Roscoe Misselhorn

Roscoe Misselhorn by Arlene Green. Courtesy of the Misselhorn Art Gallery

A talented local artist who honed his craft and shared his work in Sparta for more than seven decades, Roscoe Misselhorn used his pencil to capture Randolph County’s unique landscape and heritage.

Roscoe Misselhorn was born in Sparta on January 12, 1902. He was the second son of August Misselhorn and Clara Schunhoff Misselhorn, both first-generation Americans born to German immigrants who settled in Randolph County in the middle of the nineteenth century. Roscoe joined an older brother, Edison, and the family quickly grew to include four more siblings: Frank, August Jr., and twins Ruth and Ruby.

The Misselhorns and the Schunhoffs were both farming families, but August and Clara decided to raise their children in town. There, August used the knowledge he’d learned working on his family’s farm in his work as an agent and salesman for farm implement firms. The stories of the Randolph County of his parents’ childhood would loom large in young Roscoe’s imagination, especially tales of his grandfather, Wilhelm Misselhorn. In the 1840s, Wilhelm had emigrated from Germany to America, bringing with him a wealth of woodworking talent honed by experience working in cities like Bremen, Hamburg, and Copenhagen. According to family lore, Wilhelm had used his skills to help in the construction of the covered bridge over Mary’s River after moving to Randolph County. The Misselhorns had settled not far away in Wine Hill, where Wilhelm died in 1868, only three years after August, his youngest son, was born.

Half a century later, the six Misselhorn kids attended school in Sparta. From a young age, Roscoe discovered that he had an interest in and talent for art. Even as a kid, Roscoe would later reflect, “more than anything else, I wanted to draw.” Traditional school subjects proved difficult, and he found himself more interested in doing sketches to amuse his classmates than in classes in math or science. He dropped out before graduation and went to work selling clothing in a Sparta department store.

In those days, Sparta was a hub for the printing industry, producing pamphlets, comic books, and magazines. Living in a small town with such a rich artistic output only fed Roscoe’s creative mind. He began doing sketches and political cartoons in the 1920s for the Sparta Plain-Dealer. His work caught the attention of executives at Meyer-Both, a news syndication company out of Chicago. They hired him to do weekly political cartoons to be printed in papers all over the country, paying him $5 for each cartoon.

The cultural climate of the era, the days of the Great Depression and Prohibition, provided him with plenty of fodder. He would later explain, “I thought up my own ideas for the cartoons, and the only restrictions were that they couldn’t be Democrat or Republican or Wet or Dry.” In one Groundhog Day-themed cartoon from January 1931, Roscoe depicts prosperity nervously peeking out of the closed family pocketbook, like Punxsutawney Phil anxious about seeing his shadow. In a Mother’s Day cartoon from later the same year, he challenges young people to remember to care for aging parents: “Don’t forget her now! Did she ever go back on you?”

Roscoe produced political cartoons for Meyer-Both for eight years. Keen to challenge himself and hone his skills further, he applied for admission to the Art Institute of Chicago. He was turned down, likely because he didn’t have a high school diploma. At the same time, though, his personal life had taken a decidedly positive turn. He had developed a romance with Ruth Tritt, a school classmate from Sparta. After graduating from high school, Ruth had studied to become a teacher at Southern Illinois Normal University in Carbondale, returning to Sparta to teach first grade at Lincoln Grade School. She encouraged him to keep pursuing his art studies. She also accepted his marriage proposal. They wed in Sparta in June 1926, when both of them were 24.

With a nudge from Ruth, who would be his greatest champion for the rest of their lives, Roscoe packed up his art supplies and headed to St. Louis. There, he enrolled at Washington University, and began taking courses in the School of Fine Arts. There, he discovered the thrill of working as part of a community of artists. In a feature published in the university’s magazine in 1974, the fine arts school of 1926 was described as being “as loosely structured as the rickety building in which the life class models shivered in the countless drafts.”

For Roscoe, the school’s approach fit perfectly. “While not too much attention was paid then to curricula, grades, or credits, the school offered an extremely talented an inspiring faculty.” For two and a half years, Roscoe studied under the tutelage of artists like portraitist Fred Green Carpenter, commercial art and design teacher Delos Charles Nicholson, and antique art specialist Ethel Grosskop. In his classes, Roscoe worked beside a number of talented classmates, including the muralist Frederick Conway, the batik artist Tanasko Milovich, and the renowned illustrator Al Parker, who would become one of Roscoe’s early collaborators.

In 1928, Roscoe left Washington University to begin working for local advertising agencies in St. Louis. While he continued producing numerous pencil sketches, he found that commercial art offered him more financial opportunities. Though he never graduated, the university later awarded him an honorary bachelor’s degree in art. Back in Sparta, where he and Ruth were rooming in a boarding house with several other school staff members, he began a sign painting business. Even after returning to his hometown, Roscoe kept up his connections with the art community in St. Louis, where he regularly attended a weekly life-drawing group, nicknamed “the Friday Nighters.” But while he loved St. Louis and his colleagues there, ultimately there was no place like Sparta. He told the Southern Illinoisan in 1959, “For a home, I prefer a quiet place, where when you meet someone on the street, you probably know him and he knows you.”

Roscoe Misselhorn
Roscoe Misselhorn

As he painted signs and murals, Roscoe started to develop his own personal artistic style more and more clearly. In 1930, he would produce the first of a series of pencil sketches that would become his trademark. The subject was the covered bridge over Mary’s River, the same structure he associated so strongly with the memory of the grandfather he’d never met. Indeed, the county’s landscape would provide him with endless inspiration over the next half a century. Rolling hills, historic homes, farms, rivers, bridges—the entire world of Randolph County seemed designed to be captured by Roscoe’s pencil. In 1981, Jim Santori of the Southern Illinoisan wrote, “Weathered and broken barns, root masses along a still brook, huge trees with gnarled, twisting limbs attract Misselhorn like a moth to light.” In the trunk of his car, Roscoe kept a weathered clipboard, books of drawing paper, and pencils, plus a stool and a large umbrella for shade, ready to be brought out at a moment’s notice when inspiration struck. He worked quickly and capably, often finishing drawings in a little more than an hour’s time. His home studio was packed with boxes and boxes of original work, stuffed with thousands of pencil drawings.

As early as the 1950s, Roscoe’s primary style had crystallized into the soft, nostalgic perspective for which he is best remembered. “I am not trying for photographic accuracy,” Roscoe said in 1959. “What I try to do is catch the flavor of a scene.” The Southern Illinoisan‘s Ben Gelman called him “a competent craftsman who has concentrated on refining his technique” instead of constantly searching and experimenting. But while Roscoe’s work was perhaps considered old-fashioned or out of touch when compared with the favored abstract styles of the middle of the twentieth century, Gelman rightly noted that the sketches he produced could “provide a world of visual satisfaction” for “millions of people.” His alma mater’s magazine described his work as “warm and informal essays in pencil that somehow seem to capture the special flavor of the subject.”

Though he would joke later in life that people in Sparta always considered him mainly a sign painter, he was able to devote increasing amounts of time to his non-commercial work. In 1949, he produced an instruction book detailing his technique, Sketching with Pencil. More volumes would follow, including 1973’s Misselhorn’s Pencil Sketches of St. Louis and its companion book, Misselhorn’s Pencil Sketches of Missouri. While he took plenty of inspiration from home, both Roscoe and Ruth loved to travel, and their vacations gave him more chances to sketch interesting landmarks. A visit to New Orleans during Christmas 1951, for example, produced 28 new drawings. These were exhibited in a month-long show at the Music and Arts University in St. Louis in the spring of 1952. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat published an enthusiastic review of the new work: “Misselhorn is noted for his fidelity of detail and this characteristic is abundantly evident in the drawings …. Little that is well known among New Orleans scenes was missed by the artist, who was particularly fond of the mellow sunlight and who gets its lift and play with shadows into most of his work.”

Roscoe’s occasional forays into other media also produced interesting and notable results. Several magazines commissioned watercolor illustrations. He completed several significant murals, including two in local Sparta buildings and another inside the Federal Reserve Bank building in St. Louis. Galleries across America exhibited his paintings, and a wood engraving, “Ohio River Fish Boat,” inspired by a Shawneetown landscape, was shown at the Carnegie Institute and the Library of Congress.

Even so, audiences clamored for more of Roscoe’s pencil sketches. In 1976, a calendar of his drawings, produced to coincide with the bicentennial celebrations, was sold nationally. Prints of his work became sought after, and he began producing notepads and postcards with his sketches of landmarks in Randolph County, Carbondale, Cairo, Ste. Genevieve, St. Louis, and New Orleans. He was commissioned by the St. Louis Art Museum and the Missouri Botanical Gardens to produce sketches that could be sold as prints in their gift shops.

Living with an educator also clearly rubbed off on Roscoe. He began leading adult extension classes at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 1951, teaching courses in pencil drawing, as well as working with pastels, oils, and watercolors. While working with the university, he also sought to produce what he considered his dream project: a book of his sketches of Southern Illinois. Though he had considerable interest from university figures like publisher Will Griffith and historian John Allen, it was difficult to find a company to take on the project. In 1981, the Southern Illinoisan did a piece on the proposed book, which would have included drawings of local landmarks like Fort de Chartres and SIU’s Old Main Building. “New York book moguls are interested only in that which appeals to the common denominator,” the paper explained. “They won’t touch a book of representational art on a specific, and not too famous, area.”

Roscoe Misselhorn
Roscoe Misselhorn

Roscoe was left with an immense amount of work and no suitable outlet to publish it. “Maybe someday, someone will take the bait,” he sighed. Soon, however, the art world would begin to take significant notice of Roscoe’s work and legacy. In 1987, the Missouri Historical Society mounted a major retrospective of Roscoe’s work. The exhibition, presented at the Shoenberg Portrait Gallery in Forest Park’s Jefferson Memorial Building, covered Roscoe’s work between 1920. More than 100 pieces were included in the retrospective, which was organized around thematic sections devoted to the St. Louis Riverfront, Downtown St. Louis, and Farm and Rural Scenes in Missouri. “Misselhorn is best known for his pencil sketches of historic buildings and covered bridges, and he has achieved regional recognition for these. But the full range of his artistic work is little understood,” said curator Karen M. Goering.

Many of the drawings that Roscoe had earmarked for the Southern Illinois project would also finally find a home. His work had been exhibited in various local museums and galleries, including the Roscoe Misselhorn Gallery in Ste. Genevieve and the Brown Memorial Museum in Sparta. But in the early 1990s, Roscoe and Ruth found a way to preserve his legacy in a more formal way. They established an art foundation, to which they contributed more than 4,000 pieces of his original artwork, as well as a collection of art books valued at $50,000. The foundation then helped to coordinate the restoration of a local landmark for use as a museum to showcase Roscoe’s work.

In November 1992, the renovated Gulf, Mobile, & Ohio Railroad Depot on Second Street in Sparta was reopened as the Misselhorn Art Gallery. The depot was familiar both to local residents and to movie lovers, as it was featured prominently in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night. The Post-Dispatch reported that more than 200 people attended a dedication ceremony for the gallery. The new museum would be able to showcase rotating display of thousands of Roscoe’s drawings. Roscoe, who was 90 when the gallery opened, joked, “We don’t have kids, so when we die, I always worried they’d put our stuff out to sell it for 50 cents apiece.” The new foundation and gallery ensured that the legacy that the Misselhorns built would remain accessible to art lovers for generations to come. The Southern Illinoisan praised the city of Sparta for helping to fund the project, writing, “The community of Sparta showed that it cares about its art and its architecture.” The foundation has helped to extend that care by awarding scholarships to young artists, encouraging the continuation of Sparta’s artistic legacy.

Less than a year after the opening of the Misselhorn Gallery, Roscoe’s wife, Ruth, passed away in Sparta at the age of 92. The couple had been married for 67 years. Roscoe was able to continue to work for a few more years. He died on September 16, 1997, in Sparta, at the age of 95. An obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch lauded him as the “well-known pencil artist of Sparta, Ill.,” adding, “Mr. Misselhorn, a lifelong resident of Sparta, was best known for his pencil sketches of Missouri and Illinois landmarks, landscapes, old barns, bridges, boats and houses.”

Roscoe Misselhorn by Arlene Green. Courtesy of the Misselhorn Art Gallery
Roscoe Misselhorn by Arlene Green. Courtesy of the Misselhorn Art Gallery

In 2017, the Misselhorn Art Gallery celebrated its 25th anniversary. Today, the gallery remains open on weekends, free to visitors who want to view a rotating selection of Roscoe’s works, as well as occasional displays from other artists. The preservation of Roscoe’s work by the trustees of the Misselhorn Art Foundation is a testament to the importance of his 70-year artistic career. It also, it turns out, is a way to help preserve a vision of Randolph County and the surrounding areas that has rapidly changed.

In the years since Roscoe sketched many of those landmarks and landscapes in Illinois and Missouri, many of them have been lost or changed significantly. Roscoe’s work doesn’t just give us insight into the way he saw Randolph County; it also provides us with a window into the past, as well as a tribute to places and people who made it special. In 2010, foundation trustee Terry Waldron told the Southern Illinoisan, “The reason I think he’s important, especially for a Midwest artist, was what he chose to draw. The stuff he liked is the stuff that’s not around anymore. The historic value of his work is what’s important.”

Roscoe Misselhorn was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2022.