Search the Collections

Arnold Genthe
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Berlin, Germany
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
New Milford, Conn.
Pictorialist photographer Arnold Genthe is best known for his images documenting the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire and his scenes of San Francisco’s Chinatown taken during the decade before the earthquake. He was also a successful portrait and landscape photographer and recorded the peoples and the scenes he observed during his many travels. He was born in Berlin in 1869, where his father was a professor of Latin and Greek. His father took successive teaching opportunities in Frankfurt, Corbach and in 1880 in Hamburg, where he was a founder and president of the Wilhelm Gymnasium. Genthe received a classical education in Latin and Greek and learned English and French his father’s school; he studied European and Asian art on weekends. Although he had aspirations of being a painter, the family’s slender finances after the death of his father in 1886 led him to prepare for an academic career. Genthe entered the University of Jena in 1888, where he studied philology, philosophy and psychology and received a doctorate in philology in 1894. After a year in Paris studying French literature and art history, he returned to Hamburg where in early 1895 he accepted the offer from Baron Johann Heinrich von Schroeder (1852-1927) to go to San Francisco as a tutor for his son; von Schroeder’s wife Mary (d. 1925) was a wealthy San Francisco heiress. They all arrived in San Francisco in June 1895. Genthe soon became fascinated by the street scenes in Chinatown and the immigrant communities on Telegraph Hill and decided to learn photography and buy a camera. He began photographing Chinatown by 1896, taking photographs surreptitiously with a hand-held camera. By 1897 he had joined the California Camera Club and used its darkroom and equipment. He sold photographs of Telegraph Hill houses to a weekly publication “The Wave,” which published them in its May 15, 1897. Genthe began portrait photography by the end of that year, first portraits of his male friends and then of the painter Mira Edgerly (1879-1957), who brought in fifteen-year-old Alma de Bretteville (1881-1968,) for her portrait. (After her marriage, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels founded the Legion of Honor museum.) By the end of 1897 Genthe’s tutorial position ended. He declined teaching offers from German universities and remained in San Francisco. Genthe exhibited his photographs in a March 1898 exhibition sponsored by the California Camera Club. He opened a photography studio in the summer of 1898 and soon became a sought-after portrait photographer for San Francisco society. Famous subjects of his portraits included the pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), the writer Jack London (1876-1916), the actress Margaret Anglin (1876-1958) and the opera star Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931). He was first listed in San Francisco’s social register in 1900 and joined the Bohemian Club in 1901. That year alone he exhibited in photography exhibitions in London, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco, where he won the grand prize for the best display. His success allowed Genthe to become an avid collector of Japanese woodblock prints and to travel to Arizona and New Mexico in 1899, Mexico in 1902, and Europe and Morocco in 1904. He began visiting the artists’ colony in Carmel, California in 1905, bought land there, built a house and became an active member of group of the artists on the Monterey Peninsula. After finding that the April 18, 1906 earthquake damaged his cameras, Genthe borrowed a Kodak folding pocket camera from his dealer and photographed the ensuing fire and the ruins of San Francisco. Most of his possessions were lost, although his Chinatown negatives were stored in a friend’s vault and survived. He rented a house that had survived the fire and resumed his portrait practice. He traveled around Japan for about six months in 1908 and brought back over 700 photographs. He also published his first book of photographs that year, “Pictures of Old Chinatown.” By 1908 he had started creating color photographs on glass plates with a new process called autochrome. His color portraits and landscapes caused a sensation when exhibited in San Francisco in 1911 and a color photograph of a rainbow over the Grand Canyon was published on the cover of Collier’s Magazine Easter 1911 edition. That year Genthe moved to New York City. An exhibition of autochrome portraits and landscapes in his new studio led to a commission to make color plates of J.P. Morgan’s (1837-1913) paintings. He quickly developed a thriving portraiture practice, with subjects including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), William Howard Taft (1857-1930) and Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), the dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) and actresses Sarah Bernhardt (1884-1923) and Greta Garbo (1905-1990). Genthe balanced his portrait work with revenues from book and magazine illustrations and the proceeds of the several books of his photographs. He published his autobiography, “As I Remember,” in 1936. While he had many women friends and admired beautiful women, Genthe never married. He died of a heart attack in 1942 while visiting friends in New Milford, Connecticut. (TNB 4/2019) Selected bibliography: Genthe, Arnold. As I Remember. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936. Quitslund, Toby G. Arnold Genthe: A Pictorial Photographer in San Francisco, 1895–1911. PhD thesis. Washington: George Washington University, 1988; Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services, 1998.