe on about two dollars a day. Yaeger’s frugality and commitment so impressed Mr. Whitcomb that he invited the artist to his home and offered him another five hundred dollar scholarship for the following year.
While on Whitcomb’s two year scholarship, Yaeger attended the prestigious Academie Andre Lhote in Paris. Lhote (1885-1962), a modern cubist, was drawn to Yaeger’s work. “He liked my color,” explains Yaeger. “He didn’t think I was from America. He said I painted more like a European than an American. They told me I should stay in France, that I would be a big success there.”
The uniqueness of Yaeger’s colors partially results from the fact that he grinds his own paint. “You get stronger colors, more intense. Most artists buy commercial things all the time; that’s why they’re handicapped. You can’t buy certain colors. I started using my colors at the Scarab Club, and the other artists wanted me to make some for them. I told them, ‘I can’t do everything!’ “
Yaeger not only still uses old world craftsmanship in developing his paints, but also utilizes it in constructing his own frames, charcoal and canvases. “I make everything except the brushes!” he laughs. “When I was going to art school I used to do it for a living. I used to make wooden palettes and canvases and everything. I used to make the canvases for a Spanish artist when I was in Paris. He’d have one a meter long every day. So he said if I would make one at night he would come in the morning and pick it up. Now I buy the raw canvas, stretch it, and prepare it. My teacher taught me years ago.” As for the frames, Yaeger chuckles. “John Joseph is keeping me busy making these frames! I work until about half past ten every night. It takes about forty hours to carve one frame. I have to design it, and the molding is different on each one. I make all the frames myself out of lumber. I get twelve-inch boards and saw them up. That’s the only way you’re going to get them; no one else is going to make them.”
Yaeger explains the valuable techniques he learned in Europe. Composition and color balance were the main thing. This teacher in Paris told me how to harmonize colors. We would put a color down, and he said, ‘counterbalance it,’ so the whole painting would be in harmony. Some don’t teach you anything; they just criticize your work. Andre Lhote used to set up the model and put the cloth around it and things like that. He’d tell us the reason for it. He said every corner of the picture has to be doing something. If you put a spot of color in one corner you have to counterabalance it in the other corner with a similar color. He said you must never use the same color twice. Get a little variation in each thing. He liked my work, so he talked more to me; some people he would just pass by and he wouldn’t say anything. The influence of the other students helped too. I used to walk down the street where all the galleries were and look in and see each one. Paris is a very nice place. It’s a good place for schooling; it isn’t too good to paint in. It’s just like a big city.” Mr. Yaeger also received instruction from Marcel Gromaire and Orthon Friesz, and studied at the Ecole Scandinav.
Besides learning from renowned artists, Yaeger had the chance to travel and indulge his penchant for the country during his four separate trips to Europe. Those adventures enhanced his work and gave him a greater appreciation for the country he was painting. He bought a second-hand bicycle for $12 and traveled through France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, visiting art exhibits along the way. After the trip was finished, he sold the bike for $6. Yaeger recalls with amusement that the bicycle was handy, since some hotels would charge him less if they say he was traveling by bike.
His bicycle also brought him to unique landscapes. Locating an intriguing spot became a treasure hunt for the painter. One find was a small town in the Loire valley. “I like working in France, because it is real quiet and the people appreciate your work more. Nobody goes there, either – I mean none of the other artists – this time of year. It is sort of an exclusive part of the country. The whole year I didn’t run across one person who spoke English. Sometimes I work from photographs to get details. I showed some of my photographs to the Grosse Pointe Camera Club and the group wanted me to take them there to photograph those spots because they had never seen anything like that before. One fellow said he has been to Spain four times and he had never seen that kind of stuff. I told him he had to walk out into the country, sometimes five or ten miles out. When you start walking a mile back there, it’s a different country altogether. It’s like in the middle ages.” When he was inspired to record his surroundings, he would carry his watercolors in his pocket, take a stool, sit down and paint. He describes the ancient European landscape as more adaptable to being painted, since the crooked shapes capture visual interest. He found the color to be altogether different as well. “The haze would make objects less sharp, and therefore more paintable.”
Local denizens would often comment on his work. Yaeger fondly recalls memories of his European acquaintances. “They’re more interested in art there. When I was painting out in the country, this man went and opened the gate that I was painting because he said it looked better with the gate open. Sometimes they would try and sell you their paintings and things. They’d invite you in for a glass of wine. Once I was looking for a restaurant; they didn’t have any so this lady said if I’d go to the store and buy some food, she’d cook it.”
The artist’s travels not only transported him to Europe’s peoples and landscapes, they also brought him in direct contact with the influence of important painters. He explains, “Cezanne helped me more than anyone else – his use of color. He’s dead now, but I visited his studio in France. His coat and hat and everything were hanging there. The postman let me into his studio. It’s really closed to the public. He said when he got done delivering the mail he’d take me.
"I got the use of space from Salvador Dali; he painted these mountains and things. I painted right near his place for about two or three weeks. The car ran out of gasoline, so we had to stay in that town. Dali lived about a hundred feet away from there.”
Yaeger also gained firsthand knowledge of how the locals perceived the great impressionist Vincent Van Gogh. He met one doctor in Arles who worked at the sanitarium where Van Gogh stayed. Van Gogh was trying to give his works away to the doctors and nurses there. The staff staunchly refused his paintings because they thought he was crazy. The doctor, who lived above a small studio, woefully told Yaeger that he could have retired if he had accepted just one of the scorned works.
Yaeger returned to Detroit in 1935 and was commissioned to work on the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. The program was instigated by Roosevelt during the depression to promote permanent displays of art in public buildings. Yaeger adds, “They wanted someone to help paint murals and things like that. So I helped them out.”
Some of the murals that Yaeger painted are at the Brodhead Naval Armory and the Lighting Commission Building in Detroit, Grosse Pointe South High School, Children’s Hospital in Detroit, Ford School of Highland Park, and the University of Michigan’s Men’s Union Dormitory (now West Quad Dormitory).
Yaeger’s murals were also in the building that was torn down for the Renaissance Center. Workers who were destroying the building found the paintings. Henry Ford heard about the murals, and the demolition was halted for two weeks while murals were rescued by the Detroit Historical Museum. The artwork was torn off in strips. The process destroyed much of the piece, and it took Yaeger and his helpers a year to restore it. Two strips were salvaged. Rumor has it that they may be displayed in Cobo Hall in the near future.
Throughout his life, Yaeger has been actively involved in Detroit’s artist community. He was a member of both the Detroit Society of Independent Artists and the Scarab Club, and served as president of the Ecclesiastical Arts Guild. Yaeger was one of the founding members of the Grosse Pointe Artists Association and an organizer of the Detroit and Michigan Artist’s Memorial.
He has taught his mastery of watercolor, oil, fresco, printmaking, mosaic and woodcarving at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial, and is presently conducting a weekly class at St. Brandon’s School. He has also served as the art director for the Detroit Department of Recreation, and has taught at the Detroit School of Fine Arts and Wayne County Community College.
His commitment to creating art has remained consistent. Other work experiences have included assisting Grosse Pointe designer Alexander Girard, serving as illustrator for the General Motors Corporation and the Hudson Motor Car Company, and acting as a technical medical illustrator. Yaeger also designed stage sets for Masonic Temple, the Detroit Symphony, the Wayne University Theater Guild, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The stylistic recurrence of curtains framing the edges of his paintings is a direct result of his stage designs. Yaeger’s mosaics brighten numerous Detroit, Grosse Pointe, and Birmingham churches. One noteworthy mosaic decorates the swimming pool fountain in the home of William A. Bostwick, past administrator and secretary of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Yaeger received great recognition for his life’s achievements. In addition to several scholarships, he won seven different awards from the Detroit Institute of Arts, three awards from the Scarab Club (including the Gold Medal), three awards from the Michigan Watercolor Society, three awards from the Grosse Pointe Artists Association, one from the Michigan Artists Exhibition, and one from the Michigan Women’s’ League.
His work continues to be publicly recognized. A few of the distinguished places in which his pieces have been exhibited were the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Rockefeller Center, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The Detroit Institute of Arts houses thirty-six of Yeager’s works in its permanent collection. Henri Matisse chose to include Yaeger in the Carnegie International Exhibition in 1930. In 1936, Holger Cahill placed Yaeger’s work in the Museum of Modern Art’s “New Horizons of American Art” exhibit. Galleries throughout the country have exhibited his works. His most recent one man showing was at the Scarab Club last September. Yaeger’s pieces are also housed in private collections across the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
I asked Yaeger to name his most valued accomplishment among the many awards, scholarships and exhibition opportunities he has received over his lifetime. Yaeger, a man dedicated to his work, sincerely answered that his most rewarding achievements were his landscape paintings in Europe. I re-emphasized his accomplishments, thinking he may have misunderstood me; Yaeger gently insisted, “I’d like to go back to France and paint because my paintings from there are practically sold.” It is not an unusual answer from an eighty-five year old who is still actively interpreting the beauty around him.
Edgar Louis Yaeger is a humble man whose art is deeply interwoven with his life. He works not for the glory of recognition, but for the pure joy of creation. His goal is simply to make people happy; this objective he has, indeed, accomplished.