JOSEPH PIERRE BIRREN (1864-1933)

Painter & Illustrator

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A Chicago native artist explores his Luxembourg roots.

A Century of Progress
By Joseph Pierre Birren

Joseph Pierre Birren was born on May 14, 1864, in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Henry Birren and Anna Catherine Faber. Henry / Heinrich Birren hailed from Steinsel, Luxembourg where he was born on August 10, 1812. He died in Chicago, Illinois on November 10, 1880. In Diekirch, Luxembourg in 1844, he married Anna Catherine Faber, born July 13, 1822, in Bauschleiden, Luxembourg. She passed away in Chicago, Illinois on March 20, 1895. The couple immigrated to the United States in 1845, initially settling in Buffalo, New York, where sons Nicholas (1846) and Cornelius (1848) were born. In 1848, the family moved to Chicago, here another eight children would be born, Nicholas Henry (1850), Margaretha (1852), Maria (1853), Anna (1856), John Henry (1859), Peter Andrew (1862), Joseph Pierre (1864) and Elizabeth (1866).

Growing up in Chicago Joseph P. Birren studied art, initially with Professor Lauth, then with C. F. Schwerdt, a portrait painter, before attending the Chicago Art Institute. There he studied under J. H. Vanderpoel. Joseph P. Birren painted beside such young rising American artists as John H. Twachtman, Arthur B. Davies, Harry Aiken Vincent and Oliver Dennett Grover — who all contributed to a cyclorama that represented Christ before Pilate, executed in Chicago in 1886, a 365 feet circular canvas. He also contributed to the 1887 Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama, whose sky was painted by Twachtman. In 1888, the Gross Organization commissioned Joseph P. Birren, along with C. H. Collins and C. Wilhelmi of Dusseldorf, to bring the cyclorama to Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, and install it for exhibition. Joseph Birren took the occasion to travel around the world, sketching and drawing along the trip. In Paris, he studied at the Julian and Colarossi Academies in 1889, returning to America a year later. To replenish his savings, Birren landed a job with George Luks, as a newspaper illustrator for Texas Siftings in New York in 1890. Returning to Chicago in 1892, Birren worked as art director for the Chicago Graphic during the World’s Columbian Exposition. His business associates included J.C. Leyendecker, Karl Anderson, and other rising artists. Having achieved financial prosperity with his own business of fashion design, Birren retired in 1916 and turned to full-time painting. From 1893 until his death, his work was exhibited regularly at the Art Institute of Chicago and sporadically at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
 
In the fall of 1931 Joseph Pierre Birren visited Luxembourg. In Steinsel he painted a small picture of the local church:

Steinsel, Luxembourg
Roman Catholic Church by Pierre Joseph Birren

On the back of the picture he wrote:  
Steinsel, Luxembourg. Birthplace of Heinrich Birren (my father) 1812-1880 and R.C. Church built after my father’s departure for U.S.A. in 1845. Drawn in Sept 1931’  Joseph P. Birren
 
In October 1931, Grand-Duchess Charlotte conferred upon Joseph P. Birren the honor of chevalier dans l’Ordre Grand-Ducal de la Couronne de Chêne [Knight of the Grand-Ducal Order of the Oak Leaf Crown]. A painting by Joseph P. Birren came to symbolize the 1933 Chicago’s World Fair A Century of Progress, 1833-1933 and was selected by the US Postal Service for a commemorative envelope of the fair.
 
Joseph P. Birren passed away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 4, 1933. His son, Faber Birren (1900-1988), became a specialist on the effects of color on humans, publishing many books and articles on the subject.
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© 2007-2011 Fausto Gardini. Jacksonville, Florida

A version of this article was written for the  Luxembourg American Cultural Society, Inc. in  2007 for the Luxembourg American Cultural Center (LACC) of Belgium, Wisconsin.

Published in Luxembourg On My Mind in 2011