Do you recognise that feeling? When you just know you’ve discovered something special? When I first saw this painting I fell in love with it straight away. Beautiful colours. And how about that mysterious scene? Who are these women? Are they dancing?
When I looked at the painting long enough, I got sucked into it. I was there. It was a sultry night. We were in the desert, sand dunes everywhere. The women were dancing a sensual dance. The music was of an ancient kind. And there were millions of stars on the deep blue firmament…
Of course I bought the painting!
I spent hours and hours on the world-wide web, trying to figure out who painted this beautiful gouache; The maker only signed with his initials: S.H.
But I worked it out. It was Sergius Hruby.
Even though today not many people may know his name, Sergius Hruby was a renowned symbolist painter in his time. He was a brilliant graphic artist and illustrator, a designer and decorative painter. Known for his Art Nouveau works he specialised in the typical sinister fin-de-siècle woman.
Having collected dozens of examples of Hruby’s work in the mean time, I noticed something interesting. Hruby started off as an academic painter, picked-up the Art Nouveau style around 1899, touched Japonism briefly, and got ‘infected’ by Symbolism around 1910 when every other artist in Europe had already moved on to the next style. In fact, he stayed committed to symbolism the rest of his life.
Information about Hruby was unbelievably hard to find; no more than a sentence here or there. And since no-one else seems to have taken the trouble, I will try to piece together Sergius Hruby’s biography.
This biography is based on the few tiny details I could find after weeks, months of research. If you happen to know of any additional facts on Hruby’s life, please let me know. I would love to get his biography as complete as possible.
Biography of Sergius Josef Hruby
Sergius Josef Hruby was born in Vienna on 16 March 1869. Other than that he joined the army in 1889, there’s no information about his youth; the first time his name pops-up in a newspaper (Die Neue Freie Presse of 25 December 1890) we learn that 21 year old Reserve-Cadet Sergius Hruby got promoted to Lieutenant in der Reserve. On 4 Februari 1891, the Teplitz-Schönauer Anzeiger tells us “Besonders schön präsentirte sich das „Alliance-Zimmer” mit den vom Maler Hruby prachtvoll gemalten Riesen-wappen der drei Verbündeten Oesterreich-Ungarn, Deutschland und Italien”. Hruby had painted a giant coat-of-arms of the Austro-Hungarian-German-Italian Alliance for the costumed ball of the local men’s choral in Teplitz.
The 1896 annual report of the Imperial Austrian Museum for Art and Industry announces that the Freiherr Albert von Rothschild Foundation supported several students of the Kunstgewerbeschule. Sergius Hruby, 27 years old then, received a fl. 250,- grant.
In 1898, the Wiener Zeitung mentions Hruby, one of the students of the 1897/98 class, got another Fl. 100,- grant from the Freiherr Albert von Rothschild Foundation.
Now this is interesting: 18 March 1899 the Teplitz-Schönauer Anzeiger writes that the academic painter Sergius Hruby was appointed as a teacher at the Teplitzer k.k. Fachschule für Thonwaren-Industrie und andere Kunst-Gewerbe, the local technical school for pottery-industry and other forms of art. Hruby is said to be a former student of the School of Applied Arts and the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He has had the greatest success with art exhibitions as well as with the designs for colour prints. The institution can be best complimented on his appointment, as he is one of the best in the decorative colour genre of the modern school.
On 6 September 1899 the Teplitz-Schönauer Anzeiger published in the section Church Messages that Sergius Hruby, academic painter and teacher in Schönau, got a daughter. So he was married? Indeed! Author Anna L. Staudacher published a book …melded den Austritt aus dem Mosaischen Glauben, which is actually a list with the names of 18.000 people who withdrew from the Jewish faith in Vienna between 1868 and 1914. From this list we learn that in 1908, Safira Sofie Hruby-Elias (born 26 Januari 1874), withdrew from the Jewish faith. According to the same book Safira and Sergius had been married since 22 June 1899.
In a 2013 Newsletter of the Swedenborg Library we can read about a portrait Hruby made of Emanuel Swedenborg in 1900. In that same newsletter it is suggested Hruby worked for the Wiener Werkstätte, but I have not found proof of that anywhere. I even contacted the owner of the website Vienna Secession who is an expert on the art scene in Vienna, but he also never found evidence that Hruby was a member of the Wiener Werkstätte.
Between 25 November and 31 December 1900, the Teplitzer k.k. Fachschule für Thonwaren-Industrie und andere Kunst-Gewerbe organised an exhibition, showing the works of its students. According to the enticing poster Hruby designed for the exhibition, modern ceramics, modern English furniture, bronze objects, paintings, sculptures and carpets would be on display.
On 19 December 1900 the Teplitz-Schönauer Anzeiger reports that Professor S. Hruby was unanimously appointed a member of the Museum Society of the Teplitzer Museum because of his outstanding achievements.
Hruby was 45 years old, and a first lieutenant by now, when World War I began. According to the files at Künstlerhaus, he became invalid while in service. The Linzer Tages-Post reported on 8 September 1915 that Archduke Franz Salvator rewarded Landsturm Oberleutnant Sergius Hruby from the Reserve Hospital in Melk with a Red Cross Honour Decoration 2nd class, with War Decoration, for his outstanding contribution to military medical care during the war.
Right from the beginning of the war, artists from both countries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were told to fulfill their duty, to put their talent to use. The high command ordered the KPQ (Kriegspressequartier or War-Press-HQ) to form a Kunstgruppe (an Art Group). The artists of this Kunstgruppe were officers but their art could not be commanded. They got the time to see what they wanted to see, and they got the time to process what they had seen. But in the end, their art was requisitioned to be sold or to be displayed. Or the KPQ simply claimed the copyrights. Sergius Hruby is on the list of artists who worked for the KPQ between 1917-1918.
In 1922 Hruby became a member of the Wiener Künstlerhaus. Two years later, he joined the Aquarellisten-Club (water-colourist club) and the Gruppe Gsur. Gruppe Gsur was established parallel to the Wiener Künstlerhaus in response to some annoyances about how exhibitions were organized.
Between 1925 and 1933, Hruby’s illustrations were printed on a regular basis in the satirical magazine Die Muskete, which was published between 1905 and 1941. In November 1927 they actually issued a Sondernummer, a Special Edition, about Professor Sergius Hruby! Unfortunately, the issue contains only drawings by Hruby; there’s no information about the man himself.
When World War II began, Sergius Hruby was already 71 years old. But he was still working. We know that, because Wladimir-Aichelburg reports Hruby was removed as member of the RKK (Reichskulturkammer) on 1 February 1941 reason being his wife was not of Aryan descent. Fortunately, Emil Bröckl intervened and Hruby could continue to work. However, as Hruby was removed from the RKK, he could no longer be a member of the Künstlerhaus. He was removed there too.
After that, life must have been very difficult for Hruby; he passed away on 24 October 1943 at age 74. The Künstlerhaus paid 500RM for his funeral, more than half of the total cost. Sergius Hruby was buried on 29 October 1943 at the Wiener Zentralfriedhof (Gruppe 48, Gruppe Erweiterung D, Reihe 7, Nummer 5).
In 1944 the Künstlerhaus paid roughly 1000RM to Hruby’s daughter for several of his drawings.
In the years after that, the Künstlerhaus planned a commemorative exhibition about Sergius Hruby more than once, but after reviewing his paintings and comparing them with traditionally painted Secessionist works, the exhibitions were rejected as untimely…
Personally, I would have loved to see that commemorative exhibition. How about you?
Die Muskete digitized magazine scans 1905-1941
Family Tree Sergius Hruby
Österreichisches Biographisches Lexikon: Sergius Hruby
RKD Netherlands Institute of Art History
What is Symbolism in Art?
Wissenswertes über die Geschichte des Wiener Künstlerhauses
Wladimir-Aichelburg – 150 Jahre Künstlerhaus Wien 1861-2011