Joseph Birren, a landscape painter, illustrator and graphic artist, was known for a style called Tactilism, meaning he used paint in a way that gave the illusion of three-dimensional work.
He was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 14, 1864 to Henry and Catherine Birren. He attended private schools and from 1883 to 1900, the Art Institute of Chicago where he was a student of John Vanderpoel. He also studied in Philadelphia, New York at the Art Students League, Munich, and Paris at the Julian Academy (1889).
At age 18, Birren was employed by the Chicago studio of C.F. Schwerdt. In 1885, he worked with Henry Knight in the creation of a cyclorama depicting the Battle of Gettysburg, and the next year, he joined H.H. Gross of the Gross Corporation on a second cyclorama (title unknown) whose circumference was 365 feet.
In 1888, the Gross Corporation commissioned Birren and several others to take that cyclorama to Australia for an exhibition. Birren was gone for a year, and his travels included Asia, Africa, and Europe. Returning to the United States, he spent two years in New York City as a newspaper illustrator, and then in 1892, he became Chief of Art Staff of the “Chicago Graphic” during the 1893 World’s Fair. He married Crescentia Lang, a musician, in 1894 and joined the art staff of J. Manz and Company, commercial artists, and in 1899, he founded his own company called “Graphic Arts Company. One of his clients was the Sears Roebuck Company. He stayed with this endeavor until 1916, when he retired from commercial art.
In the 1920s and 1930s, he maintained studios in both Chicago and Laguna Beach, California, and in 1927 had moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where he had a positive reception to his impressionist landscapes.
Exhibition venues included the Art Institute (one-man show in 1916), the Pennsylvania Academy, Corcoran Gallery, and Cincinnati Art Museum. He was the founder of the Art Institute of Chicago Alumni Association and served as President from 1911 to 1915. He was also a member of the Laguna Art Association in California and the North Shore Art Association in Rockport, Massachusetts.
Birren died in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 4, 1933.
Biography from the Archives of askART
Works in Our Collection
Rock of Ages
Oil on Masonite, c. 1920s
24 x 28 inches
Gift of M. Christine Schwartz