William Charles Anthony Frerichs (1829 – 1905) was a noted Belgian artist who lived in Greensboro for ten years, teaching and travelling the western terrain of our state. Though most of his early work was destroyed in a calamitous fire in 1863, he remains a primary figure in North Carolina’s artistic history, and an influence on our artistic legacy well into the twentieth century. Three of his pieces can be seen at Blandwood.
Frerichs was born in Ghent, Netherlands, and at from the age of six to fourteen he studied art at the Royal Academy at The Hague as well as the Brussels Academy. Notably, he worked under two master artists. Andreas Schelfhout (1787–1870) and Bartholomeus J. van Hove (1790–1880), were participants in the nineteenth century movement of art known as “The Hague School.” This school is noted for expressing light and forms of nature such as billowing clouds, sand dunes, and the play of light on water. All these visual forms can be seen in Frerichs’s life work. His first sale was a large canvas entitled “Cattle Scene” to the Emperor of Russia.
At the end of his study, Frerichs set out for New York City, where he arrived at the age of twenty-one. There are few references to his activities in New York. This was an auspicious time for New York’s art scene with the emergence of the Hudson River School. The School was named to identify a group of New York City-based landscape painters that emerged about 1850 around the artist Thomas Cole and flourished until about the time of the 1876 Centennial.
Frerichs exhibited a portrait in the National Academy of Design in 1853. He also joined a group of artists there called the New York Sketch Club in 1852. On 1 January 1854 he married Clara Butler of New York, a native of England (and alleged playmate of young Queen Victoria!).
Later in 1854, Frerichs accepted a position at the Greensboro Female College in Greensboro (today Greensboro College). There, he was listed as “W. C. A. FRERICHS, Professor of Drawing, Painting, and French.” Though he taught classes, he enjoyed excursion into the countryside where he painted local landscape scenes. Governor Morehead purchased one such painting, a landscape view of “Piedmont Springs, N. C.” Other painting included views of the North Carolina and Virginia mountains including panoramic vistas and waterfalls.
Around 1860, Frerichs painted a panorama entitled SNOW SCENE. This oil on canvas landscape was a winter composition of a Flemish riverside after a snowfall, with skaters on the frozen river next to a structure with a stepped gable roofline. This painting was owned by Governor Morehead and hung at Blandwood. It was a gift of Mrs. Robert Cluett, of NYC & Charlotte, NC, a descendant of the Governor’s eldest son John Lindsay Morehead.
At approximately the same time, Frerich painted an alternative composition entitled LANDSCAPE WITH COWS AND MEN IN A BOAT. Thought to date from 1861, the oil on canvas landscape depicts an atmospheric summer scene with boatmen and cattle in a placid river next to a stand of trees. Like the painting above, the piece was owned by Governor Morehead and originally hung at Blandwood. It too was a gift of Mrs. Robert Cluett, of NYC & Charlotte, NC, descendant of John Lindsay Morehead.
In 1991, Preservation Greensboro acquired a third Frierichs work, an UNTITLED LANDSCAPE that is a small oil on canvas landscape of a hilly forested region featuring a stream tumbling over rocks, two bridges and people.
Frerichs is listed in the 1860 Federal Census in Greensboro as an artist, his wife Clara in a domestic role taking care of their three young children; Ellen (4), William Jr (3), and P. C. (1). The Frerichs name shows up elsewhere in Greensboro history, such as Letitia Morehead Walker’s Day Book which records the hiring out of an enslaved person named Sarah to the family between 1861 and 1864.
Around midnight on August 9, a fire broke out in the kitchen of the Main Building of Greensboro College. The Greensborough Patriot reported “The greater part of the College furniture and property were saved, though we regret that Prof. Frerichs, of the Painting Department lost all his costly materials, studies, several portfolios of sketches, and a number of fine paintings, besides several in course of execution. His studio was in the first room to take fire, and consequently it was impossible to enter it for fear of suffocation.”
With the body of Frerich’s unsold work while in North Carolina lost, he was invited to teach at the Edgeworth Female Seminary, a school for young women founded by Morehead. This was a tumultuous period for the South which was suffering under the weight of the ongoing Civil War. Within four months, the Confederate government took over the Academy building for use as a hospital. He then took a position at New Garden Boarding School (today Guilford College) but was soon drafted to inspect iron mines in the mountainous west where he was captured and taken prisoner many times.
With battle lines closing in on Greensboro, Frerichs relocated his family to a farm along the coast, but found the location so disheartening that he abandoned his property. He fled to New York with his family in tow, and remained active in artistic circles in New York, Jersey City, on Staten Island, and in Newark until his death on 16 March 1905.
Through his professorial position and the body of art work that remained in the North Carolina, the legacy of William Frerichs is resilient. He was likely one of the first artists to depict the sweeping panoramas and wild landscapes of western North Carolina. His paintings of the dramatic wilderness vistas of the Southern Appalachian Mountains connect him to artists of the Hudson River School, though he is not formally classed with that group.
Frerichs’s works can be found in private and public collections throughout the country, including Blandwood Mansion and the North Carolina Museum of Art , as well as museums in Santa Barbara (California); Columbus (Georgia); Salem (Oregon); Baltimore (Maryland); New Jersey; and Staten Island (New York). The first retrospective exhibition of the work of William C. A. Frerichs was held at the North Carolina Museum of Art, 15 Sept.–20 Oct. 1974.