Young Adulthood and Formal Education
In 1914, Carl Peters was seventeen years old and coming of age as an artist as the whole world was going to war. Despite the political turmoil brewing in Europe, Peters was able to keep his mind on his goal of becoming an artist as the United States maintained its neutrality. While continuing to attend his classes at the Mechanics Institute, he also spent extra time at local libraries studying art books that contained images of the works of famous European painters. Also at the age of seventeen, Peters declared himself an artist in the city’s registry, and established a studio in Rochester.
The young Carl Peters leapt at every opportunity that came to him, determined to prove to his parents and himself that art was a viable career. One such opportunity was the Pure Food Show’s poster competition. This 1917 show, run by the Rochester Retail Grocers Association, was Carl’s first art competition. When he won the award for best poster, it helped show his parents that he had real potential, and allowed him to start thinking about how he might get accepted into a serious art school.
Pictured left, A newspaper clipping from 1917 discussing Peters' first prize in the Pure Food Show poster competition.
However, later in 1917, Peters’ focus on art would be interrupted and his life would change drastically yet again as America entered the war. He enlisted in the military, and following his basic training in Arizona, Peters was sent off to France. While he did spend some time on the front lines, Peters was also able to use his talents in a new way during the war by serving as a camouflage painter. This unique use of his art skills caused him to learn how to paint on new surfaces, creating camouflage patterns on materials such as wood, burlap, and steel.
Though he was away at war, in many cases serving on the front lines, Carl was still an artist at heart. Sketches from a 1917 sketchbook show soldiers both relaxing and in combat, wielding weapons from bayonets to machine guns. It is hard to say whether his year at war serving as a camouflage painter had much long-term influence on his art. But what is clear is that even while Carl had very little time for painting, he never wavered in his desire to be an artist.
After the war ended and Peters returned home, he set out with a new determination to pick up where he had left off and become serious about having a formal artistic education. In November of 1919, Peters enrolled in night classes at the School of the Art Students League in New York City, and moved to West Hoboken, New Jersey. This was a big move for him, and immersed him in New York City’s vibrant and large art scene– a substantial step up from Rochester’s small-city status. The opportunities provided to him through these classes allowed him to hone many of his pre-existing artistic skills as well as develop new training in areas such as anatomy. He was also exposed to many new art styles through exhibits and shows in New York, and he made connections that would help him find further opportunities. In fact, it was through this time in New York that Peters met members of the Woodstock Art Colony that encouraged him to enroll in their summer classes, which would end up being crucial for the development of Peters’ characteristic landscape painting style.
A selection of rough watercolors by Carl Peters, similar to the kind of watercolors he may have used to practice landscape painting at Woodstock.
Beginning in 1921, Carl Peters attended the Art Students’ League’s summer school in Woodstock. Here, he studied under Charles Rosen, and was influenced by other painters such as Robert Henri, George Bellows, and other members of an artistic movement known as the Ash Can School. The painters in this group focused on urban subjects, most often portraying the lives of working-class Americans. These influences can especially be seen in Carl Peters’ murals for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that he began painting nearly fifteen years later.
During the following summer at Woodstock, in 1922, Peters studied under John F. Carlson. Though the style of the Ash Can Group had been influential to Peters as an artist, he felt even more closely connected to Carlson’s art style, which diverged from what he had studied the previous summer. Carlson was an impressionist from Sweden, and he was most well known for his landscape paintings depicting forest and winter scenes. Peters had already viewed some of Carlson’s landscape paintings at places like the Memorial Art Gallery, and cited them as the works that inspired him to become a landscape painter. For Peters, studying under Carlson was a dream come true, and his time studying at Woodstock helped him develop many of his artistic techniques and practices that defined his later career, particularly his tendency towards impressionist landscape painting.