Karl J. Priebe Papers, ca. 1900-1978

35 boxes and 1 vertical file drawer; 9.5 cubic feet



Karl J. Priebe, painter, was born July 1, 1914 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of Emil and Katherine (Wacker) Priebe. He graduated from the Layton School of art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After serving on the anthropology staff of the Milwaukee Public Museum (1938-1942) and as director of the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts (1943-1944), he returned to Layton as an instructor in 1947.

Priebe had already won the prestigious Prix de Rome (1941), received critical acclaim for his paintings in New York, and gained recognition as a leader of the emerging "fantasist" school. His growing reputation soon enabled him to support himself from the sale of his works, which were exhibited in major public and private galleries from coast to coast and in Paris, Mexico City, and Tokyo. Many institutions acquired his paintings for their permanent collections.

Outside the studio, Priebe pursued interests in birdwatching, black people and their culture, and jazz music. His wide circle of friends included artists Gertrude Abercrombie, Carol Blanchard, and John Wilde; novelist, critic, and portrait photographer Carl Van Vechten (an early promoter of his work); jazz artists Billie Holiday, and Dizzy Gillespie; and authors Gwendolyn Brooks, Owen Dodson, Edward Harris Heth, and Langston Hughes. Karl Priebe died July 5, 1976.

Scope and Content

Series 1, General Correspondence, 1918-1978, contains Karl Priebe's incoming correspondence and postcards he sent to several individuals, notably Frank Harriott. Correspondents include Gertrude Abercrombie, Carol Blanchard, Gwendolyn Brooks, Morton DaCosta, Owen Dodson, Langston Hughes, Jackie (Cain) and Roy Kral, Marianne Moore, Willard Motley, Carl Van Vechten and John Wilde. Clippings, programs, and other items concerning novelist and dilettante Max Ewing, which Van Vechten sent Priebe, are also filed here. This series is arranged alphabetically by correspondent and chronologically thereunder. Extended correspondence is foldered separately.

Series 2, Postcards with Original Drawings to Priebe, 1947-1976, contains more than 200 hand-illustrated cards from the following: Leonard Beck, Charles Sebree, John Yeates, and four Japanese Artists (Te Tuya Machida, Atushi Nishikawa, Chikae Oyamada, Koji Watanabe).

Series 3, Postcards with Original Drawings from Priebe, 1947-1976, includes approximately 1,500 cards illustrated in pen, pencil, and watercolor; the majority were sent to Frank Harriott. The cards are arranged by subject (birds, faces, other) and chronologically thereunder.

Series 4, Literary Manuscripts, ca. 1950-1976, contains manuscripts by Priebe or in his possession. Of special note are the surviving portions of Frank Harriott's drafts of a novel based somewhat on the life of Billie Holiday (parts are missing due to water damage). Formerly an associate of Ebony magazine, Harriott was hospitalized during the last four years of his life, dying at age 34 in 1955. Also included are three typescript versions of "Constable," a play co-authored by Priebe and Mary (Lisa) Decker, which apparently was never performed in public. Manuscripts are arranged alphabetically by author and chronologically thereunder.

Series 5, Original Drawings and Sketches, 1934-1976, includes Priebe's sketchbooks and sketchpads (most from ca. 1960-1976) and approximately 300 loose sketches. The sketchbooks include lists of names (perhaps owners of Priebe paintings), lists of paintings on exhibition, and other notes. There are also 62 abstract designs in pencil and crayon by an unidentified artist from the Layton School of Art and several sketches by Frederick Alert and Ronald Knox. Drawings are arranged by subject and type of sketchbook.

Series 6, Press Productions, 1944-1974, contains printed matter illustrated with Priebe drawings or paintings, including greeting cards, announcements, magazine covers, and a Japanese calendar. The series is arranged by type of production and chronologically thereunder.

Series 7, Exhibition Announcements and Catalogues, 1936-1978, includes gallery and museum publications pertaining to Priebe.

Series 8, Publications on Karl J. Priebe, 1943-1978, consists of newspaper and magazine articles and notices and two Japanese publications with advertisements featuring a painting by Priebe. The series is arranged by type of publication and author, and chronologically thereunder.

Series 9, Photographs and Slides, ca. 1900-1976, contains photographs and some slides of Priebe, his friends, and his paintings. Most of the latter are pre-1955 works. Photographs taken when Billie Holiday visited Priebe's home in 1958, shortly before her death, are included. The arrangement is by subject and type of photograph, and chronologically thereunder.

Series 10, Photographs of and by Max Ewing and Carl Van Vechten, 1883-1956, most dating from 1932 to 1956, consists of photographs sent to Priebe by Van Vechten from 1946 to 1956. The bulk of these, approximately 4,100 photographs, are by Van Vechten, most in the form of postcards. Many include notes to Priebe. Particularly well represented are the portraits of ballet dances and black jazz artists for which Van Vechten was well known. Actors, artists, and authors predominate among other subjects, while portraits of Priebe and several of his friends are included. The arrangements is by subject and alphabetical by name of individual, with portrait-sized photographs boxes separately from those on postcard stock. Permission to publish Van Vechten's photos must be obtained from his estate, represented by Bruce Kellner, 514 North School Lane, Lancaster, PA 17603 (BruceKellnerB@aol.com).

Series 11, Memorabilia, 1951-1976, undated., contains varied documents and artifacts. Of special note are the helmet replica awarded Priebe by the Japanese government at his Tokyo exhibition in 1969, a painting by Chikae Oyamada, a baseball signed by the Milwaukee Braves, and a ledger listing of birds seen, by year, from 1951-1960, in order of first sighting, with general locality and accompanying birdwatchers noted. Another ledger, composed largely of addresses, has a list of paintings (pp. 125-126) and of names, possibly owners of Priebe works (pp. 150-151).

The Priebe Papers were arranged and described by archivist Phillip M. Runkel.