Carl Henry von Ahrens was born on February 15, 1862 in Winfield, Ontario. His parents, Herman and Isabella Ahrens, separated soon after and Ahrens was raised by his father in Berlin (now Kitchener) where his family were among the first European settlers in Waterloo County. Several Ahrens men were prominent in local business and devout members of the local Swedenborgian Church. None beyond Carl's father had any patience for the boy who spent more time daydreaming and causing mischief than anything else.
After Carl contracted tuberculosis at around age seven, the family likely humored his quirks rather than attempt to shape him into a respectable man. The disease settled in Carl's hip instead of his lungs, reportedly due to an injury of the joint, and he was not expected to survive to adulthood. Some sources claim he was kicked by another little boy, but the story passed down through several generations was that he constructed a pair of wings and attempted to fly off a roof. The most likely cause was a timely accident combined with repeated exposure. Multiple family members living under the same roof, including Carl's father, died of the disease.
Ahrens was a master prankster. His most memorable exploit, a story probably exaggerated over the years, was when teenage Carl was caught skinny dipping in the Grand River and, in fleeing from the town constable, ran stark naked through a Mennonite picnic.
Carl Ahrens' great-grandfather, Frederick Gaukel (1785-1853), was one of the first settlers of Berlin, Ontario, and a prominent businessman. Frederick and Gaukel streets in present-day Kitchener were named after him.
Carl Ahrens' grandfather was Karl Henirch von Ahrens (1803-1854) , the first treasurer of Waterloo County. Ahrens Street in present-day Kitchener is named after him.
No known photos of Carl's father, Herman Ahrens, have been located.
There are no known photos of Ahrens' mother, Isabella (1841-1931) in her youth. This image was taken in Leith, Ontario in 1914.
Carl Ahrens in the early 1870s in Berlin, Ontario.
Throughout childhood Ahrens suffered periods of illness, sometimes dire ones, but he always recovered. In between illnesses he learned how to hunt, box, fish, dance and do anything else the other boys did. He walked with a slight limp even at the best of times, but did not, as doctors predicted, grow misshapen. By 1878, Ahrens' family realized that he may need a career after all and sent him to Winnipeg to apprentice in a law firm owned by acquaintances. Carl escaped at the first opportunity.
He took up with an eccentric named Broadcloth Smith for a brief time, then held down a claim near Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta, over the winter. When the owner returned, Ahrens and a friend hiked to Fort Garry, getting caught in a spring blizzard along the way. They were lost for three days and without food for two. At Fort Garry, he had his first encounter with the local native tribes. One of the men saw Ahrens' injured feet and offered his own moccasins.
While out west, Ahrens met Francis Dickens (son of author Charles Dickens) who was a Captain of the North West Mounted Police. He also met Calamity Jane in a saloon in Dakota Territory. He held every available job except driving a stagecoach and was friendly with the local native tribes – they called him Lone Pine. Once he was caught between two warring bands and spent a day in a buffalo hollow while arrows flew over his head.
Carl Ahrens in the late 1870s, likely taken in Dakota Territory. He would have been in his late teens.
Francis J. Dickens of the North West Mounted Police, was the son of author Charles Dickens. Ahrens likely knew him from his time at one of the forts in Alberta.
Ahrens likely met Calamity Jane in Deadwood or a nearby town in the late 1870s. A granddaughter of Ahrens said a photograph of him along with two other men and Jane existed but has now been lost. She said the story she heard from her mother (Carl's daughter, Chloris) was that he once traveled with Jane and even briefly worked on her ranch.
After two years, the family insisted Ahrens return to Ontario and they promptly put him to work at his uncle's button factory in Waterloo. The tedious and delicate process of dyeing buttons fascinated Ahrens. He later considered this job his first step toward the mastery of color that distinguished him as a painter.
Eventually Ahrens' family demanded that he needed a real profession. Hearing no suitable suggestions from him, they sent him to Stratford to apprentice as a dentist under his uncle, Alfred Ahrens. He swiftly mastered everything Dr. Ahrens could teach, but could not practice in Ontario without a degree, so he moved to Nebraska City, Nebraska. He became one of the first dentists in the United States to drill teeth using the rotary method, which made him popular with patients. In 1887 the American Medical Congress invited him to Washington, D.C. for one of their meetings.
On an extended trip home to Ontario, Ahrens met and married Emily Marion Carroll. He brought his bride back to Nebraska, where their son, Carl Herman, was born. Ahrens began to paint in 1886, at the age of twenty-four, and within a year he gave up dentistry, a profession he had never enjoyed. When his family heard of Ahrens' decision, they turned their backs on him, hoping poverty would help him see reason. It didn't. He moved to Toronto and took a studio on Adelaide Street. By twenty-seven he was known as an up-and-coming artist, and his vast social circle included painters, journalists and actors. He was particularly close with the Mohawk recitalist and poet, Pauline Johnson.
In the 1880s this still-standing building in Waterloo, Ontario, was the button factory where Ahrens worked.
Richard Roschman (1848-1930) owned the button factory in Waterloo. He was married to Carl's aunt, Nancy Ahrens.
Dr. Alfred E. Ahrens (1851-1929) was the brother of Carl's father, Herman. Carl apprenticed under him at his practice in Stratford, Ontario, in the early 1880s.
Emily Marion Carroll, the woman without the hat in this photo, was Carl Ahrens' first wife. They married in 1886 and had three children. The marriage was reportedly unhappy from the start and it became unbearable to Carl after he met and fell in love with Martha Niles, who would become his second wife in 1906.
Pauline Johnson, a half-Mohawk poet and recitalist was very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was a close friend of Carl's through much of the 1890s. She, too, had been a sickly child and had an adventurous spirit; it is no wonder they connected well.
Ahrens had little formal art instruction. He worked alone, watching the methods of other painters but never copying them. He first exhibited with the Ontario Society of Artists in 1889. In 1891 he was elected Associate Painter in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. In 1892 he studied painting under William Merritt Chase and sculpture under Francis Edwin Elwell in New York City. While there, he befriended George Inness, who became his mentor. Inness encouraged Ahrens to stop taking classes, go home, and paint how he wished to paint. Ahrens returned to Toronto, resigned from all professional associations and, while initially famous for his portraits, turned almost exclusively to landscapes.
During the summer of 1896, Ahrens and his family lived near the Ojibwa reservation at Southampton, Ontario. The children of the tribe were fascinated by Ahrens, reportedly staring at him as if they had seen a ghost. The chief's wife told Ahrens that he strongly resembled a son she had recently lost. From that time she called Ahrens her son and he called her his Indian Mother. In time, Ahrens and his family moved onto the reservation, were adopted by the tribe, and received new names. Ahrens' was Ah-sa-ba-nang, the name of the lost son. It means "a cluster of stars".
In 1899, Ahrens met Elbert Hubbard, the founder of the famous Roycroft artist community in East Aurora, New York. Hubbard admired Ahrens' work, and when he learned Ahrens had experience in a potter shop as well, he asked Ahrens to join the Roycrofters and start a pottery there. Ahrens moved to East Aurora with his wife, three children (Carl, Robert and Pauline) and his cousin, fellow painter Eleanor Douglas, in May of 1900. Hubbard, a businessman, and Ahrens, a craftsman, soon butted heads over what constituted a finished piece. Hubbard insisted the pottery be sold unglazed and, thus, unable to hold water. People willingly bought, as the pottery bore the Roycroft mark, but the work was of no value and no surviving pieces have been found.
Ahrens left the Roycroft community after only four months, but remained in East Aurora until 1905. While the potter shop was a failure, the experience was pivotal in Ahrens' life. It was at Roycroft that he met and fell in love with Martha Niles, a young artist and singer who illuminated books for the print shop. His marriage to Emily Carroll had been unhappy from the start, but in New York only the "wronged" party could file for divorce, and Emily refused. As soon as his sons were old enough to be self-supporting, he broke ties with his family and moved to New York City, reuniting with Martha, whom he always called Madonna, there.
Carl Ahrens in his Roycroft studio in East Aurora, NY - 1900.
Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) , the founder of the Roycroft arts and crafts community, was a author, lecturer, and businessman known all over the continent at the turn of the 20th century. Everyone who was anyone visited Roycroft at some point, including the President.
He and Ahrens admired each other but often butted heads. Their working relationship quickly dissolved.
Eleanor Douglas, Ahrens' second cousin, was an artist in her own right. She had lived with his family starting in about 1893 and followed them to East Aurora, where she assisted Ahrens in the Roycroft potter shop.
Robert Laird Ahrens (left) and Carl Herman Ahrens were the sons of Carl and Emily Ahrens.
They wore different uniforms because Carl Herman had been born in the United States and Robert was a native-born Canadian.
Martha Niles around 1900. This is how she would have looked when Ahrens met and fell in love with her at Roycroft. He nicknamed her Madonna almost from the start. She hand painted illustrations in the Roycroft books.
Author George Wharton James, whom Ahrens met at Roycroft, offered Ahrens a commission to paint the old Spanish missions in California, intending to use the work as illustrations for a book on the subject. That divorce laws were more lenient out west may have played into Ahrens' decision to go. He and Madonna were obliged to pose as husband and wife for the better part of a year before they could make it legal.
No motor cars were allowed on the mountain roads in 1906, so they traveled by covered wagon as far south as San Diego and worked their way up the coast to San Francisco. The trip could have proved disastrous for Madonna, who had been raised comfortably in a middle-class New York family. Not only was she now roughing it, but doing so while pregnant. Ahrens, an experienced camper, taught her how to survive in the wilds. Being rather progressive in his views about marital roles, he remained the camp cook and put her in charge of their finances.
They had been in Santa Barbara at the time of the earthquake and saw no signs of damage until they were much further north. The quake nearly bankrupted George Wharton James; he bought a few of the paintings, but not enough to illustrate his book.
George Wharton James
Madonna doing laundry outside of San Diego in early summer of 1906.
Ahrens cooking supper at one of the missions.
Ahrens and Madonna wintered in a bungalow in Corte Madera and married a month before their son, Laird, was born. They returned to Toronto in the summer of 1907, settling in the village of Meadowvale. After a prolonged illness, he was forced to move back to the city. Ahrens met Colonel (later Major-General) Malcolm Smith Mercer at an exhibition of his Meadowvale paintings. Mercer, moved by Ahrens' work, offered to purchase all new paintings for the following three years, allowing Ahrens financial and creative freedom to produce his best work.
Ahrens' daughter, Penelope, was born in 1908 but died in 1910, less than a month before the birth of Sigrid Ahrens.
In 1911, Ahrens exhibited the Mercer Collection at the Public Reference Library in Toronto. People from many European galleries were there, one offering as much as $100,000 for the collection of 31 paintings. Mercer would not sell. The Belgian art commissioner invited the collection to Belgium for an exhibit, the first such offer made by any European country to a North American artist. The Great War started before arrangements could be finalized.
In 1912, Ahrens' youngest daughter, Chloris, was born in Lambton Mills. It was a happy time for the family due to continued financial support from Mercer. They spent their summers at Leith, on Georgian Bay, but in 1914 Mercer was sent to Europe to fight. Ahrens had to take a job as a game warden in the Kawartha Lakes region.
Major-General Mercer was killed in battle in 1916, leaving Ahrens temporarily without a patron. Charles Burden and Col. George Naismith took over the role, but demanded only small pieces, frustrating Ahrens, who was finally well enough to paint larger works. In the summer of 1919, Ahrens' painting called The Glade was requested for an extended loan to Glasgow Galleries in Scotland. It remains there to this day.
Major-General Malcolm S. Mercer in 1914. Two years later he became the highest ranking Canadian officer to be killed in WWI.
Carl Ahrens with son, Laird in Corte Madera, California - 1907.
Madonna Ahrens with baby Penelope in Meadowvale, Ontario - 1908.
The Ahrens family at Leith, Ontario, in 1914. From left to right: Sigrid, Laird, Carl, Madonna , and baby Chloris.
Ahrens moved his family to Woodstock, NY in 1920. He taught landscape painting with Charles Etherington, while his wife, Madonna, trained in singing with Alfredo Barili, one of Atlanta's top composers. In 1921, the family moved with friends to Rockport, Massachusetts, where Ahrens painted seascapes for a short time. He again fell ill and longed for home, so they returned to Canada in the winter of 1922.
The family lived in a series of cheap houses in Toronto before finding their dream home, an old stone farm house in Galt, near Ahrens' boyhood hometown. They were able to afford this only because Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, an old friend of Ahrens, threatened to replace Sir Edmund Walker, the Chairman of the Art Advisory Committee, for his continued refusal to buy Ahrens' work for the National Gallery. Ahrens had made many enemies over the years, and Walker was the most vocal. Already unpopular for his refusal to join any associations and his knack for saying the wrong things to the wrong people, the scandal of Ahrens' divorce and remarriage was the final straw. While nothing today, divorce was considered morally repugnant at the time, especially in conservative Toronto. He endured constant accusations that his marriage to Madonna was not legal.
Ahrens named the new house Big Trees. He took on students, one of whom, Grant Macdonald, later became the official artist for the Royal Canadian Navy during WWII. The family entertained politicians, artists, musicians, poets, novelists, and professors. Ahrens' boyhood friend, painter Homer Watson, was a frequent guest.
Carl Ahrens (right) with his friend, landscape painter Homer Watson. Alderside Park, New Dundee, Ontario. 1934
Carl Ahrens with his student, Grant Macdonald in Galt, Ontario. Macdonald was later an official artist of the Royal Canadian Navy. He also later was a set designer during the first few years of the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespearean Festival.
"Big Trees" just outside Galt, Ontario, was the Ahrens family home from 1923-1935.
Ahrens began experimenting with printmaking in 1925, constructing a printing press out of an old mangle and reworked dental tools. He burned his used metal plates in the fireplace to clean the flue. The printmaking process was laborious and he was not strong, so his daughters, Sigrid and Chloris, often helped with any heavy work.
Ahrens' last years were full of illness and excruciating pain. The tubercular hip he had had since childhood left him with five constantly draining abscesses, a fused hip joint, and a perforated bowel. He went through long periods when he was confined to a chair, unable to either stand or lie down. In the end, his six foot frame was down to 85 pounds. He continued to paint to the end, and his last works are full of vibrant color.
Ahrens had two exhibitions in 1933, one at Cunningham's Studio (Hamilton, Ontario) and another in Montreal. His last exhibition was in March of 1935, shortly before he and Madonna left Galt for England, an arrangement they thought would be permanent. They were only able to stay four months before Ahrens had a series of strokes and wanted to return home.
Back in Toronto, penniless and desperate, Madonna wrote to Prime Minister Mackenzie King. King arranged for Ahrens to be taken care of for the last months of his life in the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital. He died on February 27, 1936 at the age of 74.
Carl Ahrens at Big Trees in 1935. His pain was constant and excruciating by this point. On the table behind him is a little statue he used as a model in at least one of his paintings.
Carl and Madonna Ahrens in June 1935. Galt, Ontario. This is the last known photo of them together. He died in February of 1936.
Ahrens family at Big Trees in June 1935.
From left to right: Carl (1862-1936), Laird (1906-1986), Olive (wife of Laird), Madonna (1882-1976), Sigrid (1911-1998), Stephen (husband of Sigrid), Chloris (1912-1982) holding baby Nonna (1933-2021).