Born Carl Christian Heinrich Nahl in Germany in 1818 to a long line of artists dating back to the 17th century, by age 12 he was a talented watercolorist. Carl studied art at the Kassel Academy in Germany with his half-brother Hugo Nahl, before moving with his family to Paris in 1846. Carl and Hugo studied with French artists Hippolyte Delaroche and Emile Jean Horace Vernet. While a student in Paris, Carl began exhibiting at the Paris Salon and changed his name to Charles. The two young brothers became involved in the revolutionary movement and were forced to flee for their lies when the French Revolution of 1848, known as the Third French Revolution, overthrew the monarchy of Louis-Philipp. The Nahl family, three brothers, a sister, and mother Henriette, soon left for the California Gold Rush accompanied by artist and family friend August Wenderoth. They arrived in San Francisco in 1851.
After a short stint mining on the Yuba River where Charles began sketching the gold miners and his mother Henriette made extra money by washing miners’ laundry, brothers Charles and Hugo became partners with August Wenderoth and opened an art studio in Sacramento. They established a profitable business painting portraits of miners in exchange for gold and making lithograph illustrations for newspapers, books, and magazines of the lives of the forty-niners, native animals, and western landscape. Within a year a disastrous fire that burned much of Sacramento destroyed their studio and most of their artwork.
Relocating to San Francisco, Charles set up another studio first partnering with Wenderoth and then with brother Arthur for photography and commercial art. Charles Nahl is known as one of the first significant artists in California and the first to enjoy the patronage of wealthy Californians. Charles painted a number of portraits of Judge E.B. Crocker, brother of railroad baron Charles Crocker, who became his patron and the name-sake of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Charles designed the membership certificate for the San Francisco Vigilante Committee, a copy of which is in the Pioneer Society collection, and an engraving of a grizzly bear that was used as a source for the design of California state flag. His brother Hugo designed the State Seal of California. Charles participated in California’s first major art exhibition in 1857 held by the Mechanics Institute.
During the 1870’s Nahl’s genre paintings of the bawdy lives of the early miners were popular and on his death in 1878 of typhoid fever in San Francisco he was considered one of the leading artists depicting pioneer life in California. He also painted watercolors and sketches of animals with anatomical precision and classical paintings with allegorical themes, such as his The Rape of the Sabines. Charles Nahl’s artistic style has been compared to the last of the 19th Century Neoclassic artists, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who painted detailed depictions of romanticized antiquity, and to the romantic landscape artists of the early 19th Century (Mills, 1956).
While his brother Hugo married and had children who became accomplished artists, Charles never married and lived with his mother and a sister in a modest home on Bush Street. Charles was a member of the Pioneer Society, the Vigilance Committee of 1856, and the Volunteer Fire Department. The Nahl brothers were known as fine athletes and their backyard gymnasium on Bush Street served as the first location of the Olympic Club from 1855 to 1860. Both brothers were interested in bodybuilding and gymnastics (Maritime Heritage Organization). Hugo became a noted gymnast who was selected the first leader of the Olympic Club. While both brothers were artists and partners in their engraving and lithographic business, Charles’s artistic accomplishments overshadowed those of his brother Hugo. They often exhibited in the same shows and at times the work of one brother would be erroneously attributed to the other. Newspapers of the day had a habit of referring to both Charles and Hugo as “Mr. Nahl,” leaving it to the public to figure out which Nahl was the artist. So close was the Nahl family, that it was said by observers of the day that “the history of one is the history of all” (Internet Archive, California Art). The Society of California Pioneers has four prints, two portrait paintings, and two drawings by Charles Nahl in our collection.
AskArt – Art Appraisals, Art Value. Action Prices, Art Database. www.askart.com
Hughes, Edan Milton. 2002. Artists in California 1786-1940. Third Edition. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum.
Internet Archive – a San Francisco non-profit offering permanent access to historical collections that exist in digital format. (www.archive.org)
Maritime Heritage Organization (www.maritimeheritage.org/vips/hahlCharlesChristian.html)
Neuhaus, Eugen. 1931. The History & Ideals of American Art. Stanford University, Calif., Stanford University Press; London, H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1931.