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Harry Engel was born in 1901 in Romania and moved to the United States as an infant with his parents, immigrating first to New York and then to Michigan. Rather than pursuing what his parents believed would be a dignified profession in law, he decided that he was more interested in art. After high school, he began to study in Paris at the Académie Ranson under Maurice Denis, where he stayed for two years. Once he returned home to South Bend, he enrolled at Notre Dame University. He graduated summa cum laude in 1928 with a major in art education. Thereafter, Engel worked at Indiana University as a junior partner where he taught art history and painting. Later he moved on to study some courses during a Carnegie-fellowship at the Sorbonne, moving on to receive his MA at Columbia after. His career doubled to artist and teacher when he returned and became centered in Bloomington, Indiana. Earning the status of Emeritus, he went on to be a member of the department there from 1928 to 1968. He was so influential that it is said that his name has become synonymous with the Art Department there, even today.
Engel was said to be very modest about his accomplishments, yet was known for his friendly, happy, and informal manner. He always painted or sketched every single day and hence, believed that it was sinful to have creative talent and not use it. During his early time there he served apprenticeships to both Wayman Adams and Eliot O’Hara, at which time he did extensive amounts of reading and museum visiting. His artwork, although to his dismay was at times criticized by the press, greatly varied in style and subject matter. However, what he was known for was showing his deepest feelings and perceptions, and having a use of rich pigments. Among his most notable subjects were modern portrayals portraiture, landscapes, and still-lifes in oils and watercolors. He did also dabble and experiment with other styles and mediums such as tempera, gouache, encaustic, silk screening, lithography, and photography.
In terms of accomplishments, he developed his passion for projects by setting up art courses at the Indiana State Prison in the 1930s. Under the New Deal, he became Director of the W.P.A. Federal Art Project for Indiana and State Chairman of National Art Week. In the 1950s and 1960s, his work provided him with awards for two sabbatical leaves to Italy and Greece. Some of his many exhibitions included: the Grand Palais of Paris; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; the Detroit Institute of Art; the Butler Art Institute of Youngstown, Ohio; and the Whitney Museum.
He continued to take a class and paint even after his retirement. After becoming ill from his second heart attack, he died with his boots on, inside of the Fine Arts Building.
Compilation of text from Engel’s memorial service eulogies. Texts by: Henry Hope, Jim McGarrell, Sam Yellen, Leila Engel, Jean-Paul Darriau, and Theodore Bowie; Harry Engel 1955 Indiana University Exhibition Catalog written by Henry Hope; Indianapolis Times Jan. 22,1950 “IU Artist Urges More Mature Appreciation of Modern Art” by Henry Butler; IMA Library Artist Files
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