John R. Grabach (1886 - 1981 )

John Grabach established himself as an accomplished member of New Jersey’s art community. He was born March 2, 1886, in either Newark, New Jersey or Greenfield, Massachusetts.(1)

Grabach’s artistic ambition began at the early age of five. He “idly picked up a piece of tailor’s chalk and drew the outline of a bird on the glass. Pleased with the result, he drew another, then others, until every window displayed a flock of birds.”(2) Following that exercise, Grabach began copying pictures from a variety of sources in an attempt to learn the forms, lines, and techniques of those before him. At the age of eleven, he received his earliest art training when he met another artist, Albert Dick. Three years later, an artist by the name of August Schwabe introduced Grabach to the Newark Sketch Club, where he had the opportunity to sketch live models and gain knowledge through observation of the more experienced artists surrounding him in the studio.(3)

In 1904, following his eighteenth birthday, Grabach began work in the machine room of a silverware manufacturing company. While working in Newark, he commuted to New York, where he was enrolled in night classes at the Art Students League and studied under Kenyan Cox, George Bridgman, and Frank Vincent Dumond.(4) Following the completion of his education at the Art Students League, Grabach made the decision to “devote all of his time to the filed of art.”(5) In 1935, he accepted an instructional position at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, where he would go on to educate and tutor over eight thousand art students.(6)

Grabach died in March of 1981.(7) However, his artistic and educational contributions to New Jersey continued long after his death. His paintings captured the despair and evoked the raw emotions millions experienced during the Great Depression. His work of the early 20th century transcends its time and tells a story to this day. In his own words, “Art is the artist’s expression in what he sees, and his attempt to communicate that feeling to others.”(8)

(1,7) (see link below).

(2,3,5,8) Gasser, Henry. “The Career of John R. Grabach.” American Artist: March 1964; p.38-43/62-63.

(4,6) Hills, Patricia. Social Concern and Urban Realism: American Painting of the 1930s. Boston University: Boston, 1983.

Street in Newark

Street in Newark, 1954, The Collection of The Newark Museum. Purchase 1957 Wallace M. Scudder Fund.
Head of a Man

Head of a Man, n.d., oil on canvas. Photograph courtesy Pedersen Gallery, Lambertville, NJ (609/397-1332).

John Grabach established himself in the Newark and Irvington areas of New Jersey, home to mass urbanization and industrialization. This environment was the major factor contributing to the direction his artwork took. Grabach’s paintings explored the gamut of content: portraits, nudes, scenic landscapes. However, his preferred subject matter was the urban landscape, both because of the tales it told and for its “decorative and design possibilities.”(1) Additionally, although working with a wide variety of mediums, he favored oil paints because of the richness in color and texture they were able to provide.

Street in Newark, depicted above, is an example of the work Grabach accomplished. It depicts the intense growth and overcrowding his city was experiencing. In examining the painting, the backdrop to the homes at the forefront is a city of buildings that fade into the distance. The sky is discolored by the industrial environment, which in turn coats the houses and other structures with a muddy stain. Additionally, Street in Newark displays the rough thick application of oil paint Grabach adopted as his artistic style.

John Grabach is perhaps best known for his paintings The Fifth Year and December Day. Fifth Year is a “depiction of the suffering endured during the Great Depression.”(2) It combines his two most frequent subjects, human figures and the urban metropolis of New York. December Day was painted when Grabach was only twenty-one years of age. It was exhibited at the National Academy of Design, receiving tremendous praise and honors. However, its greatest day came in 1939 when it was “chosen to represent the state of New Jersey at the World’s Fair in New York City.”(3) Both paintings stand out as examples of Grabach’s creativity and dedication.

(Travis Liebtag)

(1,2) Hills, Patricia. Social Concern and Urban Realism: American Painting of the 1930s. Boston University: Boston, 1983.

(3) Gasser, Henry. “The Career of John R. Grabach.” American Artist: March 1964; p.38-43/62-63.

About the Authors | Essential Bibliography | NJ Museums & Collections | Acknowledgments