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Gág, Anton (1858–1908)

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Self-portrait of Anton Gág painted by his daughter Wanda

Self-potrait of Anton Gág, ca. 1900.

Anton Gág, the father of Wanda Gág, carved out a career as a painter of portraits, landscapes, and historical subjects. He also decorated homes, ran a photography studio, and designed murals for churches and other buildings. The Minnesota State Capitol displayed his most famous painting, “The Attack on New Ulm during the Sioux Outbreak, Aug. 19-23, 1862,” from 1923 to 2014.

Best known today as the father of Wanda Gág, who wrote and illustrated children’s books such as Millions of Cats, Anton Gág was an accomplished artist in his own right. Born in Bohemia in 1858, Gág came to the United States with his parents in 1873. He lived first in St. Paul, where he tried without success to work as an artist.

In 1879, Gág moved to New Ulm, where he met August Schell of Schell’s Brewery. Schell became his friend and patron, sending him for several months to Chicago and Milwaukee for training. Early paintings, such as “The Muses,” show Gág trying his hand at history painting in a grand style.

After returning to New Ulm, Gág tried to make his living as a painter of portraits and landscapes. In 1883, he turned to photography to add to his income. For several years, he ran a studio noted for its artistic photos. He also explored different ways to earn money through his art, often in collaboration with two other New Ulm artists, Christian Heller and Alexander Schwendinger.

As part of an interior design business, Gág decorated homes and public buildings. Examples of his work can be seen in his own restored home, the Wanda Gág House in New Ulm. He made murals and frescoes for churches such as New Ulm’s Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. Other work included monuments, advertising banners, and floats as well as scenery and curtains for theaters. He even opened an art school for a brief time.

His best-known works are historical paintings of the US–Dakota War of 1862. To create these pictures, Gág read accounts and interviewed survivors of the war. Completed in 1904, his most famous painting, “Attack on New Ulm during the Sioux Outbreak, August 19–23rd, 1862,” was on view at the Minnesota State Capitol from 1923 until 2014, when the building was renovated. An exhibit at the James J. Hill House in the fall of 2017 explored the decision to relocate this piece.

Between 1891 and 1893, Gág worked on another series of US–Dakota War paintings. Together with Christian Heller and Alexander Schwendinger, Gág made a panorama depicting scenes from the war. At the time, panoramas were a popular form of entertainment. These large-scale paintings were shown at fairs and in other settings with lighting and dramatic readings to recreate vividly a historic event.

The US–Dakota War of 1862 panorama consists of eleven ten-by-seven-foot panels painted on a roll of fabric. Each section shows a scene from the war; three of them focus on actions that took place in New Ulm. The panorama was taken on tour after a first showing in New Ulm, but then was lost for years. In 1954, it was found, badly damaged, in New York by James Taylor Dunn, who gave it to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Anton Gág’s first wife, Ida Berndt, died a year after their marriage in 1887. With his second wife, Elizabeth (Lissi) Biebl, Gág had seven children, including his eldest, Wanda. Despite financial struggles, the Gág household was a lively place, full of music and art. Lissi helped Gág in his photography studio, designing imaginative costumes for clients and the family.

Anton and Lissi encouraged their children to be creative, and both Wanda and the youngest child, Flavia, became professional artists. When Anton died in 1908 of occupational tuberculosis, his last words were to Wanda, asking her to carry on his work as an artist: “What Papa was unable to accomplish, Wanda will have to finish.”

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Coen, Rena Neumann. “Anton Gág.” In Minnesota Impressionists, 45–47. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 1996.

Hoisington, Daniel. "The Art of Remembering: Attack on New Ulm by Anton Gág." In Images of the U.S.–Dakota War. New Ulm: Brown County Historical Society and Edinborough Productions, 2011.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofsAlRl4QNk

Isch, John. “You Had to Be There: Panoramas of the Dakota War.” Minnesota Heritage no. 3 (January 2011): 4–23.

L’Enfant, Julie. The Gág Family: German-Bohemian Artists in America. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 2002.

L’Enfant, Julie, and Robert J. Paulson. “Anton Gág.” Minnesota History 56, no. 7 (Fall 1999): 379–390.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/56/v56i07p376-392.pdf

Marsh, John. “Drama and Spectacle by the Yard: The Panorama in America.” Journal of Popular Culture 10 (Winter 1976): 581–592.

Zamora, Karen. “Controversial Minnesota State Capitol Painting Will Go on View at James J. Hill House.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 21, 2017.
http://www.startribune.com/controversial-minn-state-capitol-painting-will-go-on-view-at-james-j-hill-house/441348343/

Related Images

Self-portrait of Anton Gág painted by his daughter Wanda
Self-portrait of Anton Gág painted by his daughter Wanda
Photograph of the children of Anton and Elizabeth Gág c.1905. Back row (left to right): Stella, Debli, Wanda. Front row (left to right): Howard, Asta, Nelda.
Photograph of the children of Anton and Elizabeth Gág c.1905. Back row (left to right): Stella, Debli, Wanda. Front row (left to right): Howard, Asta, Nelda.
Photograph of the Gág family home at 200 South German Street in New Ulm. Taken by Anton Gág c.1890.
Photograph of the Gág family home at 200 South German Street in New Ulm. Taken by Anton Gág c.1890.
Painting by Anton Gág (1904) displayed in the Minnesota State Capitol from 1932 to 2014.
Painting by Anton Gág (1904) displayed in the Minnesota State Capitol from 1932 to 2014.
Anton Gág's "Woods with Two Girls in Distance" ca. 1890
Anton Gág's "Woods with Two Girls in Distance" ca. 1890
Paintings by Anton Gág, Christian Heller, and Schwendinger in the interior of the Cathedral of Holy Trinity in New Ulm
Paintings by Anton Gág, Christian Heller, and Schwendinger in the interior of the Cathedral of Holy Trinity in New Ulm

Turning Point

In 1887, Anton Gág researches the US–Dakota War of 1862 and starts to paint related scenes.

Chronology

1858

Anton Gág is born in Bohemia.

1873

Gág arrives in the United States at Baltimore after taking the USS Baltimore from Bremen. Censuses show that his family lives in a shanty between two “ladies’ boarding houses” on Eagle Street in St. Paul.

1879

Gág moves to New Ulm.

1880

Gág attends art schools briefly.

1883

Gág opens a photography studio.

1886

Gág marries Ida Berndt.

1887

Gág starts research on the US–Dakota War of 1862. Ida dies.

1892

Gág marries Lissi Biebl.

1893

Gág completes his US–Dakota War panorama. His daughter Wanda is born.

1904

Gág completes “Attack on New Ulm.”

1908

Gág dies in New Ulm.