First published: Spring 2018
The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude...
Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone – that is the secret of invention: be alone; that is when ideas are born.
– Nikola Tesla, New York Times, April 8, 1934
The life and art of Charles A. A. Dellschau (1830–1923) is shrouded in mystery and wonder. Dellschau’s life illustrates how diverse forces of isolation can converge within an individual, sometimes contributing to a uniquely personal creativity and art. Charles Dellschau’s fascinating life of isolation and imagination would come to mark him as one of America’s earliest and greatest self-taught visionary artists.
Charles August Albert Dellschau was born on June 5, 1830, in Berlin, in what was then Prussia. He was born into a historical period of political revolution and economic upheaval in his homeland, marked by violence and hardship. Many of his generation sought opportunities and stability by coming to the United States. Charles uprooted himself from home and family and apparently emigrated alone to Texas in 1849, arriving through the Port of Galveston. Dellschau initially settled in nearby Richmond, where he worked as a butcher. His father was a master butcher in Prussia, and the young Charles would have likely apprenticed in his father’s trade before emigrating.
Untitled (book eight, nos. 4347 and 4348, bound), April 7 and 9, 1919, ink, watercolour, pencil and collage on paper, 35 x 17 x 2 ins. / 88.9 x 43.2x 5.1 cm (book),Collection J. Kevin O’Rourke, courtesy of Stephen Romano Gallery, photo Courtesy of Stephen Romano Gallery, Brooklyn
After settling in Richmond, his whereabouts and activities during the subsequent years of 1854 to 1859 are largely unaccounted for. These would become the key years for those who would later attempt to unlock the mysteries of his life and art. It was during this period that Dellschau likely traveled to California, perhaps along with people from around the world who were heading west to prospect for gold. The facts of his life in California are few, but many years later Dellschau’s own fantastical recounting of his years in Sonora, California, would still fascinate us today. Records show that Dellschau returned to Richmond in 1860, reestablishing himself there as a butcher and applying for US citizenship. The following year Dellschau, who at age thirty-one must have seemed a lone bachelor, married Antonia Helt, a widow with a five-year-old daughter.
Now, after he had lived eleven years in the United States and at a great distance from his family home and culture of origin, his new wife appears to have provided him with a ready-made family and the stability of a new domestic life. The couple would have three children of their own. However, it would come to pass that his new nuclear family would emerge as his next source of loss and isolation.