A Passion to Paint: The Brief, but Fruitful, Life of Arnold Otto Krug

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I made the acquaintance of Arnold Krug, desert artist, while curating an exhibition for the Mesa Historical Museum in Arizona.  This exhibit featured the work of two artists who had  lived for periods of time at Mesa’s historic Buckhorn Baths.  The Baths, a hot-spring spa and resort that catered to baseball’s Cactus league teams, was owned and operated by Ted and Alice Sliger, a kindly couple who had a soft spot for desert art and artists and who frequently offered a home to those in need of one.

Arnold Krug painting al fresco in the Arizona desert, circa 1940.

Arnold Krug painting al fresco in the Arizona desert, circa 1940.

One of the two exhibited artists, George Frederick Gleich, was flamboyant, an avid self-promoter, and a fellow who left a trail of biographical tidbits a mile wide.  The other man in the exhibit–undisputedly the better artist–was Arnold Krug.

Unlike the wild and wooly Gleich, a nephew remembered Arnold as “a quiet and shy type.”  A handsome man, Krug is described on his World War I draft-registration form as brown-haired, blue-eyed, short and slim. He never married, but according to family once was engaged to a girl from Milwaukee; however, the relationship ended when he moved to Arizona.  Alas, the most exotic biographical detail I’ve found about Arnold was a newspaper account of his attendance at an evening soiree.   On May 11, 1940, Ted and Alice Sliger, owners of the Buckhorn Baths in Mesa, Arizona, threw a party with a “supper of baked peacock…served around a campfire in the patio of their home.”

The Man

Arnold Otto Krug was born June 7, 1896, in Forest, Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, the ninth of Joseph J. and Katherina Immel Krug’s ten children.  He was christened on July 12, 1896, at Saint Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Forest.  St Paul’s was located in an area known as the Holyland, according to Arnold’s great-nephew, because of the many Catholic churches that were “the center of the little town’s social life (along with, of course, the one or two taverns).”  St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran is the only Protestant church in the area, and Arnold received his education at its school.

Arnold Krug, Superstition Mountains, 1935. Buckhorn Baths Collection.

Superstition Mountains, 1935, by Arnold Krug. Buckhorn Baths Collection.

One of the mysteries associated with Arnold is that he was christened Arnold Otto Krug, but on both his World War I and World War II draft registration cards, his name is given as Arnold Christ Krug.  In the Fond du Lac City Directories for 1921 and 1924, he is listed as Arnold C. Krug.  Why and when he adopted the Christ is a continuing puzzle.   Arnold seems to have never signed his artwork other than “Arnold Krug.”  A family member theorizes that he may well have had more than two given names since that would have been fairly common practice at that time.

Krug’s parents were both born in Germany and immigrated to the United States as children.  In the 1905 Wisconsin Census and in the 1910 Federal Census, Arnold was noted as living in the very small farming hamlet of Forest with his family.   At some point between 1910 and 1920 the Joseph Krug family moved from Forest to 94 8th Street in the town of Fond du Lac, but in 1918 Arnold was living in Calvary, Wisconsin, working as a farm hand for Henry Wagner, his brother-in-law.

From 1919 until 1928 Arnold is listed in the Fond du Lac City Directories as living with his parents and sister Ella, and until 1924 his occupation is given as “carpenter,” after which he is noted as a “mechanic.” The house on 8th Street most likely belonged originally to Joseph and Katherine Krug and was inherited by Ella.  Arnold rented a room from his sister, and their mother Katherina also continued to live there until her death. After Ella’s husband died in 1929, she and her two daughters went to live with another sister.  This is probably when Arnold moved to Milwaukee to continue work as an auto mechanic.

The Joseph J. Krug Family, 1906. Arnold is the boy in theh middle of the back row.

The Joseph J. Krug Family, 1906. Arnold is the boy in the middle of the back row.

The Krug family was close-knit.  Arnold’s nephew recalls that, when the Krug brothers had a hog-butchering “bee,” Arnold drove in from Milwaukee to help and that in 1939 five family members packed into a Model A Ford to travel from Wisconsin to Arizona to visit Arnold.  Arnold seems to have moved back and forth between Phoenix and Wisconsin on a regular basis.  His obituary in the May 10, 1942, Arizona Republic newspaper says, “Mr. Krug, who made his summer home in Fond du Lac had wintered [in Phoenix] for the past seven years during which he concentrated on painting Arizona mountains and desert.”    During Arnold’s final days, two of his sisters made the long trip to Arizona to be with him and, after his death, accompanied his body back to Wisconsin.

Both the 1929 Milwaukee City Directory and the 1930 Federal census show Arnold–and sixteen other boarders–living in a lodging run by German-born Otto E. and Clara Heine. (German connections figured large throughout Arnold’s life.)  Arnold may have continued work as an auto mechanic in Milwaukee in between trips to follow his painting passion in California and Arizona.  His obituary states that he “had resided in California and Phoenix for the last 15 years,” indicating that he had come and gone from Wisconsin since at least 1927.  In the 1930 Census he is listed as being a “repairman, auto service.”  In 1933 a Milwaukee City Directory shows Arnold working as a repairman for the Edwards Motor Company, one of the largest automobile dealers and service providers in Milwaukee.

Arnold Krug, Bishop Creek, High Sierras, 1938.

Bishop Creek, High Sierra, 1938, by Arnold Krug. Private Collection.

Arnold’s infrequently dated artwork offers some clues about his peripatetic lifestyle beginning in the early 1930s.  A 1934 painting depicts transport boats on the Great Lakes.  He also painted in many areas of California. A canvas titled “Bishop Creek, High Sierras, Cal.” is dated December 1938.   A similar oil on canvas depicts the Minarets, a jagged range of peaks in the Sierras.  A painting of San Juan Capistrano Mission is undated, as are two lovely California-coast seascapes. There are several Krug paintings that are clearly not Arizona landscapes but that may possibly depict the Jacinto Mountains and smoke trees of the Palm Springs area.  An especially lovely canvas by Krug features the Servilleta Mountains near Taos, New Mexico.

When did Arnold begin to identify professionally as an artist rather than as an automobile mechanic?  In the book, Rural Artists of Wisconsin, John Rector Barton writes about Arnold’s nephew Ralph Krug, also a self-taught artist, saying: “His use of oil paints began the following summer in 1931, when his uncle, Arnold Krug, visited the farm.  The uncle was located in Arizona and spent most of his time painting desert scenes. He noticed the boy’s watercolors and, without attempting to give him advice or instruction, gave him brushes, tubes of oil paint, and a palette. For guidance he left an ancient-appearing book [first published in 1898] called The Painter in Oil, by Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst.”  In 1932 Arnold Krug exhibited artwork at the Oshkosh Public Museum in an exhibition of the work of Fox River Valley artists.  Arnold was listed among artists representing Fond du Lac.  So it is verifiable that by the early 1930s Arnold Krug had officially become an “artist.”

Arnold Krug, Great Lakes Transport Boats, 1934. Private Collection.

“Sleeping Giants”. Great Lakes Transport Boats, 1934, by Arnold Krug. Private Collection.

Arnold was certainly involved in some way in the Arizona art community.  His Phoenix landlord said Arnold’s paintings had been “displayed in one of the major downtown banks.” Krug’s Arizona obituary calls him a “prominent artist” and says, “Mr. Krug’s paintings have hung in many exhibitions in Arizona and other states.”  Arnold’s WWII draft registration card notes Ralph Goltry as someone “who will always know your address,” indicating a close friendship.  In 1925 Goltry was one of the founders of the Phoenix Fine Arts Association—an organization that birthed both the Phoenix Art Museum and the Arizona Artists Guild. Goltry, as was Krug, is best known for his paintings of the Superstition Mountains, a range in the Tonto National Forest about fifty miles east of Phoenix.   Records of the Arizona Artists Guild are archived at the Phoenix Art Museum Library, but, after an exhaustive search of them, I concluded that Arnold never joined the Guild.  (However, I did discover that, if you modeled for the Guild in the mid-1930s, you earned 25 cents an hour!)

A granddaughter of Arthur J. and Blanche Frauenthal, owners of The Westward Lodge, a Phoenix boarding house, writes, “One starving artist was a Frauenthal family favorite. Arnold Krug had come west to develop a painting career. He stayed at the Lodge, on and off, for several years. My grandfather was also German, and they had a great relationship. [Krug’s] health suffered, and Arthur and Blanche helped care for him.…He was, of course, a starving artist. When he was out of money, he would trade a painting for room and board….My mother Ann, who would have been a teenager then, had a crush on Arnold who dedicated a painting of the ‘High Sierras’ to her.  He gave/traded two large paintings to my grandfather, and they hung in the Westward Lodge for years.  Ann kept and cherished all of Arnold’s paintings!  As family lore goes, Arnold had gone to another area of the city for a job and to continue his painting. He became ill and died. The Frauenthals were heartbroken when they heard of his passing. I remember my grandmother saying that if he’d stayed with them, they would have taken care of him.”

Superstition Spring Time, by Arnold Krug. Courtesy of Blue Coyote Gallery.

Superstition Spring Time, by Arnold Krug. Courtesy of Blue Coyote Gallery.

Following a two-year illness, Arnold Krug died on May 8, 1942, in Phoenix, Arizona, from bronchial pneumonia, a complication of brucellosis.  In 1995, Alice Sliger, proprietoress of the Buckhorn Baths recalled,  “[Ted and I] were married about nine years before our first child was born. I think this was due to the fact that I suffered with undulant fever [brucellosis] during those years. It is caused by drinking unpasteurized milk. An artist friend, Arnold Krug, who lived in a small room here and spent lots of time with us, got undulant fever too, but he did not survive it.” Arnold’s address at the time of his death was another boarding house at 303 West Willetta Street, Phoenix, AZ.  Funeral services for Arnold were held both in Phoenix by the pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church he attended and at home in Wisconsin.   He is buried at Fond Du Lac’s Rienzi Cemetery.

The Artist

Arnold’s family confirmed that he was self-taught.  His passionate desire to make art shaped his short life, and he certainly wasn’t the first young artist to be seduced by the wide skies and dramatic landscapes of the West.  Since Arnold infrequently dated his artwork, analyzing it chronologically is difficult, but, by examining it stylistically, his paintings can be seen to develop and refine over the years.  One of his paintings, a charmingly naif portrait of his toddler nephew Edward Wagner, may have been painted as early as 1918 when Arnold lived with the Wagner family.  Edward was born in 1913, so it would have been entirely possible that this painting dates from then.  (This is the only extant portrait that we know to have been painted by Arnold Krug.)   Another early painting of an impressionistic forest scene, sold in an online auction, was noted as having been painted in the late 1920s.  It’s quite loose and impasto in style, vastly different from Arnold’s later more atmospheric landscape vistas painted with precise and controlled brushwork.  The auction site noted that this painting is similar in style to the impressionistic artwork of Francesco Spicuzza, a Wisconsin artist whose work was widely known and enthusiastically emulated at the time.

Arnold Krug, Edward Wagner and Sporty. Private Collection.

Edward Wagner and Sporty, by Arnold Krug. Private Collection.


Arnold Krug, Forest Scene, late 1930s. Private Collection.

Forest Scene, late 1930s, by Arnold Krug. Private Collection.

One of the several canvases that Arnold painted in California’s High Sierra Mountains is dated 1935.  All of these High Sierra pieces, likely done around the same time, are rendered in a broader, more “painterly” style than his later desert scenes.  Two California-seashore canvases are equally loose in brush stroke and heavily textured, as is the only architectural painting I have seen of Krug’s—the mission church at San Juan Capistrano, California.

When Arnold Krug began to paint the desert landscapes of California, New Mexico, and Arizona, he found his niche–one of his loveliest desert paintings typical of his later style is a 1935 oil-on-canvas titled “Servilleta Mt. Napkin Mountain, Taos, N.M.”  His paintings from the mid-1930s until his death in 1942–most often panoramic views of sky, desert floor, and mountain–show real maturity as an artist.  Arnold was fairly prolific as a painter and obviously enamored by the beauty and grandeur of the desert.  The Phippen Museum in Prescott, Arizona, included two of Krug’s pieces in its 2011 exhibition,  Arizona Visions:  Paintings from the Picerne Collection of Arizona Landmark Art, as well as including their images in its exhibition catalog. Gary Fillmore, proprietor of the Blue Coyote Gallery in Cave Creek, Arizona, curated this exhibition, and his Gallery also carries Arnold Krug’s artwork.  The Superstition Mountain piece he selected for this exhibit is typical of Krug’s best work—the foreground desert precisely and crisply depicted with the majestic mountain range, silhouetted against a vast Western sky, rising out of a desert haze.

Arnold Krug, Servilleta Mountains, Taos, New Mexico. The Picerne Collection.

Servilleta Mountains, Taos, New Mexico, by Arnold Krug. The Picerne Collection.

Reserved and self-effacing, Arnold Krug neither taught art classes, nor joined organizations, nor promoted himself. He was simply a focused, dedicated, and disciplined artist who, according to his family, went dutifully “into the desert at the same time every day to paint.”   Arnold Krug died much too soon at 45, but departed at the height of his prowess as an artist. I think it’s fair to say, judging from the quality of the body of his work, that he deserves inclusion in the top ranks of those artists who record the beauty of the desert.  While Arnold Krug may have never married, it’s abundantly clear that, in sickness and health and until death did him part, he was passionately, deeply, and abidingly in love with the desert Southwest.

Rebecca Ragan Akins:  A theatrical costume and puppet designer with over 130 shows to her credit, Akins has been involved for many years with arts education in Arizona–recently concluding a 21-year stint as Curator at the Arizona Museum for Youth.  The Tempe resident previously taught and was costumer/costume designer at the University of Denver Theatre Department. In 1985 Akins received the Arizona Women’s Partnership Governor’s Award for “Women Who Create,” and her own artwork has appeared in many galleries and exhibitions.  Over the years she has received many AriZoni Theatre Awards for Excellence in Costume Design. Akins is active in the local arts community — guest-jurying exhibits, moderating arts panels, and serving on the boards of the Central MuseumAssociation of Arizona, the Museum Association of Arizona [MAA], the New School for the Arts & Academics, the Executive Board of the Tempe Municipal Arts Commission, and the Daniel Nagrin Theatre, Dance & Film Foundation. 

Her last article for California Desert Art was about George Frederick Gleich: https://www.californiadesertart.com/?p=2509  After having spent quality time poking and prodding at Gleich and Krug, Akins has developed a keen interest in the artists of the desert southwest—those intrepid souls who willingly sacrificed security and comfort to follow their bliss. Akins can be reached at rrakins@cox.net.

Arnold Krug, Superstition Mountains

Superstition Mountains, by Arnold Krug





7 comments for “A Passion to Paint: The Brief, but Fruitful, Life of Arnold Otto Krug

  1. yes, impressive research and wonderful eastern sierra landscapes! i am pleased that arnold c. krug lived the last years of his life, following his dream!

  2. I have an Arnold Krug painting of superstition mountain. My grandmother purchased it in Fond Du Lac WI in the early 40’s. I remember my parents saying she bought it for $100, and paid for it $1 per week. I am not displaying the work. The frame needs restoration, but I would like to sell it and have someone display it and love it again

  3. Arnold Krug is my grandma’s uncle. I would love to purchase a painting. Please let me know if any are available.

  4. I have an interesting painting of Mission San Juan Capistrano, CA. Not the usual desert landscape. If you are interested in purchasing this Arnold Otto Krug painting, contact: ssural@yahoo.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *