Sunday, February 2, 2014

C.C. Senf (1873-1949)-Part 1

Curtis Charles Senf
Commercial Artist, Lithographer, Illustrator
Born July 30, 1873, Alsace-Lorraine, German Empire
Died April 24, 1949, Chicago, Illinois

I have been writing lately about cover illustrations for Weird Tales but only a little about the artists who created them. I would like to take some time out from the one to write about the other. The life and work of C.C. Senf are a good place to start.

Curtis Charles Senf, better known to readers of Weird Tales as C.C. Senf, was born on July 30, 1873, in Alsace-Lorraine, then a relatively new addition to the German Empire. (1) Senf's parents, Constantin Ernst Senf and Rosette "Rosa" Senf, set out for the United States in June 1881 with their four children in tow. Curt was then just seven years old. His younger siblings, Gertrud, Robert, and baby Elise, ranged in age from six years to seven months. The Senf family made Chicago their new home. By 1900, Constantin Senf was gone, and Rosa was then living in St. Louis with her family. Curtis, her oldest, was married and had by then started a career of his own in Chicago. (2)

You can read the biography of C.C. Senf on a website called Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists by David Saundershere. I don't want to rehash too much of what Mr. Saunders has already written. According to him, Senf studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in 1896 joined the then new Palette and Chisel Club. Lorado Taft (1860-1936), a renowned sculptor and a teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago, was a leader of the club. We'll hear more of Taft later. On June 29, 1898, seventeen years and one day after the ship delivering him from Germany landed in New York, Curtis C. Senf married Harriet L. Loesch at St. Paul's Church in Chicago. Nicknamed Hattie, Senf's wife was also a German immigrant. Together, the Senfs would have two daughters, Ruth and Evelyn.

I don't know Senf's course of study, but a listing in the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry from 1914 described him as a commercial artist and lithographer. That listing leads to some speculation on Senf's lineage as an artist.

C.C. Senf turned fifty in the year that Weird Tales made its debut and was fifty-three when he created his first cover for the magazine in March 1927. (3) Age should not of course be a limitation for an artist, even in a new field of endeavor. Fletcher Hanks for instance was fifty-one when he began working in comic books in 1939. But it's hard to deny that Senf's work has an old-fashioned look to it, even for the 1920s. To be fair, Weird Tales was an old-fashioned magazine in many ways. After all, weird fiction is essentially about the past and about decadence. (4) Senf's artwork may have suited the mood and the editorial slant of the magazine pretty well. In any case, he created forty-five covers for Weird Tales between March 1927 and September 1932, or about three-quarters of the covers for that period. Senf's tenure as cover artist at Weird Tales nearly coincided with that of another Old World artist who worked for the competition. And thereby hangs a tale.

To be continued . . . 

(1) The Internet Speculative Fiction Database give's Senf's birthplace as Ro├člau, Duchy of Anhalt, German Empire, in central Germany. I have based my information on public records, but I'm not going to argue with anybody on this. Public records are often wrong.
(2) Isabella Senf was the youngest child enumerated in the home of Rosa Senf. Presumably she was the last of the Senf children. Curtis C. Senf's younger brother, Robert Senf, was enumerated with him in Chicago in 1900. Robert was then an artist. Later he became an engraver in New York City. Born on December 3, 1875, Robert Gunther Senf died in Manhattan on November 29, 1924, a few days short of his forty-ninth birthday.
(3) Prior to that, Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, had relied on a number of artists for his cover designs. There were eight in the four years before Senf arrived on the scene in March 1927. Together, Senf and another newcomer, Hugh Rankin, did the cover illustrations for all but one issue of Weird Tales for the next five years, until May 1932. The exception was by C. Barker Petrie, Jr., in the issue of February/March 1931. Senf created forty-five covers between March 1927 and September 1932. Rankin created fifteen covers between August 1927 and December 1930. They were succeeded by J. Allen St. John and Margaret Brundage, who dominated the 1930s at Weird Tales.
(4) In contrast, science fiction is about the future, even when it is set in the present or the past.

Weird Tales, April 1927, the first issue with cover art by C.C. Senf. I believe this is a watercolor drawing, yet the technique in the textures of fur, skin, foliage, and grass gives it the look of a lithograph. By the 1920s, lithography had been replaced by photoengraving in the popular press. The artist, who was fifty-three years old when this cover was printed, had studied art in the 1890s, but even then lithography as a commercial process was nearing the end of its days. (Currier and Ives, a leading seller of lithographs, went out of business in 1907.) Like wood engraving before it, lithography would soon fall into the domain of the fine artist rather than the commercial artist. Nevertheless, C.C. Senf seems to have held on to the look if not the use of lithography even into the 1920s.

So the technique is somewhat old-fashioned. The subject matter and the depiction of the figures are also old-fashioned, and to my eye distinctly Old World in appearance. European culture casts its gaze into the past; the European monster comes from folklore. He is a giant, a troll, a vampire, a werewolf. American culture, being young and without a past, looks to the frontier or to the future for its monsters. American monsters may come from tall tales, like the Hodag, but most are cryptozoological (Sasquatch) or in some way scientific or technological (the space alien or the android). The psychopath, which in Europe is called a werewolf or a vampire, is another type of scientific--hence American--monster. He is explained by the soft science of psychology. In any case, this cover for Weird Tales looks European to me. It's no surprise to learn that its creator was born in Europe and worked in a tradition more European than American.
Here is an example of a chromolithograph--a color lithograph--from the late nineteenth century. (The Internet source for this image says 1884. The book Popular Prints of the Americas [1973] dates it to the 1890s.) Note the attention to detail in the grass and the foliage in the background. You may not see it very well, but the man's jacket is also highly textured.
Here is a later chromolithograph, a label for Mephisto Cigars from 1897. The figure is fantastic, but note the stiffness and formality in how it is depicted. Victorian might be the best word to describe that look. Pulp magazine illustration would help bring all of that to an end. 
Weird Tales, October 1927. Again, an example of Senf's nineteenth-century sensibilities, though less so in terms of technique. Here, the old-fashioned look is more in the subject matter and the treatment of the figures. It reminds me of a historical film, which would at that time have been silent. Moreover, it reminds me of nineteenth-century academic art, the kind that Modernists wanted to tear down and replace with their own work.  
Here's an example: "From an Absent One" by the Dutch-British artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), who was famed for his historical paintings of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. By the early twentieth century, Alma-Tadema and artists like him had fallen far out of favor. Taking their place were parades of Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and Fauves, the last not insignificantly called "the wild beasts."
Weird Tales, June 1928. Few covers for Weird Tales were as European as this one, and probably no other artist would have been as comfortable with it as C.C. Senf. (Even the author of the cover story, Signe Toksvig, was European, though transplanted to America.) Senf seems to have handled this illustration with complete confidence. The figures, the dress, and the horse's outfit ring with authenticity.

So C.C. Senf was old-fashioned in his technique, in his subject matter, in his treatment of the human figure, and in his work in the European tradition. That's not to say that he was a bad artist or ill-suited to Weird Tales. After all, he proved to be a workhorse in his five years creating covers for the magazine. I'll write more about his artistic lineage next time.

Text and captions copyright 2014, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

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