A Brooklyn-born artist of exceptional talent, and an educator of great passion, Frank von der Lancken (1872–1950) was an influential, but largely-forgotten, proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Von der Lancken’s training, which began at the most progressive art schools in America, and continued at the Parisian academies, equaled that of any of the top artists of his time. He participated and won medals in some of the premiere exhibition showcases of his day, associated with many of the leading figures in the popular Arts and Crafts movement, actively participated in the art clubs and guilds of the communities in which he lived, and achieved considerable professional prominence wherever he went.
Given the depth of his talent, training, and art-related activity, von der Lancken’s lack of notoriety may be explained by his marked preference for teaching over selling, and for exhibiting as a means of instruction rather than self-promotion. While happy to exhibit his work, he seems not to have cared whether his paintings actually sold. He was never represented by a gallery, and apparently had no agent of any kind. In fact, much of von der Lancken’s oeuvre remained in his possession until his death in 1950, and was subsequently preserved by his children and grandchildren. Throughout his life and career, von der Lancken made a gradual westward progression from the art centers of New York and Paris to the increasingly remote areas of New Milford, Connecticut; Rochester, New York; Chautauqua, New York; Louisville, Kentucky; and Tulsa, Oklahoma, always searching for a new audience receptive to the doctrine of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Von der Lancken began his artistic training around 1888 at the recently opened Pratt Institute in New York. He was well-schooled in the popular new practice of combining fine and manual arts training, an emphasis then sweeping America’s art schools. Later, at the more established Art Students League (also in New York), he attended Henry Siddons Mowbray’s life class and may have been influenced by some of the League’s other instructors—Julian Alden Weir, James Carroll Beckwith, and John Henry Twachtman. Eventually, by 1896, he continued his training in Paris at the Académies Julian and Colarossi, studying with Jean-Paul Laurens and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. In 1903, after several years as a professional artist in New York, von der Lancken was invited by his old classmate and friend, Willard Dryden Paddock, to return to the Pratt Institute as an instructor to help fill the considerable vacuum left by the recent departure of the controversial and popular artist, Arthur Wesley Dow. This seemingly temporary career change began the young artist’s life-long odyssey in teaching.
Instead of returning to Pratt in the fall of 1904, von der Lancken was hired away by a rival school in Rochester, the Mechanics Institute, to teach the life courses, and, more importantly, to teach Pratt’s brand of progressive art education. The Mechanics Institute was one of the best examples of a school that had modeled itself after Pratt in response to the burgeoning interest in the unification of manual and creative arts.
In 1921, von der Lancken entered the next significant phase of his career, as director of the School of Arts and Crafts of the Chautauqua Institution, in Chautauqua, New York. By now he was not only an accomplished artist, but also an experienced drawing instructor, professor of art history, and school administrator. His qualifications perfectly suited the Chautauqua position, which in turn, suited his Arts and Crafts ideology and his increasingly zealous desire to spread his own brand of art appreciation to the population at large.
In 1924, von der Lancken uprooted his family and headed further west, to begin an art school from scratch in Louisville, Kentucky. Although it was initially well received, the school apparently failed to meet expectations, and two years later the von der Lanckens moved west.
Von der Lancken arrived in Tulsa in 1926, and remained there for the rest of his life. It seems likely that the artist perceived Tulsa as ripe for an upwelling in the arts, a sort of cultural tabula rasa that an artist and educator of his stature might profoundly affect. He and his wife Guilia taught, at various times, throughout the public high-school system, the University of Tulsa, and at the Philbrook Art Museum (now the Philbrook Museum of Art). Von der Lancken participated in notably more expositions and annuals across the country between 1926 and 1946, including shows in Texas, Oklahoma, California, and Ohio, exhibiting several times at the National Academy of Design, New York, as well as winning the 1937 Beck Prize for top portrait at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. His work also grew more varied in these years as he experimented more seriously with the still-life genre.
By the time of Frank von der Lancken’s death in 1950, the Philbrook Art Museum had begun to establish Tulsa’s reputation as a national center for the arts. Admiringly referred to as, “the first family of art in Tulsa”, the von der Lanckens lived to see their city’s cultural potential fulfilled after twenty-four years of painting and teaching there. As for Frank’s own potential, he seemed satisfied with a career path that led him away from the limelight under which he was trained, toward the artistic obscurity of his final years. Through his visions on canvas and his teachings in the classrooms of New York, Connecticut, and the Midwest, this quiet, unassuming artist became one of the louder exponents of the Arts and Crafts movement. For Frank von der Lancken that was more than enough.