BROOKINGS, S.D. — The call of the South Dakota prairie has been powerful for landscape artists. Life on the prairie was an important subject to artists Oscar Howe and Harvey Dunn. But its impact was just as significant for lesser known, but equally skilled, Jess Schlaikjer.
The call to tell the story of Schlaikjer, his life and talent has driven John Rychtarik, curator of exhibitions at the South Dakota Art Museum for almost a decade.
“There are so many interesting stories about the man,” said Rychtarik. “I hope to write a book some day about the South Dakota native and nationally recognized portrait artist.”
The stories are unique and endless. Many of those collected by Rychtarik have been published in the summer issue of “South Dakota History,” a journal of the South Dakota Historical Society.
Schlaikjer was born in 1897 on the maiden voyage of the ship Kaiser Wilhelm der Gross. When homesteading opened land in Tripp County in 1909, his family moved from Ohio to north of Carter where scenes of the prairie imprinted themselves onto the artist who ended a long career on the East coast in a business painting portraits.
During World War II, he served as an official artist to the Pentagon’s War Department painting the likes of military leaders like Douglas MacArthur and George Patton. He also painted an official portrait of Dwight Eisenhower that was used by Eisenhower’s presidential campaign.
He also painted magazine illustrations for “McCall’s,” “American Legion Magazine” and Collier’s.” Illustrated posters for the American Red Cross and the Army Corps of Engineers also played significant part in his work.
The artist developed a habit of painting donned in a business suit so that he’d always be ready in the event a client would call requesting his service.
“I can’t imagine how he did it because I consider myself a neat painter, but even I can get paint all over myself and my clothes when I’m working,” said Rychtarik who is also a significant artist painting in oils and acrylics.
The SDAM curator organized an exhibition of Schlaikjer’s work on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, the artist’s family, independent collectors and from the museum’s own collection in September 2007.
The call of the prairie and its artists remains strong to collectors of artwork and artists’ stories.