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  Count Imhoff

Count Berthold Von Imhoff
Count Berthold Von Imhoff
by Dave Yanko

The classically-trained European painter with the 10-room house and detached studio no doubt raised an eyebrow or two in the pioneer farming community where he lived from 1914 until his death in 1939. While his neighbours persuaded a living from the rugged, forested land near present-day St. Walburg, Berthold Imhoff created works of art and paid others to look after his farm (page updated 2012).

A well-respected artist and decorator in his native Germany, Imhoff moved to the United States at the turn of the century and quickly assembled a bright and lucrative career in Pennsylvania.

But he was a man of conviction, an idealistic aristocrat who believed industrial growth was sabotaging his effort to live a life devoted to art, religion and nature. He found harmony in Saskatchewan.

Count Berthold Von Imhoff was born into nobility in 1868 in a castle overlooking the Rhine River. His talent and love of nature were apparent in the landscapes he began painting when he was seven years old. His parents encouraged their young artist by enrolling him in art and design school in his early teens. At 16, Imhoff won the prestigious Art Academy Award of Berlin for a portrait of Germany's Prince Frederick William. He studied art in college, focusing on religious subjects, and married his wife Mathilda in 1891.

By 1892, he was making a name for himself painting public buildings in Germany. He and Mathilda moved to the United States for a year, where he earned enough money working for decorators in Ohio and Pennsylvania to return to Germany and start his own business.

The business prospered. The couple began raising a family and Imhoff even found time to advance his formal education. But something was missing.

Industrialization was gobbling up Imhoff's beloved German countryside, and he was uncomfortable with a society he felt was becoming too rigid. In 1900, the Imhoff family returned to Pennsylvania.

Bert Imhoff
Bert Imhoff

Working from a base in Reading, PA, he and his assistants painted and decorated churches, public buildings and private residences throughout the region, and he and Mathilda became fixtures in the high-society circles of Pennsylvania and Ohio. But as business boomed, happiness waned. There was no time for family, and Pennsylvania was succumbing to the same industrial juggernaut that devoured the idyllic countryside in Germany. Again, it was time for change.

Imhoff had been impressed with Saskatchewan's abundant wildlife and natural beauty when he visited the province on a hunting trip in 1913. A year later, when he saw an advertisement in a Pennsylvania newspaper promoting the province as a land of opportunity, he made up his mind to move here.

From 1914 until his death in 1939 at the age of 71, Imhoff painted hundreds of religious works for nothing but his own spiritual and artistic satisfaction.

"He never painted a picture to sell it," says grandson Bert Imhoff, administrator of the Imhoff Museum in St. Walburg. "He just painted to paint."

Imhoff earned his money by commission, decorating Roman Catholic churches in Saskatchewan, and a few in the U.S.

"He'd start by painting miniatures of what he thought would work best for that particular church - he called them his 'samples'," his grandson says, gesturing to one of the miniatures and its full-size companion hanging in the studio that's now a museum.

"Then he'd take (the miniatures) to the church to show them."

Once agreement had been reached with the church, Imhoff would return to his studio where he reproduced on large canvas the religious scenes selected from among the miniatures. When the paintings were completed, he trimmed the canvasses and glued them into their appropriate positions on the walls and ceilings of the church.

Saskatchewan examples of Imhoff's commissioned works can be seen in churches at St. Walburg, Muenster, St. Benedict, Bruno, Denzil, Reward, St. Leo, Humboldt, Paradise Hill and North Battleford.

Imhoff painted in a style borrowed from the Italian High Renaissance artists like Raphael, an approach he adopted from a movement of traditional religious artists in Germany. This classical European style gives visitors to the rural museum a delightfully-jarring sensation of being propelled from a Saskatchewan wheat field into the Prado or Louvre.

-- with permission from the Imhoff Gallery

If Imhoff's subject matter holds particular appeal for some, his talent, technique and dedication are obvious to all. The walls of the former studio are chock-a-block full of richly-colored and vibrant paintings that have lost almost nothing to time.

Bert Imhoff says his grandfather used only the highest-quality oil paints and canvasses imported from Europe. These premium materials, as well as Imhoff's meticulous technique, account for the robust appearance of the paintings today.

"Every painting he did three times - three layers of paint."

Since the artist was prolific and chose never to sell any of his paintings (a tenet he lived by ever since he turned down the equivalent of $3,000 for his portrait of Prince Frederick William), there is no shortage of his works. Approximately 200 paintings can be viewed at the museum, and an additional 250 works that were displayed in the museum from 1939 until 1983, when the museum was closed for 10 years, can be now be seen at the Imhoff Art Gallery in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan.

Bert Imhoff says when the Imhoff family decided to re-open the St. Walburg museum in 1993, they went to the area where the paintings are stored and simply retrieved enough of them to cover the walls.

"What we unrolled is what we hung. There's more."

Thousands of people from around the world have visited the museum over the years and many have asked to purchase a painting. Bert says they're not for sale.

Carl Imhoff
Carl Imhoff

Religious paintings comprise the bulk of Imhoff's work, but they were not his only subject matter. He also painted still-lifes, as well as portraits of Saskatchewan Indian leaders, family members and himself. He was fond, as well, of painting the animals he hunted.

"Every fall, when the (hunting) season came around, he'd spend two or three weeks hunting big game," says Carl Imhoff, Berthold's son and Bert's father (Ed's note: since time of writing, Carl Imhoff has passed away). "He loved hunting, fishing and horseback riding."

In the 1920s and '30s, Carl Imhoff apprenticed with his father by assisting with paintings and church decorations. One of his main tasks was applying the gold-leaf borders and backgrounds used in many of his father's works. In time, the son was creating his own paintings and his artist father was impressed.

"He wanted me to continue on," says Carl Imhoff, opening a preciously-wrapped box of gold leafing he's saved for some 70 years. "But I wanted to farm."

Unwilling to disappoint his ailing father, he allowed him to go to his grave believing he would pursue a life of art.

"He was a good man."

There's more to the comment than a son's love for his father. Imhoff's acts of kindness are legendary.

When he was commissioned in 1918 to decorate the ceilings and sanctuary of St. Peter's Cathedral at Muenster, Saskatchewan, for example, he refused payment for the 80 life-sized figures and frescoes adorning the sanctuary. The work at St. Peter's took him a full year to complete.

At home near St. Walburg, visitors were always welcome at Imhoff's studio and he enjoyed chatting with them while he worked. Hundreds of rural school children in the area were given their first taste of art during class visits to the studio. And still other visitors, many others, came for help.

"He gave a lot of his money away," says Bert Imhoff.

The "Dirty '30s", depression years in Saskatchewan, brought a decline in commissions. Church coffers were dependent upon the goodwill of farmers, and the farmers were devastated by drought and plummeting world grain prices. Imhoff's money was almost gone when he died in 1939.

The sanctuary at St. Peter's Cathedral - an act of generosity.
-- courtesy Carlton Trail REDA
The sanctuary at St. Peter's Cathedral - an act of generosity.

Today, Berthold Imhoff is commemorated by a statue situated at the south entrance to St. Walburg. From a distance, this bronze sculpture of a man on horseback appears a tribute to some 19th century military leader. Now, as with the man who raised eyebrows in the 1920s, a closer view reveals a pious and generous artist who loved hunting, fishing and horseback riding.

The Imhoff Museum and surrounding area received Provincial Heritage Property designation in 2005.

Check out the Imhoff Museum webpage for visitor information and more.

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