Oil painter Jacob Pfeiffer discovered his love of Old West history while living in a displaced persons camp during World War II. Discover the fascinating journey that led him to his new home in the Mesilla Valley.
Written by Ashley M. Biggers
Photography by Scott Weaver
Many connect to the iconography and the spirit of the Old West—from its wide-open landscapes both beautiful and mutable; its characters, such as cowboys and Indians; and the lean toughness that typifies its residents as they overcame foes, survived long journeys, and toiled in the land. Few modern-day people share such a close affinity to this distinctly American experience—particularly those who hail from Europe, as artist Jacob Pfeiffer does.
Today, Jacob is a signature member of the Oil Painters of America and American Impressionist Society and a Las Cruces resident. But his path to painting mastery started on the other side of the Atlantic. Shortly after Jacob’s birth, in 1936, his father was drafted into Romanian, then German, military service and deployed to Russia. At home, his mother—who received no payment for his father’s military service—eked out an existence as a seamstress in the city, while he grew up with his widowed aunt in a small farming village, sketching chickens pecking in the yard and cows grazing in the field.
Jacob felt great satisfaction helping his aunt with the garden and animals. “We didn’t have electricity. There was no grocery store. It was up to us and our hard work to supply our food and ‘put up’ enough to last through winter. My aunt was a great cook and baker, and we ate well!” he says.
Jacob’s father was one of the few survivors of the severe Russian winter at the end of World War II. When the war ended, the soldiers were told to get to the American sector of Austria to surrender, which he did—on foot. When his mother learned his father was alive in Austria, she gathered 12-year-old Jacob and taking only what they could carry, they fled through three Iron Curtain checkpoints to reunite with Jacob’s father. Traveling by night and hiding during the day, “it took us six months and three arrests [for illegal border crossings] to make the long walk from Romania to Austria,” he says.
He was 13 by the time they arrived in Linz, Austria. He hadn’t seen his dad since he was three years old. They began to make a home in Austria, living in an Allied Displaced Persons Camp, where one of Jacob’s teachers introduced him to Native Americans and “their plight, losing their homeland to ‘invaders.’” Fascinated, he began to read Old West history and historical novels by German author Karl May.
At age 19, Jacob immigrated to the United States. After two years working to buy a car and save money, he and two friends took off for a tour across the country. He wanted to see the West for himself. “After visits to Indian reservations, I did not want to paint the Indians’ sad way of life at that time. I wanted to depict them as being self-reliant and free, and living in tune with nature and animals, as they did before the European immigration. Winter was the most difficult time to survive, yet they were very successful at it, so I focused on that season in many of my paintings,” he says.
Back home in Cincinnati, he took night classes in art and displayed his paintings at sidewalk art shows. He won a “Best of Show” at one, drawing the attention of the Closson Gallery director who granted Jacob a solo show. That show, and two subsequent shows, sold out opening day, kick starting Jacob’s career.
Oil was his medium of choice for his traditional realism paintings, in the style of old masters like Rembrandt and Western masters like Fredric Remington, that capture historical narratives from wagon trails to buffalo hunts. He also finds inspiration in his current setting. When his sons were young teens, he and his wife bought a 103-year-old neglected farm in Indiana, outside Cincinnati. They raised their own food, restored the barn and farmhouse, and raised chickens, rabbits, horses, dogs, and cats. “We had quite an animal rescue going!” he says.
While living there for 25 years, he painted the countryside, farm animals, and gardens. He’s also painted serene still lifes. “I painted what I felt led to paint, and thankfully, my collectors supported me, and I think new buyers liked my forays into different subjects and styles,” he says.
In 2013, he and his wife followed family to Las Cruces. “We enjoyed our visits to this lovely small city with its dramatic mountain vistas and great winters, and the convenience to parks and shopping. [It was] much nicer than the long, dreary, cold winters and the traffic of a big city,” he says.
After decades painting back east, Jacob evolved his style to meet his new home. A wagon train coming through the desert he’d painted back east needed more dramatic lighting than he’d envisioned in Cincinnati, for example. He’s begun painting in a looser, more impressionistic style to capture the desert landscape and scenes from local farms. He’ll exhibit these and a few of his traditional historical narratives at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum show slated for next year (August 17–December 2, 2018). He continues to be represented in Eisele Gallery of Fine Art, in Cincinnati, Ohio; Green Acres Foundation Artist Guild, in Indian Village, Ohio; and locally at M. Phillip’s Fine Art Gallery.
The journey may have been harrowing, but each step has led closer to the ideals and spirit of the West. At this point in his career, the 80 year old is reflecting on both life and art. He says, “I’ve had challenges and disappointments in life and in art, but I was always grateful to have survived hard times and to live in America, which gave me the opportunity for a good life.”
After Decades Painting Back East, Jacob evolved his style to meet his new home. He’s begun painting in a looser, more impressionistic style to capture the desert landscape and scenes from local farms.
See Jacob’s work at the NM Farm & Ranch Museum beginning in August 2018 or any time at:
Phillip’s Fine Art Gallery
211 N. Main Street