Ferdinand Pribyl — The Artist and The Man


          1) Title Slide: Good afternoon. On behalf of the Pribyl, Stockbauer, and Staha families, I would like to thank all of you for coming to this exhibition today. I also extend our gratitude to the staff at the Institute of Texan Cultures for providing us with the opportunity to show this work of our ancestor, Ferdinand Pribyl, of whom we are all very proud. Lastly, I thank my husband, James Harris, for his always welcome computer expertise in helping with the creation of the PowerPoint presentation that accompanies this narration.

          2) Photo: Ferdinand (in oval): I think that no one would be more amazed than Ferdinand Pribyl himself, were he to walk into this museum today, see his art on display, and hear us discussing his life. In his adopted land of America he was a teacher and a farmer. Art was an avocation, presented as a gift to family and friends. He probably assumed that on his death, signs of the unpretentious life he had led would fade in people’s memories and quickly vanish.

          But the memory of Ferdinand Pribyl has been kept alive, not only by the legacy of his art, but also by his writing, because in addition to his artwork, we have intimate letters written to his elder brother, Jan.

          3) Photo of letters of Ferdinand and Jan: Because of these letters we know something of the quality of the inner lives of both brothers, their dreams, their fears, their hopes and expectations. We can also trace details of the events that led them to leave their native land and come to America. These writings have been preserved for us through the diligence of several family members, notably the descendants of Jan Pribyl, who saved the letters, and of my mother, Elizabeth Stockbauer, who collected over 200 that were exchanged between the brothers and arranged for their translation from the original Czech language.

          4) Ferdinand and Wisner as young men: What kind of a man was Ferdinand? He was well educated, well read, and introspective. He had studied the classics and pondered deeply on their philosophical ideas. Religiously he wavered between scepticism and faith, giving credence to a divine order, yet firmly avowing the equal role of self-determination in shaping human destiny. He was a lover of wilderness and mountain areas and would seek out the natural world wherever he lived.

          In this presentation, in addition to discussing his art, I would like to outline events in his life, focusing primarily on the immediate period before he came to America, as these are the years that are best documented in the letters. They are, as well, the most pivotal years of his life. They show us the depth of his personality, and vividly display his struggles with the angels and demons of his nature that led him into places he never dreamed that he would venture. 5) Bohemia/Moravia

The Letters

          Ferdinand Pribyl was born in 1840 in the province of Moravia, which at that time was part of the Austrian Empire, 6)Austrian Empire: and now lies within the Czech Republic. 7) Frenstat: The Pribyl family had seven children and lived in the township of Frenstat. Their trade was weaving, an occupation that was secure and widespread in the area until the mid-1800’s, when industrialization put many such craftspeople out of work.

          8) Jan and Wilhelmina (young photo): The loss of his profession is probably what influenced Ferdinand’s brother, Jan, to make the decision to leave Moravia with his wife, Wilhelmina, and their 4 children and join the rising flow of immigrants to America. 9) Fayetteville: In 1873 they first settled in Ross Prairie, in Fayette County, Texas and this is where our letters begin.

          Jan has taken up farming and is battling the 10) Czech Farmers: continuing vagaries of weather, crop-destroying pests, fluctuating prices, and diseases in the new land. Despite the struggles, he enjoys his freedom of life and is eagerly exploring possibilities for advancement.

          In Europe, Ferdinand is leading a settled existence with his new wife, Anna, who is expecting a child. He has a well paid job as an accountant 11) Photo montage of Ostrava: in the large industrial center of Ostrava, north of Frenstat and has carefully saved his earnings to provide for his family in later years. The brothers sorely miss one another’s company. On hearing of the family’s ongoing trials, Ferdinand periodically sends money, and urges them to return, even offering to pay for passage back to Frenstat. Jan, however, is determined to succeed in his new life and resists any pressure to change course. Never is there expressed a hint that Ferdinand might wish to follow Jan to Texas. He enjoys the intellectual stimulation and cultural opportunities provided by urban life and could not fathom leaving such an existence for an unknown fate across the ocean.

          12) 4-page letter of Anna’s death: In February of 1875 Anna gives birth to a baby girl, but tragically, both die within two weeks following delivery. Ferdinand writes a soul-rending letter to Jan, describing the ordeal in minute detail — the onset of infection, the doctor's uses of leeches and amelioratives, and Anna’s suffering and final passing. He says: "My brother, such an event is more terrible than one can imagine. Even if one would try to imagine beforehand such eventual reality one has to say afterwards that our mental capacity is insufficient and our mind has to declare bankruptcy after such suffering…. I have aged after this catastrophe at least by ten years."

          Following this, Ferdinand suffers a series of illnesses, 13) Ferdinand and Anna faces only: but in 1878 he marries again, another woman named Anna, Anna Malcak. Unfortunately, in the same year he loses his job of nine years duration. The son of the owner, who has been embezzling funds over the years, has finally absconded with every trace of capital. The business is bankrupt and Ferdinand himself loses back pay. In retrospect, this can perhaps be seen as a grim portent of further events that will completely overturn his life security during the next 7 years.

          At first Ferdinand sees the loss of employment as an opportunity to establish his own business, thus escaping what he describes as “the submission and servitude that has in me a bitter and sworn enemy, and with which every employment is more or less connected.” 14) Frenstat:  He and Anna move back to Frenstat where their son Anton is born. They purchase a house with the intent of starting a wine business.

          15) Mt. Radhost: Even though Ferdinand had researched all aspects of producing and selling wine, he finds that 500 gallons he has purchased from a dealer in Hungary are spoiled. 16) Pan of Frenstat:The attempt to establish his own business falters and Anna begins to take in students to make money for the household.

          In 1880 Ferdinand writes to Jan: “As you must have noticed in my last letter I have not been doing well in Frenstat; I have lost here within the short time we have been living here more than a third of my goods and means in different ways as if all the things that I have touched were set up as a trap for me. I have become very worried about the future because I was afraid that even the money of my wife (amounting to about a year’s income) would disappear by and by.”

          17) Map of Retz dissolving to vineyards: Ferdinand next accepts a position as chief accountant for a wine merchant in Retz, a region of Austria known for its grape orchards. This employment too, is spoiled by bankruptcy and the owner gives him notice. In Retz he begins to fall prey to speculators and loses savings equivalent to almost a year’s income.

          Perhaps the unsettled nature of his life and the depletion of his savings begins to implant in Ferdinand’s mind the idea of emigrating, because in 1882, he asks Jan a series of questions about life in Texas. 18) Photo: Jan and Wilhelmina/older: He inquires about the weather, the climate, living conditions, food, and the necessity of speaking English. He reveals to Jan that he has savings amounting to over 4 years wages. This would give his family a very good start were they to settle in Texas.

          By this time, Jan’s fortune has changed and the family is now making a successful living. 19) Antonia: A daughter, Antonia, has been born in the new country. She will become my grandmother. 20) Lebussa and Antonia:They have purchased 102 acres of prairieland in Bluff, near La Grange. They own farm machinery and cattle and are growing cotton and vegetables.

          During 1883 Ferdinand travels extensively to find work. 21) Painting of Vienna:  The family finally settles in Vienna, the capital of the Austrian Empire. Throughout Europe in this era, the influence of the aristocracy and the military sectors is supreme, while the common person has tremendous difficulty in finding adequate and steady employment. 22) Slum images: In the cities this state of affairs produced an atmosphere generating robbery and impropriety from many quarters. In one of our letters, written to Jan from relatives in Moravia, there is a description of Vienna: 23) Slum images II: Quote: “…in Vienna there are 60,000 without work and I have to tell you briefly that the poverty there is so bad that every day eighteen people either hang or shoot themselves or jump into the Danube. …about stealing and robberies you hear every day.” Close quote.

          Ferdinand searches for employment as a clerk, but only finds occasional and part time positions. They change residence several times.   24) People doing needlework: Watching their already dwindling resources deplete even further, Anna makes money by doing needlework, even teaching Ferdinand to sew, embroider and crochet. They have to walk long distances to deliver their work, and the wages they earn are extremely meager.

          In October of 1883, Ferdinand tells Jan about the defeats he is suffering in Vienna, 25) Ferdinand and Jan (ovals):  “As a consequence of this I am beginning to contemplate about America again and I regret that we didn’t leave to go over there already last year! If our situation and circumstances don’t change shortly it could depend on your answer whether we are going to go there or not. That I would be motivated to such a step only by great worries regarding our future, of course, goes without saying. However, I know that a man cannot live anywhere without troubles but I am of the opinion that when a man overcomes and survives the first afflictions in America and manages to make sense of the local customs and circumstances, he doesn’t need to worry as much about his future as he does here.”

          Had he left at this point, his journey would have been far easier, but he has several concerns. Because of delicate health and constitution, he doubts his ability to succeed at farming or any job involving manual labor, which might be necessary in order to support his family in America. Also, he has only one child, Anton, who is four years old and not of an age to work in the fields, whereas Jan had 4 children when he immigrated. And Anna is terrified of the voyage over. Consequently, he tarries in his decision, expecting his fortunes in Europe to change for the better.

          26) Date and Address of letter:          Less than three months later a letter comes to Jan, dated December 28, 1883, which must have shocked him to the core. Ferdinand writes to tell a story that is stunning in its seeming improbability, describing a deception by which he was so allured by seeming reward that he practically handed over most of the remainder of his life savings. 27) Letters, dissolving into view of Vienna address: This is what happened:

          In his search for work he started looking through newspaper advertisements and thereby made the acquaintance of a Baron Dichelburg, who was a retired military officer and government worker. During a series of conversations the Baron assured him that for a financial loan, he would arrange for him, within six weeks, employment with the railroad in an official capacity. In Austria at the time, this was a government post, with job security, travel privileges, insurance, and retirement benefits, a job that would assure Ferdinand of employment and good wages for the rest of this life. Since the Baron had an official title and paraded as a man of means, Ferdinand was completely duped. Assuming it to be a temporary loan, he handed over an amount equivalent to three year’s earnings at a professional job. Prior to this he had also made loans to friends equivalent to an additional year’s earnings. None of these would ever be repaid. His life savings, built up through frugality and thrift, had been lost forever. This, indeed, may have been Ferdinand’s darkest night.

          28) Ferdinand and Anna/older:One wonders what could account for such gullibility and imprudence in an educated man who had worked for many years in the business world. In addition to the appalling conitions of life in much of Europe, perhaps it was due to the mounting tide of tragedy and responsibility that had been his life story during the preceding years — the loss of his first Anna, the responsibility of a child, the series of job losses, and the seeming impossibility of finding steady income.

          Whereas before the final loss of his life savings, he could have traveled to America with little financial worry, now he had lost practically everything. It would take courage and fortitude to embark on such an undertaking.

          That, however, is exactly what he did. 29)Photos of immigration:Somehow he was finally convinced that the only path to the future lay in leaving all that he had known and making a new life, however meager, however difficult. Perhaps the decision for him had been such a tearing one that only inevitable circumstance could bring him to make it.

          For another year and a half the family remains, attempting to bring the corrupt Baron to justice, working when they can to save enough to pay for passage, and selling off their possessions. 30)Castle Gardens:  On May 10, 1885 they land at New York, then travel to Bluff, Texas to finally be reunited with Jan and his family.

Ferdinand in Texas

          At this point our correspondence stops for 2 years, but we know that Ferdinand learns how to farm while living in Bluff and possibly takes a teaching position. Beginning in 1887 we have another series of letters from Ferdinand covering the next 5 years. 31) Sacred Heart School and Church:The family has moved to Hallettsville and he is teaching Czech students at the recently opened Sacred Heart Catholic School, founded by the French order of the Sisters of the Incarnate Work and Blessed Sacrament. 32) Fr. Forest: Ferdinand’s employer is Fr. John Anthony Forest, a Catholic missionary from France who would become the third Catholic bishop of San Antonio.

          33) Ferd, Anna, Albert, Anton:  But after struggling for over a year with poor wages and difficulties learning English, Ferdinand and Anna decide to rent land and start farming. In 1888, they take in Anna’s 9-year-old orphaned nephew, Albert Stockbauer, who travels alone from Europe to be with them. He is exactly the age of Anton, but was never formally adopted. Albert would become my paternal grandfather, eventually marrying Antonia, Jan’s youngest daughter.

Jan and Ferdinand in Victoria

          34) Jan homestead with Albert and Antonia:In 1891 Jan purchases a 500 acre tract of land west of Victoria and moves his family there. Ferdinand and Anna purchase 80 acres from Jan’s original tract 35) Ferdinand’s house on Dry Creek: and move there around 1893. After this point, we have no further correspondence, but both brothers lived in Victoria until their deaths. Ferdinand died in 1915 at the age of 75 and Jan in 1925 at the age of 94.

          36) Group photo (still): Many descendants of Jan and Ferdinand still live in the Victoria area. 37) Albert/Antonia Family: Albert and Antonia took over much of the land that Jan had purchased and became accomplished farmers. 38) Group photo (with zoom): Anton moved from the home place and also became a farmer.

Ferdinand’s Artwork

          39) Ferdinand in oval:  In all of Ferdinand’s writings, there is only one mention of painting, in a letter responding to Jan’s colorful description of his life in Bluff. Ferdinand writes: "You are describing your location, situation and surroundings so vividly that if I would still be at an age when one prefers colors and brushes over food and raiment my first attempt would surely be to paint your location where you have your house, and if it weren’t for all the other tags and appendages that are so inseparably connected with your dwelling in your paradise I would really wish even for myself to spend my life with you all in Bluff." It can be imagined that pursuing an artistic career was in no way usual for the average person in that time in history and only in his later years did Ferdinand find a way to indulge his youthful love.

          We have no evidence of Ferdinand’s artwork until 1898. 40) Panorama of Stockbauer scene:It is of interest that this was within only a few years of his settling in Victoria, indicating that he very quickly became a successful enough farmer to have leisure time to pursue art.

          A notable aspect of his work is its sophistication when compared to some traditional folk art. His accurate sense of perspective and realistic depiction are perhaps its most outstanding qualities and display the expertise of someone who has been painting for many years. Much of his shading is produced by executing hundreds of tiny dots on a solid background. The individual pieces are fascinating when the painting technique is inspected at close range.

          41) Still of Stockbauer scene: A typical feature in most of Ferdinand’s panoramas is the depiction of pastoral life on one side, with farmers and shepherds bringing their gifts of farm produce, and town life on the other, with townspeople bringing presents of bakery products or manufactured goods.

Nativity Art in Europe 

          42) Kryza nativity scene: These are views of the largest mechanical nativity scene in the world. It was constructed by a Czech from southern Bohemia, (Tuh-mash Kr-ree-za) Tomáš Krýza. He worked on it for 60 years, completing it in 1918. It is 55 feet in length and contains 1,389 figures.

          In some countries nativity art is very clerical and religious, but in the Czech lands, it tends to have a folk motif, displaying indigenous costume and typical Czech countryside. The scenes can be flat or three dimensional, made from cardboard and painted, or carved from wood. Some are even made from flour dough, a medium that demands careful preservation, as the interior can often be eaten by insects or worms.

          The European tradition of 3-dimensional nativity art has a long history as a way of spreading religion to the people. In Czech lands, the earliest record is of a scene erected in 1560 at the Jesuit college in Prague. Traveling monks with portable scenes would use them as a way to introduce people to the life of Christ. 43) Simple Czech nativity art: During the 18th century Austrian Emperor Joseph II imposed strictures against the Catholic Church, including the banning of nativity scenes. Instead of reducing their use, the move led to a blossoming of the artform, because private householders hired craftsmen to construct scenes for personal use. This had the result of spreading the tradition throughout the land and starting a new cottage industry, which still exists.

The Exhibit

          44) Anton and Frances wedding: Ferdinand gave his first Bethlehem to his son Anton in 1898. 45) Anton and Frances/older with children: It was passed down to Anton’s children Edwin, Annie, and Adolph. Tony Hauboldt, Annie’s son, is the present custodian of the scene. 46) Pribyl scene: It incorporates some exotic elements not seen in the others, such as an elephant and a camel. This can be typical of some Czech nativity art, in which are depicted people in native dress side-by-side with those in oriental costume. Various pieces from Tony’s scene can be viewed in one of the display cases in the gallery.

          47) Leopoldina and Robert: The Staha Bethlehem was presented in 1900 to a former student of Ferdinand’s, Mrs. Robert Hanak of Halletsville, Texas on the occasion of the birth of her daughter, Anastacia. 48) Anastacia Communion: It was passed down to Anastacia and is now owned by her daughter, Mary Ann Staha of Halletsville. 49) Staha Bethlehem: The complete scene is on display in the gallery. The nativity lacked a baseboard and had many damaged figures. It was restored by Dr. Robert Shook, formerly a history professor at the University of Houston, Victoria Campus, and myself. It is the most brilliant in color of the four scenes that we have found. It is notable for its many sheep, perhaps drawing from Ferdinand’s memory of his homeland, where weaving and sheep raising were so traditional.

          50) Albert on Horse: The Stockbauer scene was given to Albert Stockbauer, Sr., my paternal grandfather, in 1903. 51) Fred and Elizabeth Stockbauer: It was passed down to his son, Albert, and then given to my father and mother, Fred and Elizabeth Stockbauer. 52) Stockbauer Bethlehem:

          No two scenes are alike and few individual figures are identical. They are painted on salvaged cardboard from commercial products such as oatmeal boxes and packaging for shirts. One reason that they have been so well preserved is that the paint was mixed with paris green or copper  acetoarsenate, an extremely toxic substance, which at that time was used as a pigment, an insecticide, and a blue colorant for fireworks.

          53) B.F. Pribyl family: A fourth Bethlehem was given to Jan’s son, B. F. Pribyl, then handed down to his son Victor, and is now owned by Victor’s daughter Helen Pribyl Matrisciani of Houston. 54) Jill's  figures: It was displayed at Christmas for many years in Victoria in the home of Helen’s sister, Mary Lou Green, but the background has been lost and only the figures remain.

          55) Jill's  Bethlehem painting:This is the only two dimensional nativity painting of Ferdinand’s that we have. It is also owned by Helen Matrisciani. Her daughter, Jill Blasche, displays it in her home every Christmas and it is being displayed in this exhibit.

          Various members of the family have also inherited paintings by Ferdinand. 56) Trosky and modern photo of the ruins:  This painting, entitled Trosky Ruins, belongs to Paula Pribyl Kainer, Ferdinand’s great granddaughter. It depicts a site northeast of Prague, where an ancient fortressed castle was built on two volcanic peaks in the years 1380-1390. It is still standing and today is a popular tourist site.

          57) Mary Lou’s painting: Mary Lou Urban, who is a great granddaughter of Jan Pribyl, inherited this painting. She also inherited about half of Ferdinand’s correspondence and an unfinished set of Bethlehem figures. Some of these are displayed in a glass case in the gallery.

          58) Painting of father and son: These are two paintings that I have inherited. The first is a scene of a father teaching his boy to plow. The verse at the bottom is an ode to the land and to native soil.

          59) Painting of Mt. Rip: The other is a painting of Mt. Rip, an historic peak north of Prague. In Czech folklore, Father Cech, the Slavic ancestor and leader of all Czech tribes climbed Mt. Rip and surveyed the lands below, proclaiming, “These are the lands where we will stay forever.”

          60) Still of Retz: I close with a quote from Ferdinand, written to Jan in 1880, in which he describes the hill country around Retz. To me his reflective phrases are reminiscent of the lovely scenery and inspiration from the natural world that informed the painting of his nativity scenes.

“We live on the main square, and since our view doesn’t offer any pleasant diversion, I am trying, whenever I have time, to get out of town and I usually visit the highlands just outside town on the northwest side. It takes about six hundred steps and the township Retz along with its long appendage of the Altstadt is lying below you. All around you spreads a very lovely countryside dotted every which way with villages and townships with their whitewashed towers. 61) Pan of Retz: Toward the southwest close by on the wooded hilltops are lined up many small villages as if one would be peeking into Bethlehem. Further in the distance one can see the Styrian-Alps and on the left side are the Stokerau Hills.

          We are enjoying this beautiful view almost every evening…, and it is almost entirely our only amusement and diversion. We would be sitting on our favorite spot well past the sundown. And when the noise of the working beings around the orchards and around the house settles down, and when the evening breeze brings to the ears of the listeners the peeling of the bells from the many outlying villages and towns in a profusion and variety of melodious accords and harmonies, - it seems then as if nature itself along with her creatures is sending a song up into the unknown celestial realms, - we are then overtaken by some sacred feeling and are being spontaneously enraptured as if by the current of praise raising up from below, and we feel then likewise by this solemn moment that our souls are attuned into praising this beautiful creation, and as the dusk is coming down it enhances all of this even more and gives it more reverence and grandeur, and then we lose it all from sight as the view begins to fade while the night is approaching.” 62) Fade to Black.


Thank you.

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