One of America's greatest sporting-dog artists was born in Hildesheim, Hanover in Germany on August 5, 1858, to a German father and an English mother. Early in his rural childhood he displayed his artistic talent and sketched the farm animals. His father tried to encourage him to become an architect rather than a painter. However, his talent as an artist earned him an appointment to the prestigious Academy at Dusseldorf which persuaded his father of his potential. After the Academy, Edmund studied in the atelier of Christian Kröner, a celebrated wildlife and landscape painter. Meanwhile his parents were involved with the ill-fated Archduke Maximilian of Hapsburg to Mexico. The Archduke was trying to establish a German dynasty in Mexico. They remained there with him for four years and were with him on the day of his execution, barely escaping in time from Querétaro in time to save their own lives. They fled to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and they later sent for their son.
Edmund arrived in the United States in 1883. An avid hunter and fisherman, he fell in love with the forests of Wisconsin. On a fishing trip in 1885 he met an Ohio writer named D.R. Locke, who was quite famous at the time under his pseudonym 'Petroleum V. Nasby.' Locke was an art-lover and he persuaded Osthaus to return to Toledo with him, where his art might become more widely appreciated. Locked founded the Toledo Academy of Fine Arts in 1886 and installed Osthaus as the first head instructor. He would hold that position for seven years.
In 1893, Osthaus decided to strike out on his own. He resigned from his position at the Toledo Academy and opened a studio at the corner of Madison Avenue and 11th Street in Toledo. Freed from his academic duties, his only interuptions to his painting were his frequent shooting trips and attending field trials. He joined the Tile Club, a society of Toledo artists, writers and musicians, in 1897 and served as the club's president from 1898 through 1902. This creative group eventually founded the Toledo Museum of Art, where three of Osthaus' original works are held (Afield (circa 1900), Major and Landscape with Three Setters).
Osthaus was at the height of his fame in the late 1890s and early 1900s. During this time he began a famous series of portraits of the National Field Trial Championship winners. Osthaus painted every winning dog from 1896 through 1910. The series included some of the most famous bird dogs in the nation's history such as Count Gladstone.
These portraits and other Osthaus works were picked up by the DuPont Powder Company, which published them on postcards and calendars to advertise the company's smokeless gunpowder. The DuPont series establshed Osthaus' fame among the general public during his lifetime. At the time he was collected by many of America's wealthiest families and by some of the most promiment sportsmen of his day including the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Hobart Ames of Boston, Pierre Lorillard of New York and Harry Edwards of Cleveland. During this time Osthaus periodically painted in a studio on West 39th Street in New York.
Osthaus was an avid field trial competitor and judge throughout his years in America. He was a charter member of the National Field Trial Association formed in November 1895 at Newton, North Carolina. He also served as vice president of the Continental Field Trial Club until persecution of Germans set in during World War I. Like many other German residents he experienced alienation during this period and he was asked to resign his membership.
Osthaus was a keen shot and hunted prairie chickens, grouse, pheasants, snipe, woodcock and bobwhite quail. He owned a shooting lodge at Marianna in Jackson County, Florida for many years. Throughout the 1920s, he would follow the field trial activity across North America, ending up in Florida during the winer. Beginning with the fall prairie chicken trails in Canada, he would follow the sport to the southwest as it grew colder in Canada, eventually going south for the winter where he would hunt bobwhites. He also regularly showed his own Pointers and setters in both conformation shows and field trials. In the 1880s and early 1890s, he was a partner with J.E. Dager in the Maumee Kennels in Toledo. He died at the lodge on January 30, 1928 after a day's shooting.
He worked from life making many sketches of the background and worked in both oil and watercolor. As he was himself an active hunter and field trial judge he knew what to look for. William Secord notes, 'His paintings, most often of English setters and Pointers working in the field, are an extraordinary combination of acute anatomical observation, and skill in capturing the spirit of the dog.' (W. Secord, A Breed Apart, Woodbridge, 2001, p. 126). He painted English setters more often than any other breed and many of his works contain what has become known as his signature characteristic of the fully feathered tail, held straight at 45 degrees. His art benefited from having some of the best dogs in the late 19th century America to use as models, and part of Osthaus' importance is as a chonicler of early American field-type dogs. Osthaus was appreciated by critics during his lifetime who credited him with breaking a long-standing tradition of anthropomorphism in animal art. Writing in 1907 the art critic Charles Wisner Barrell said of Osthaus, 'The dog...has found among painters very few truthful delineators. Many artists have essayed to paint dogs occasionally...but nearly always they have used the animals as foils for the accentuation of human characteristics, or as appropriate figures in landscapes, or they have boldly twisted canine attributes into all but human caricatures...Up to the present time, perhaps the only painter who has earnestly and successfully sought to realize this...unidealized delineation of canine types is the German-American artist of Toledo, Ohio, Edmund H. Osthaus.' (Munsey, April 1907, p. 54).
He is not only a superb painter of dogs but also of landscapes. His experience in the field shines through most clearly in the landscapes into which he placed the dogs. The critic Chad Mason commented, 'His landscapes are vivid, haunting, densely colored and three-dimensioned with the long shadows and faint mist of morning. A typical Osthaus work is at once two paintings: a master landscape and a dog portrait.' (C. Mason, 'The Canine Canvas', Gun Dog Magazine, 2004, p. 55).