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Alice Levi Duncan
Oscar Bluemner (1867–1938) was born in Germany, trained as an architect there, and emigrated to the United States at the age of 25. He soon found work as a draftsman in architectural firms. Yet two years later, he was living on the streets, sleeping in Bowery flophouses, and relying on soup kitchens to keep from starvation. Drastic changes in fortune would accompany Bluemner for the rest of his life.
He found work again as an architect, designed the Bronx Borough Courthouse (and was cheated out of his fee), took up painting, studied color theory, won a lawsuit over his Bronx design, met Alfred Stieglitz, traveled to Europe, moved in German Expressionist circles, and came home in time to be included in the famous Armory Show of 1913.
Bluemner turned against architecture, vowing that he would “rather be a bum painter than . . . a ‘successful’ so-called architect,” and he proceeded to live up to that vow. Sales of his paintings suffered in the wake of growing anti-German sentiment in the years leading up to America’s entry into World War I, and Bluemner was investigated as a possible spy when his New Jersey neighbors grew suspicious of the time he spent sketching industrial scenes. He had exhibitions at Stieglitz’s 291 and other galleries, but midnight moves, after the eviction notice came but before the sheriff showed up to dispossess his family, also became habitual.
Nevertheless, Bluemner created a formidable body of work before poverty, bad luck, and an array of health problems caused him to take his life at the age of 70.