Home - Biography - Artistic Roots - The Painter -HJD Collection-The Paintings- Cartoons - Books - Reviews

Henry J. Dietrich 1918-2000; a biographical sketch
Thomas D. Lonner, Ph.D.

Henry Dietrich later in lifeHenry J. Dietrich was born Heinz Otto Joseph Lewin, Berlin 1918.  His family lived near the Tiergarten.  His father was Denny Lewin, a manufacturer of box springs.  His father was very supportive of everything that Henry wanted to do – singing, writing, drawing. When his mother died, his father allowed Henry, still a teen, to travel by bicycle with a friend to Vienna for a few weeks, where he went night-clubbing. Henry did a credible impersonation of tenor Richard Tauber, so credible that Tauber even came to see him perform.  Hired by an agent, at age 15, he created a small three-month sensation with that impersonation in Vienna night clubs and appeared on a Vienna radio station along with actor Leo Slezak.  He was offered free voice training.  He calculated how much boring, repetitious work would lie ahead of him in music, singing the same songs, performance after performance.  At age 16, back from Vienna, Henry determined to go to art school to become a painter.  

Since his father was financially capable, Henry enrolled in perhaps the best art school in Berlin, starting in 1935.  His first two years were spent at the Kunstschule Reimann. Founded as a private college of arts, crafts, mode, fashion, and decoration by the prominent sculptor/designer Albert Reimann in 1926, Kunstschule Reimann was host to many prominent faculty and students, among whom were caricaturists Alwin Kinkelin and Erna Schmidt Caroll; photographers Werner Graeff, Kurt Mill, and Wilhelm Maywald; lithographers Fritz Ahlers and Moriz Melzer; painters Robert Rehfeldt and Emmy Stahlmann; and fashion designer/painter Helen Ernst.  In 1938, Reimann escaped Berlin for London and architect Hugo Haering took the leadership role to keep the school alive.  The name of the school was changed to Kunstschule des Westens.

This was a very dynamic and thorough art school, replete with excellent teachers in theory, history, media, and technique.  His teachers respected Henry’s talent, one telling him that he could become great painter, although he himself intended to be a fashion illustrator. He completed his last years at Kunstscule des Westens, essentially fulfilling his basic curriculum, although students could remain at the school for their lifetimes, should they wish.

A conventional teen-age boy, Henry was not a political person.  He was seemingly oblivious to what was happening around him in his society or the implications of such a regime on his life or that of other German Jews. When someone told him that Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany, Henry, who was skating on an ice rink at the time, laughed so hard that he fell down.  He thought Hitler was a great joke.

In the pre-war years of the Third Reich, Henry immersed himself in his painting and drawing.  He would have remained at the art school, but, because he was half-Jewish, he was told that he could not continue.  He was age-eligible to be drafted into the German army and, although “racially impure,” did, in fact, receive his draft notice in 1938. 

Henry determined to emigrate to the United States, but he had no papers, relatives, or sponsors to get him there in a quota-limited situation.  Shanghai, China was the only place he could enter as a Jewish refugee with an exit visa only. He arrived penniless and without a marketable trade, friends, or family in Shanghai as a very young man.  Unlike numerous other young German Jewish refugees who had managed to come to Shanghai with money and businesses, Henry lived in the German district, under Japanese administration, that contained about 18,000 post-1937 German Jewish refugees living in very exploitive straits, poor and bomb-ruined houses, and limited food and clothing.  He was supported by the Jewish Refugee Committee and lived in communal camps and barracks, selling his clothing piece-by-piece to live.  He lived from hand-to-mouth for several years, earning small amounts of money going door-to-door, drawing portraits for Chinese and Japanese families.     

Henry met his to-be-wife in 1944.  They were married in Shanghai after the war was over.  TheyHenry and Martha in China could not leave Shanghai together for the United States at the immediate end of the war because they were quota-restricted and lacked sponsorship.  Henry saw America as a land of artistic opportunity and freedom.  He loved America, even before he arrived as a refugee, for its quality and range of freedom in the arts and for the high quality and abundance of its artists, cartoonists, graphics, style, and advertising execution in fashion magazines; his expectations were based on Conde Nast magazines and in images like the Vargas girls.  America, he thought, was the land in which he could flourish as an artist. 

When his number came up in 1948, they left Shanghai for San Francisco. Henry already had nabbed the promise of his first show of his work at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.  His ultimate job at the San Francisco Chronicle art department became his first and last job.

He had a stable routine of working daily at the paper.  Working the evening shift for the morning edition paper, he could paint on Sundays and Mondays only, his days off. When he had down time at the paper, he would exercise his drawing skills, to keep his imagination and drafting skills in good order.  Henry was concerned that his newspaper cartoon illustrations would conflict with or influence his paintings, so he kept them as separate and distinct as possible during his work years, creating two or more entirely different styles.  While he enjoyed and took pride in both his newspaper staff artist style and his emerging painting style, he adamantly excluded his newspaper style from his painting style.  Both, however, reflected his composition and drafting skills, his ingenuity, and his sense of balance and simplicity.

Martha and Henry's first day in San FranciscoHis work as an independent artist, while well and positively reviewed in the art press, did not provide him with a reliable income.  After unhappy but not atypical business experiences showing and selling his paintings in West Coast galleries, he evinced little interest in showing his paintings or selling them.  He retained most of them, selling or giving a handful of paintings to his close friends and associates.

Henry continued to work for the newspaper for some 33 years, until his retirement in 1983. His retirement from the newspaper opened up all of his days to his all-consuming studio work.  His productivity rose dramatically in the years immediately following his retirement as he threw himself exclusively into painting. 

From the mid-1940s until his death, it is estimated that he produced about 500 paintings, most of which survive today in private collections.  While keeping some photographs and slides of his paintings, Henry kept no log or inventory of his works, so the exact number, sequence, and location of his products cannot be determined.  Some of his early works appear in museum and the gallery catalogs and in black-and-white interior photographs of his paintings on museum walls and home interiors.  Those paintings he disliked or considered unfinished he destroyed, perhaps 10%; a few years before his death, he and a handyman went through many of the paintings he retained, destroying a number that he found inferior until the assistant, in tears, refused to destroy any more beauty.  Only a handful of the surviving paintings are unsigned and undated, indicating his view that a painting is still unfinished.  In addition to his paintings, a large number of small drawings, sketches, exercises, and cartoons survive, along with his draft children’s books.

This body of work makes one wonder what accomplishments he might have made and recognition he might have received had he not been a refugee, totally lacking in art supplies for the entire decade of his 20s and then so distant from the art marketplace during the subsequent 35 years. Henry had to cease painting in 1997, due a long and debilitating physical decline.  He died at home on March 27, 2000.

Henry J. Dietrich's Comprehensive Biography pdf