By Scott Valentine
Individuals from all walks of life made their way to the United States in the middle of the 19th century. Many landed in the young Republic eager to make something of themselves, and likely true believers in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip, “America is another word for Opportunity.”
Yet one German national arrived quite by accident in 1859. William Kurtz, a merchant seaman, and his crew mates on the Oxnard ran into trouble between Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands. The vessel floundered in a gale and the crew abandoned ship. An America-bound packet clipper, Chariot of Fame, rescued them, and continued its journey to provision at Old Point Comfort, Va. Here, Kurtz and the rest of the crew disembarked and decided what to do next.
Kurtz had been on a quest to China, where he had heard about opportunities for personal enrichment. Considering the challenges that he faced in his young life, China provided something of a fresh start.
Born in the Hessian village of Frankfurt, he exhibited a talent for the graphic arts from a young age. At 14, with his parent’s consent, Kurtz enrolled at the Staedlishe Institute, a Frankfurt art academy, to study painting. He proved a gifted artist, taking first prize at the Institute three years in a row. But after the death of his father, money troubles forced Kurtz to become a lithographer’s apprentice in nearby Offenbach while attending the academy part-time.
Kurtz completed his art studies, and then served two years of compulsory military service. Afterwards, facing the loss of his apprenticeship and little prospects for employment, he immigrated to England to find work in the lithography business.
From his native Germany to England to the high seas to China, Kurt’s early life was marked by more dead ends than pathways to success.
England and lithography did not pan out for him. Part-time work also did not pay the bills. However, the British army needed men to fight in the Crimea. Kurtz enlisted in the Anglo-German Legion and set out for the front. By the time the Legion reached Kuleli on the Bosphorus, the war had ended. The government disbanded the Legion quickly, as its recruitment was unpopular at home and abroad. By the end of November 1856, Kurtz found himself back in England—and unemployed.
At this point he took a chance as an ordinary seaman. In 1859, he boarded the Oxnard in Cardiff, Wales, to chase his Chinese dream. The gale off Cape Horn abruptly ended his pursuit.
Stranded at Old Point Comfort and weighing his options, Kurtz learned that lithographers were needed up North. He headed to New York City with virtually no money in his pocket and very little English in his vocabulary. He arrived at the year’s end.
Fate smiled upon him during his second day in town. Seated in a restaurant, he casually glanced over at a newspaper and saw a photographer’s advertisement for the services of an assistant. He got the job the same day, working in the studio of photographer George Loud. In this new position, Kurtz began to experiment with shadows and light. He mastered a process using a two-wing reflector covered with tinfoil to concentrate and bounce sunlight onto the subject’s face. With the subject seated against a dark background, the subtle contours of the face were dramatically revealed. This process later became known as the “Rembrandt Style.”
The attack on Fort Sumter interrupted his newfound career. For the second time, Kurtz faced a choice between art and war. He joined the military, becoming one of the 180,000 Germans that eventually served in Abraham Lincoln’s army.
In April 1861, Kurtz enlisted as a private and mustered into Company A of the 7th National Guard, New York State Militia. This regiment was not recognized for its connection to immigrants. Established in 1806, it was known as the “Silk Stocking Regiment” or the “Blue Bloods” because its ranks were filled with the sons of New York’s upper crust. The roster read like a directory of the rich and famous—soldiers named Hamilton, Tiffany, Van Buren, Van Cleef, Van Cortlandt and Vanderbilt served in the regiment. One of Kurtz’s fellow privates, Robert Gould Shaw, who went on to command African-American soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and died on the ramparts of Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863, served in Company F.
Kurtz and his comrades marched down Broadway in lower Manhattan to great fanfare before traveling to Washington, D.C., for an eventful 30-day enlistment. They slept inside the Capitol, bivouacked in Georgetown, occupied the heights of Arlington, Va., and assisted in the construction of Fort Runyon. They never saw combat, and mustered out in June.
Kurtz served a second tour of duty with the regiment, a three-month stint in mid-1862. This time, the 7th spent most of its time in Baltimore. He mustered out in early September in New York City. Although many of his comrades went on to become officers in other regiments, Kurtz had had enough of war, and devoted the rest of his life to his art.
About this time, he joined the staff of one of New York’s top photographers, George G. Rockwood. A daguerreian artist who claimed to have produced the first carte de visite in the U.S., Rockwood was only a year older than Kurtz. Ironically, it was Rockwood’s studio that photographed Kurtz in uniform during his military service.
In an 1894 newspaper interview, Rockwood recalled how he came to hire Kurtz. “Somewhere about 1861 or ’62 a very handsome young fellow, cheeks bright with color, a complexion that would make a maiden envious, bright keen eyes, and dressed immaculately, popped into my old place on Broadway and asked if I wanted an artist. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and I think you are the man I am waiting for!’ Blushing he said he thought so too. He handed me his card, upon which was the name ‘William Kurtz.’ Before us was standing a group picture of the four Oliphant Brothers, then a famous firm of merchants. He agreed to finish it in India ink and if satisfactory he was to begin under what was in those days a very fine salary. In three months he was receiving four times the wages with which he began, and he remained for a year or two.”
“A leader and worthy master in his profession”
In late 1865, Kurtz entered into partnership with photographer William Huston, who specialized in porcelain pictures. The Huston & Kurtz Gallery at 895 Broadway lasted seven years, during which time Kurtz received the American Institute of the City of New York award of First Premium for the best plain photograph, the best photograph finished in India ink and the best photograph on porcelain.
In 1872, Kurtz established his own studio at 872 Broadway and showed his work at the city’s American Institute Fair. Judges declared him “a leader and worthy master in his profession” and that he demonstrated “admirable skill of manipulation through the various stages by which he reaches a standard of excellence, which we have not seen surpassed, if equaled, by any other American or foreign photographer.”
The following year, Kurtz opened his premier studio at No. 6 East 23rd Street, opposite Madison Square. In a twist of fate, he hired his first New York employer, George Loud, as his chemist, along with 39 other assistants. It was the first photograph gallery equipped with artificial lighting, which enabled Kurtz to extend his working hours through the winter and on sunless days. The lights also allowed him to locate his gallery on the comfortable main floor rather than in a drafty rooftop skylight room. Control of the lights enabled him to achieve novel shading effects with long angles, and to capture varied and subtle facial expressions.
Kurtz won the accolades of his peers and garnered prizes at photographic fairs. At the International Exhibition in Vienna in 1873, he received one of the two highest awards made to portrait photographers. His gallery also became a destination for New York’s social elite, who queued up in all their finery after a play or a night at the opera to have their photographs taken by the famous Kurtz.
A German visitor to the studio in 1877 described the range of portrait choices: “In Herr Kurtz’s reception-room all sorts of photographic portraits were represented—from the simple carbon or silver print to photographs worked up in black and white, porcelain enamels, photographs coloured in water-colours, pastel, oil, and crayons. The latter, which are the specialty of this house, were present in the greatest numbers, most of them being finished by Herr Kurtz himself.”
Color printing pioneer, innovator
In the 1880s, Kurtz perfected Georg Meisenbach’s halftone process, a technique of breaking up a photograph into a series of dots so as to reproduce the full tonal range on paper. He owned the second Meisenbach halftone machine in the U.S., and made the first commercial halftone illustration in America, an image of Ulysses S. Grant. His work drew the attention of book, magazine and newspaper editors eager to reproduce their publications in the technologies he pioneered. The adoption of his innovations hastened the decline of engraving, the prevailing method of illustration in the publishing industry for centuries. Kurtz formed the Electro Light Engraving Company in 1887, making him a leader in photographic reproduction.
Kurtz next turned his attention to the mass reproduction of color images. In the early 1890s, he refined a rather slow and costly German approach to color imaging by perfecting a three-color photoengraving process using multiple plates that enabled the printing of unlimited quantities of color images without loss of detail. Up until that time, photographs had to be tinted before reproduction because stable color photography had not yet been developed.
In 1893, Kurtz opened the Coloritype Company and soon expanded to a plant capable of printing hundreds of millions of copies of publications. He served as president and the guiding force for the commercial application of the Vogel-Kurtz method, which combined line screens, chromo-lithographs and photo engraving.
Although Kurtz applied for and received a patent on his process, it did little to stop printers and publishers across the country from producing their own three-color prints. Eventually, competitors copied Kurtz’s process to such an extent that it became no longer unique. His company fell on hard times and was ultimately bought out, leaving him in no position to get involved with another business venture.
Kurtz spent the remaining years of his life in the Queens neighborhood of Far Rockaway, where he had summered since 1879. He moved there permanently in 1899. Kurtz died at his home on Dec. 5, 1904, from pneumonia. He was about 71. His wife, Clothilde, whom he had married in 1864, four daughters and three sons survived him.
References: The Atlantic (April 1862); Clark: New York, Seventh Regiment Publisher, History of the Seventh Regiment of New York, 1806-1889; Folsom, “Notes on the Major Whitman Photographers,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 4 (Fall 1986); Leech, Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865; Lossing, History of New York City; McAfee, “The Seventh Regiment New York State Militia,” Military Images (March/April 1992); New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, Seventh Regiment Military Movement Turned into a Celebration on April 19, 1861; O’Reilly, “A Brief History of the 7th Regiment to 1865,” Military Images (March/April 1999); Swinton, History of the Seventh Regiment, National Guard, State of New York, During the War of the Rebellion; Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889; The Inland Printer, Vol. XV No. 3 (June 1895); Todd, American Military Equipage 1851-1872, Vol. II: State Forces; Troiani, Don Troiani’s Regiments & Uniforms of the Civil War; Trow, Trow’s New York City Directory, 1867/68; The Photographer’s Friend, Vol. III, May, 1873; The Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, Vol. LIV. Old Series, Vol. V. New Series, January to June, 1872; The British Journal of Photography; The Photographic News.
Scott Valentine is a Contributing Editor to MI.
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