Among the leading figures in the mid-twentieth-century enameling field, Karl Drerup is best known for his Limoges-style painted enamels that portray wooded landscapes filled with birds, bugs, and lizards, or images of farmers, sailors, and fishermen pursuing their humble daily chores. Drerup’s love of nature is apparent in every detail of these intimate woodland scenes, just as his depictions of workers in natural settings reveal his profound respect for humanity. A deeply spiritual, widely read individual, Drerup also chose as his subjects religious themes, myths, and legends, or figures from the circus and the Italian commedia dell’arte. He produced these colorful, semi-abstract compositions in a style influenced by modern art in Europe, especially the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and the watercolors of Paul Klee.
Born in Boghorst, Westphalia, in the northwest region of Germany, Drerup studied painting in Munster and Berlin as well as at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. In 1937, after living in the Canary Islands for several years, he moved to the United States with his wife Gertrude to escape impending war in Europe. It was only after his arrival in this country that he took up enameling. While he pursued oil painting, drawing, and occasionally ceramics throughout his life, by the mid-1940s enameling had become his preferred form of expression. The Drerups first settled on Long Island where the artist found a job teaching at Adelphi University. However, in 1945, wanting to escape the congestion and hectic pace of New York, they moved to Thornton, New Hampshire, and made a home for themselves in a serene, wooded setting. Drerup’s reverence for nature--his love of its intimate details as well as its awe-inspiring expanses--is apparent in virtually everything he created for the remainder of his long and productive life.
Drerup quickly rose to national prominence in the early 1940s. His enamels were featured in numerous exhibitions across the country as he emerged as one of the most influential artists working in the enamels field. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased a piece in 1940 and another in 1950 and in 1941 he was featured in a one-person exhibition that toured nationally. In 1959 Drerup’s work was presented in depth in the exhibition Enamels at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts.
Disavowing the widespread movement toward pure abstraction in the mid-twentieth-century, Drerup pursued a more pictorial approach. Describing himself as a “traditionalist” and an “irrepressible romantic,” he stated, “Art without a subject is really not attractive to me…I can’t help it; I have no excuses to make for my flight backwards instead of looking forward and taking all the cues. Part of my inner need, in a sense, is to tell a story.”