Stefan Jäger: Painter Of His Banat 
German Homeland - a Biography

A profile of a renowned Danube Swabian folk artist who left a legacy of paintings that capture the essence of life in our former homeland, when, as some would say, “the world was still in order”.

Anyone visiting a Danube Swabian club, be it in North and South America, Europe, or Australia, has surely seen a reproduction of Stefan Jäger’s panoramic painting depicting the arrival of German (i.e. Danube Swabian) colonists on the desolate plain of 18th century Habsburg Hungary.

Originally titled “The Arrival of German Colonists in Banat”. It is probably the most realistic portrayal of our ancestor’s migration to the Pannonian Lowlands still in existence.

Stefan Jaeger Schwabzuege

I have studied this triptych painting so often that I can readily recount its salient features; In the middle distance the endless plain is broken by a copse of swamp willows. The soggy earth is deeply rutted by wagon wheels.

In the first panel a group of settlers is just arriving and one man has stopped by a tree stump to retie his shoe laces. Another is leading his small boy by the hand and is perhaps thinking of the freedoms a respected emperor has granted the German settlers “for all time” in order to encourage them to colonize the depopulated wasteland Prince Eugene’s armies had won back from the Turkish occupiers.

A young mother with a child slung over her back and a bundle of food dangling from her arm strides confidently to her destination. Beside her a blond-haired girl carries a sibling piggy back. The two men in the lead seem glad that the journey’s end is in sight and are hurrying to meet a “Landsmann” they have recognized among the earlier arrivals.

In the middle panel a man who has put down his pack waves to someone he has spotted in the crowd. Others, in period Hessian and Black Forest attire relax while waiting for their land grants.

Some sit on the grass, like the family in the center foreground. Others in the back of the canvas earnestly discuss mutual interests. One man takes a catnap using a bundle of clothes as a pillow, while his wife nurses the baby.

On top of her pack of personal belongings rests a favourite potted plant, a bit of Germany to be rooted in her new homeland. Another man sits pensively in the back of a ladder wagon, perhaps trying to hold back a twinge of homesickness.

On the right, a group of men gather around a government land agent listening attentively to his instructions. They wear tri-corner hats and their hair is braided in pigtails. In the left foreground, a woman wearing a Hessian Rotkäppchen,” the bonnet made famous by Little Red Riding Hood, or vice versa, sits on a pile of logs. Her tired little girl is fast asleep on her lap.

A man in a light colored coat with a walking stick exchanges a few words with her as he passes by.

The logs in the foreground, the rafters on the pioneer dwellings under construction, as well as the door and window frames, were probably transported down the Danube River from Germany on the same barges that brought the people to the region.

Since the earliest houses were built of tamped earth and thatched with reeds, the other construction materials were readily available on site – and they were free.

It is safe to say that most people who view the painting for the first time know little, or nothing about the man who painted it, but are still struck by the obvious authenticity of it.

Who else but a native son of Banat could so accurately have captured the soul of his homeland and countrymen and displayed it so vividly on canvas?

The painting is so realistic that some Danube Swabians look at the characters in the painting and in their mind’s eye see an ancestor or two.

I know I do.

Jäger is a descendant of the earliest German settlers in the Banat. His father was born in 1839 and trained as an army surgeon in Budapest, later settling in Tschene near Hatzfeld. He married the daughter of a Herr Wagner, a well-to-do notary public of nearby Klein Jetscha. She died soon after their marriage. The elder Jäger later married an M. Schüler from Billed, who was 16 years his junior. Her adoptive parents were so poor they were unable to provide her even with a small dowry.

Stefan, the future artist, was born in Tschene on the 16th of May 1877. He attended the local German School there, the private Wieszner school in Temeschburg (Hung: Temesvar . Rom: Timisoara) and finished sixth grade of public school in Szegedin (Szeged). Besides special art courses he took later, that was the extent of his formal education.

Stefan’s artistic talents were clearly evident at an early age. A local art teacher named Obendorf advised his parents to send him to Budapest to study at an art school. Since Stefan could not afford the tuition fees, Obendorf arranged with a Count Szechy to pay them. In return Jäger was required to tutor the count’s unruly children. He was fortunate to study under two outstanding artists, the professors Ede Ballo and Bertalan Szekely and acquired a thorough knowledge of his craft.

After completing his studies in Budapest he traveled to Austria, Germany and Italy to further his artistic education. In 1901 his travels were unexpectedly curtailed due to the death of his father and Stefan had to return to Tschene to attend family matters.

In 1902 Jäger moved to Vienna where he earned a meager living as a freelance artist painting landscapes, still life subjects and religious pictures. At this time Jakob Knopf, the bookkeeper of the First Savings Bank in Gertianosch Banat came up with the idea of a painting to honor the early German settlers of the region. Knopf’s boss, Adam Roeser the owner of the bank was enthusiastic about the concept and on Jäger’s next visit to the Banat he commissioned him to paint a panorama that would do justice to their German ancestors. A fund-raising drive netted around 4560 Austrian Kronen. This was more than enough to send him to areas of Germany from which the majority of the colonists had come in order to study the mode of dress the colonists would have worn when they came to Hungary.

On his return from Germany in 1906 Jäger began to work on the painting. Most of it was done in Hatzfeld where he had taken up residence, but he also did some work on it in Budapest.

When the huge painting, a triptych, was completed in 1910 it measured 5.1 m in width and 4.35 m in height, (approx. 17 x 5 feet). It was formally unveiled at the 1910 Trade and Agricultural Exhibition in Gertianosch (now Romania) by Abbot-Canon Franz Blaskovicz.

Since Adam Roeser had paid for part of the painting, he considered it his property. When his business floundered he was forced to sell it to meet financial obligations. The city of Temeschburg bought it for 2,000 Kronen with the proviso that Jäger was to receive half that amount. At the suggestion of mayor Telbisz, the painting was first hung in the Southern Hungarian Historical Society’s gallery. Subsequently another mayor named Geml, a Danube Swabian, moved it to a more suitable location in the municipal building where it remained for many years.

In 1941 the Jäger painting was acquired by a Danube Swabian association in exchange for two works by a Romanian artist named Popescu. During the festivities marking the 225th anniversary of the liberation of Temeschburg from the Turks, the painting was hung in the Sehrter Haus, a German cultural center, where it remained until 1944.

What happened to the painting after the Communist takeover in Romania? According to Georg Bohmann, a native of the Danube Swabian community of Blumenthal (Masloc) it, along with some other German artifacts, was stored in a vacant house in town whose owner had emigrated to the U.S.A. prior to the war. For a time Peter Barth, the Danube Swabian Poet, was the librarian in the “American’s” house and once showed the rolled-up painting to Bohmann.

Like so many other German homes in Romania, under Communist regime the American’s house was eventually turned over to so-called Romanian ‘colonists’. One day two young boys offered to sell Bohmann ‘a very large and very beautiful painting’ they had found in the German house their parents were given by the state. The price: two liters of red wine.

This was a price almost anybody in that impoverished country could afford and Bohmann lost no time in coming up with the wine, for he knew that the rolled-up canvas was the irreplaceable Jäger painting.

At least the canvas was now back in German hands. For a time Bohmann displayed it to the townsfolk in his backyard and eventually donated it to the Banat County Museum, where it was promptly stored in the basement so none would see it. “For political reasons”, the party bosses explained. It was to remain there for over ten years.

At a meeting of the International Lenau Society in Temeschburg, Nikolaus Berwanger, the chairman of the Temesch (Timis) County Council of German Workers, appealed to the Bucharest regime to place the painting in the Stefan-Jäger-House Museum in Hatzfeld. To his surprise the request was granted and the slightly damaged triptych has been displayed there ever since.

All his life Stefan Jäger remained the proverbial starving artist. Although he produced some of our greatest paintings, he never made much money. Only once in his lifetime did he exhibit his paintings publicly. That was in 1930, in the Banat county town of Gross-Betschkerek, now in Yugoslavia.

As a result of the exhibition the Swabian-German Cultural Society headquartered in Neusatz (NoviSad, Yug.) ordered some canvasses from him, but most were sold to individuals in areas of Batschka county where the majority of the population was German.

What happened to the many Jäger paintings after the demise of the German ethnic group in Yugoslavia? No one seems to know. Serbians, too, had bought Jäger paintings and some of these wound up in Austria and Germany after the last war. One scene of a wheat field now hangs in the Danube Swabian Museum in Sindelfingen, Germany.

The “Neuland” newspaper in Salzburg – allegedly in contravention of copyright laws – made some reprints of some of Jäger’s work and sold these throughout the world. According to a former editor of that now defunct paper, his company did pay a considerable sum of money to a relative of Jäger’s then living in Germany for the copyrights. However, it appears that Stefan Jäger, the born looser, never got a cent of it.

When Jäger reached the age of eighty the Romanian government paid him a modest pension of 800Lei per month, just enough to keep him from starving.

Still it was the only regular income he ever received in his lifetime. He never married and died in Hatzfeld on March 16, 1962 at the age of 85.

Although he died in poverty, Stefan Jäger endowed the Danube Swabian community with some of our greatest cultural treasures, paintings that portray the life as it once was in a beautiful homeland that is now foreign to us.

Today’s Banat and the town of Hatzfeld are the antithesis of the landscape and people Jäger knew so well and depicted so realistically. With over 90% of the indigenous Danube Swabians gone, the houses have been taken over by newcomers who lack the sense of order and work ethic of the former population, consequently the houses are falling into ruin and the cultivation of the fields has been greatly neglected. This is self-evident to the casual wanderer who happens to stray into the region.

Romania, is definitely off the beaten track as far as tourism is concerned, but for the Danube Swabians the Stefan Jäger Museum in Hatzfeld should be worth a visit, not only to view a bit of our past, but also to pay homage to a compatriot who endowed us with vivid landscapes and realistic portrayals of life as it once was in a beloved homeland that no longer exists.

by Frank Schmidt
Copyright 1996 Heimat Publishers

Reprinted with permission from the author

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