Carl Henry von Ahrens was born on February 15, 1862 in Winfield, Ontario. His parents soon separated and Ahrens was raised by his father in Berlin (now Kitchener). He contracted tuberculosis at around age seven. The disease settled in his hip instead of his lungs, reportedly due to an injury to the joint. Some sources say he was kicked by another little boy and others say he constructed a pair of wings and attempted to fly off a roof. The most likely cause, however, was a combination of an injury and repeated exposure to tuberculosis. Several family members, including his father, died of the disease.
Ahrens became known all over Waterloo County as a prankster. His most memorable stunt was when he was caught skinny dipping in the Grand River and, in fleeing from the town constable, ran stark naked through a Mennonite picnic. Chances are this story has been exaggerated over the years.
In 1878 Ahrens' family sent him to Winnipeg to work in a law firm. He escaped at the first opportunity, taking up with an eccentric named Broadcloth Smith for a brief time, then holding down a claim for a man who had no wish to stay near Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta, over the winter. When the man returned, Ahrens and a friend hiked to Fort Gerry, getting caught in a blizzard along the way. They were lost for three days and without food for two. At Fort Gerry, he had his first encounter with the native tribes of the area. One of the men saw Ahrens' injured feet and offered his own moccasins.
While out west, Ahrens met Francis Dickey (son of author Charles Dickens) who was Captain of the North West Mounted Police. He also met Calamity Jane in a saloon in Dakota Territory. He held every available job except driving a stagecoach and was friendly with the local native tribes – they called him Lone Pine. Once he was caught between two warring bands and spent a day in a buffalo hollow while arrows zinged over his head.
After two adventurous years, Ahrens' family insisted he return to Ontario. He worked in an uncle's button factory in Waterloo. The tedious and delicate process of dyeing buttons fascinated him. He later considered this job his first step toward the mastery of color that distinguished him as a painter.
Eventually Ahrens' family demanded that he find a real profession. Hearing no suitable suggestions from him, they sent him to Stratford to apprentice as a dentist under his uncle, Alfred Ahrens. Carl Ahrens swiftly mastered everything that Dr. Ahrens could teach. He could not practice in Ontario without a degree, so he moved to Nebraska City, Nebraska, to open his own a practice. He became one of the first dentists in the United States to drill teeth using the rotary method, which made him popular with patients. In 1887 the American Medical Congress invited him to Washington, D.C. for one of their meetings.
On an extended trip home to Ontario, Ahrens met and married Emily Marion Carroll. He brought his bride back to Nebraska, where their son, Carl Herman, was born. Ahrens began to paint in 1886, at the age of twenty-four, and within a year he gave up dentistry, a profession he had never enjoyed. When the Ahrens family heard of his decision, they turned their backs on him, hoping poverty would help him see the error of his ways. It didn't. He moved to Toronto and took a studio on Adelaide Street. By twenty-seven he was known as an up-and-coming artist, and his vast social circle included painters, journalists and actors. He was particularly close with the Mohawk recitalist and poet, Pauline Johnson.
Ahrens had little formal art instruction. He worked alone, watching the methods of other painters but never feeling compelled to copy them. His first exhibition was with the Ontario Society of Artists in 1889. In 1891 he was elected Associate Painter in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. In 1892 he studied painting under William Merritt Chase and sculpture under Francis Edwin Elwell in New York City. While there, he befriended George Inness, who became his mentor. Inness encouraged Ahrens to stop taking classes, go home and paint how he wished to paint. Ahrens took his advice, returned to Toronto, resigned from all professional associations and, while initially famous for his portraits, he turned almost exclusively to landscapes.
During the summer of 1896, Ahrens and his family lived near the Ojibwa reservation at Southampton, Ontario. The children of the tribe were fascinated by Ahrens, reportedly staring at him as if they had seen a ghost. The chief's wife told Ahrens that he strongly resembled a son she had recently lost. From that time she called Ahrens her son and he called her his Indian Mother. In time, Ahrens and his family moved onto the reservation, were adopted by the tribe, and received new names. Ahrens' was Ah-sa-ba-nang, the name of the lost son. It means "a cluster of stars".
In 1899, Ahrens met Elbert Hubbard, the founder of the Roycroft community in East Aurora, New York. Hubbard admired Ahrens' work, and when he learned Ahrens had experience in a potter shop as well, he asked Ahrens to join the Roycrofters and start a pottery there. Ahrens moved to East Aurora with his wife, three children (Carl, Robert and Pauline) and his cousin, fellow painter Eleanor Douglas, in May of 1900. Hubbard, a businessman, and Ahrens, a craftsman, soon butted heads over what constituted a finished piece. Hubbard insisted the pottery be sold unglazed and, thus, unable to hold water. People willingly bought, as the pottery bore the Roycroft mark, but the work was of no value and most has fallen apart over time.
Ahrens left the Roycroft community after only four months, but remained in East Aurora until 1905. While the Roycroft pottery was considered a failure, the experience was pivotal in Ahrens' life. It was at Roycroft that he met and fell in love with Martha Niles, a young artist and singer who illuminated books for the shop. His marriage to Emily Carroll had been unhappy from the start. He tried to convince her to divorce him, but she refused. As soon as his sons were old enough to be self-supporting, he broke ties with his family and moved to New York City, reuniting with Martha, whom he always called Madonna, there.
Author George Wharton James, a Roycroft contact, commissioned Ahrens to go to California and paint the old Spanish missions, intending to use the finished work as illustrations for a book on the subject. Determined to have Madonna by his side, Ahrens proposed, but they could not marry until his divorce was finalized.
No motor cars were allowed on the mountain roads at that time, so they traveled by covered wagon as far south as San Diego and worked their way up the coast to San Francisco. The trip could have proved disastrous for Madonna, who had been raised comfortably in a middle class New York family. Not only was she now roughing it, but doing so while pregnant. Ahrens was an experienced camper, however, and taught her how to survive in the wilds. Being rather progressive in his views about marital roles, he remained the camp cook and put her in charge of the family finances.
They had been in Santa Barbara at the time of the earthquake in 1906, and did not see signs of the damage until they were much further north. The quake nearly bankrupted George Wharton James; he bought a few of the paintings, but not enough to illustrate his book.
Ahrens and Madonna wintered in a bungalow in Corte Madera and married a month before their son, Laird, was born. They returned to Toronto in the summer of 1907, settling in the village of Meadowvale. After a prolonged illness, he was forced to move back to the city. Ahrens met Colonel (later Major-General) Malcolm Smith Mercer at an exhibition of his Meadowvale paintings. Mercer was moved by Ahrens' work and offered to purchase all of his paintings for the next three years, allowing Ahrens the financial freedom to produce his best work. Ahrens' daughter, Penelope was born in 1908 but died in 1910, less than a month before the birth of Sigrid Ahrens.
In 1911, Ahrens exhibited the Mercer Collection at the Public Reference Library in Toronto. People from many European galleries were there, one offering as much as $100,000 for the collection of 31 paintings. Mercer would not sell. The collection was invited to Belgium for an exhibit, the first such offer made by any European country to a North American artist. The Great War started before arrangements could be made.
In 1912, Ahrens' youngest daughter, Chloris, was born in Lambton Mills. It was a happy time for the family due to the continued financial support from Mercer. They spent their summers at Leith, on Georgian Bay, but in the summer of 1916 Ahrens' patron was in Europe fighting the war. Ahrens had to take a job as a game warden in the Kawartha Lakes region.
Major-General Mercer was killed in battle, leaving Ahrens temporarily without a patron. Charles Burden and Col. George Naismith took over the role, but demanded only small pieces, frustrating Ahrens, who was finally well enough to paint larger works. In the summer of 1919, Ahrens' painting called The Glade was requested for an extended loan to Glasgow Galleries in Scotland. It remains there to this day.
Ahrens moved his family to Woodstock, NY in 1920. He taught landscape painting with Charles Etherington, while his wife, Madonna, trained in singing with Alfredo Barili, one of Atlanta's top composers. In 1921, the family moved with friends to Rockport, MA, where Ahrens painted seascapes for a short time. He again fell ill and longed for home, so they returned to Canada in the winter of 1922.
The family lived in a series of cheap houses in Toronto before finding their dream home, an old stone farm house in Galt, near Ahrens' boyhood hometown. They were able to afford this only because Prime Minister Mackenzie King, an old friend of Ahrens, threatened to replace Sir Edmund Walker, the Chairman of the Art Advisory Committee, for his continued refusal to buy Ahrens' work for the National Gallery. Ahrens had made many enemies over the years, and Walker was the most vocal. Already unpopular for his refusal to join any associations and his knack for saying the wrong things to the wrong people, the scandal of his divorce and remarriage was the final straw. While nothing today, divorce was considered morally repugnant at the time, especially in conservative Toronto. There were constant rumors that his marriage to Madonna was not legal.
Ahrens named the new house Big Trees. He took on students, one of whom, Grant Macdonald, later became the official artist for the Royal Canadian Navy during WWII. The family entertained politicians, artists, musicians, poets, novelists, and professors. Ahrens' boyhood friend, painter Homer Watson, was a frequent guest.
Ahrens began to experiment with printmaking in 1925, constructing a printing press out of an old mangle and reworked dental tools. He burned his used metal plates in the fireplace to clean the flue. The printmaking process was laborious and he was not strong, so his daughters, Sigrid and Chloris, often helped with any heavy work.
Ahrens had two exhibitions in 1933, one at Cunningham's Studio and another in Montreal. His last exhibition was in March of 1935, shortly before he and Madonna left Galt for England, an arrangement they thought would be permanent. They were only able to stay four months before Ahrens had a series of strokes and wanted to return home.
Ahrens' last years were full of illness and excruciating pain. The tubercular hip he had had since childhood left him with five constantly draining abscesses, a fused hip joint, and a perforated bowel. He went through long periods when he was confined to a chair, unable to either stand or lie down. In the end, his six foot frame was down to 85 pounds. He continued to paint to the end, and his last works are full of vibrant color.
Back in Toronto, penniless and desperate, Madonna wrote to their old friend, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. King arranged for Ahrens to be taken care of for the last months of his life in the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital. He died on February 27, 1936 at the age of 74.