Frederick Jaeger was born in Vienna in 1895, the son of Gustav Jaeger, a leading ostrich feather merchant, whose family benefited from the, at the time, pervasive fashion craze.
As a result, young Fritz, as he was called in Austria, grew up in the years before World War I in a comfortable villa on Vienna's outskirts near the imperial summer palace of Schönbrunn. He attended and graduated from a local 'Realschule' - a rather selective secondary school focused on math, design and other more concrete subjects than the classical Austrian 'Gymnasium's' emphasis on Latin and Greek. In the process he discovered that he loved drawing and painting and was not drawn to the commercial life his father wanted him to pursue. This created tensions, particularly when the ostrich feather business declined abruptly just before the first world war and the family's finances became wobbly.
The issue was postponed while Fritz served as a lieutenant in charge of an artillery crew on the Italian front for 18 months in World War I, exchanging fire across a high alpine valley in the Dolomites with his Italian counterparts - both ensconced in rat-infested mountain caves supplied by mule trains. He came home in 1918 after some months of Italian captivity, during which he improved his lot by drawing and painting portraits.
But his welcome was cool when he reaffirmed his intention to study art at the University of Vienna. And things got worse when he announced his engagement to Emma Stachura, a young Catholic financial advisor helping his Jewish father with his struggling business, to whom he had dedicated a small painting even before he had left for military service. While she was clearly much valued by the family as a business counselor, interfaith marriages in those days were a major no-no. So Fritz and Emma married anyway, the breach with his parents became final and Fritz converted to Catholicism, or at least its mellower Austrian version, a sensibility reflected in his oil painting of Father Lamprecht as well as in several other major works.
Starting a new family in Austria's collapsing post-war economy was not easy. Fritz finished the University of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts to qualify as an art professor, while his new wife, one of Vienna’s early self-made women business professionals, continued to help run a Viennese shoe company. It was only when Fritz graduated and got his first professorial appointment, that they reversed roles. When their son George was born in 1926, Emma, the hard-working administrator and breadwinner, became an equally devoted mother.
It was during these years, the twenties and thirties, that Fritz Jaeger produced his most important works many of which were exhibited in Viennese galleries, including the 'Künstlerhaus' and the 'Sezession'. Italian vacations inspired brilliantly sunlit paintings of palm-fringed Adriatic villages. He became fascinated with Mediterranean fishermen and used the fishing village theme again in a large neo-cubist painting, originally a triptych, to show that cubism does not necessarily require abandoning reality. He also illustrated books, notably the ‘Höhlenkinder’, a three-volume book for older children by Alois Sonnleitner, which was reprinted in Germany as recently as 2004, by Kosmos Verlag Stuttgart, became a TV series and is still available on You-Tube.
And he became known as a particularly gifted portrait painter. One, an oil painting of his wife nursing her son, became famous when it appeared on the cover of ‘Bergland’ magazine in 1928, a now long extinct Austrian monthly magazine which also featured a delightful nativity scene he painted for its Christmas cover in 1932.
A profusion of other portraits followed, among others the oil paintings of the village carpenter holding his measuring stick, the portraits of the young Count Foscari, of Father Lamprecht, of the gnarled old peasant, the young Austrian girl, the young woman seated amid flowers, as well as the life-size paintings of the young east-tyrolean musician and its counterpart, the girl in her brilliant east-tyrolean costume. There is also a wistful fragment of a 'Pensive Young Woman', which, together with the 'Raven of Wisdom' were once part of a larger work. That his son George should also turn up in this line-up at various times was inevitable.
In the late thirties, when the growls of Austrian Nazism became louder, he also painted major landscapes of the Drau valley in Carinthia, then still a largely lost peasant world, where he and his family had spent increasingly anxious summers.
It all ended in 1938 when Hitler marched into Austria. Within months Fritz Jaeger, who for years had been a loved and respected Viennese art professor, was sacked from his tenured appointment and his brother Paul, who had been taken to the concentration camp in Dachau, died from the effects of medical experiments. Other relatives were taken to and died in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. Emigration was the only option left.
So young George was sent off that November to the UK, helped by English Quakers. Fritz Jaeger managed to get an American visa and left for New York a bit later, where he restarted life as a floor sweeper at Herbert Dubler's, a small Madison Avenue firm importing Sister Hummel’s Christmas cards and figurines from Munich. The plan was that his 'Aryan' - therefore, under Nazi rules, officially safe - wife would follow as soon as he had made a footfall and saved enough for ship tickets. As it turned out Pearl Harbor intervened, war broke out, and Emma never made it to the ship in Lisbon which was to have taken her to the US. She spent seven long war years in Vienna under very difficult conditions and came to America only after the war.
Pearl Harbor's other effect was that it put an end to importing Sister Hummel’s products, since America was now at war with Germany. As this sank in at Herbert Dubler’s, Fritz, now Frederick or Fred, leaned his broom against the wall and announced that he could do anything Sister Hummel did. He was promptly promoted from floor sweeper to Art Director and built the business into a real success, incidentally changing the tone of America's greeting card industry by giving Christmas cards a distinctly warmer, more Austrian tone.
As his work became better known Joyce Hall, one of Hallmark’s founding brothers, asked him in 1953 to become their in-house art professor in Kansas City. "I have 200 artists, none of whom”, Joyce Hall said, "can draw a horse. We need you to teach them”. Fred Jaeger retired from Hallmark 17 years later, a loved and respected figure, who had helped generations of young Hallmark artists perfect their craft.
After his retirement, in his seventies and eighties, he produced a new collection of lighter paintings, in water colors, crayons and acrylics, which retain much of his earlier style but reflect the influence of his new American environment. There are fine landscapes of Vermont and Maine, Alpine landscapes, illustrations of fairy tales, and several portraits. He loved teaching to the end, surrounding himself in his last years with flocks of local children, whom he taught the rudiments of drawing and painting. Needless to say he was much loved and became a local legend.
Frederick Jaeger died in Kansas City in 1980. He and Emily, as Emma became known in America, are buried there.
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