Carl Ahrens (Carl Henry von Ahrens) was born to Herman and Isabella Ahrens on February 15th, 1862 in Winfield, Ontario. His parents separated and Carl was raised mostly by his father in Berlin, which is now Kitchener. He was sent to Stratford to apprentice as a dentist under his uncle, Alfred Ahrens. Carl swiftly mastered everything that Dr. Ahrens could teach. He could not practice in Ontario without a degree, so he moved to Nebraska City, Nebraska, to open a practice of his own, which was a great success.
Carl began to paint in 1886, at the age of 24 and within a year he gave up dentistry, a profession he had never enjoyed. When the Ahrens family heard of his decision, they turned their backs on him, hoping poverty would help him see the error of his ways, but it did not. He moved his family to Toronto and took a studio on Adelaide Street. By age of 27 he was known as an up-and-coming artist, and his vast social circle included painters, journalists and actors. He was particularly close with the Mohawk recitalist and poet, Pauline Johnson. Carl had little formal instruction in painting. He worked alone, watching the methods of other painters but never feeling compelled to copy them.
His first exhibition was with the Ontario Society of Artists in 1889. In 1891 he was elected Associate Painter in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He eventually went to New York City to study painting under William Merritt Chase and sculpture under Francis Edwin Elwell. While there he befriended painter, George Inness, who became his mentor. Inness encouraged Carl to stop taking classes, go home and paint how he wished to paint. Carl took his advice, returned to Toronto, resigned from all professional associations and, while initially famous for his portraits, he turned almost exclusively to landscapes. He moved to New York temporarily, and returned to Toronto in the summer of 1907, settling in the village of Meadowvale.
In 1911 Carl had a one-artist exhibition of the Mercer Collection at the Public Reference Library in Toronto. People from many European galleries were there, some offering as much as $100,000 for the collection of 31 paintings, but Mercer would not sell. The collection was invited to Belgium for an exhibit, a first such offer made by any European country to a North American artist.
Carl began experimenting with printmaking in 1925, constructing a printing press out of an old mangle and reworked dental tools. He burned his used metal plates in the fireplace to clean the flue. The printmaking process was laborious and he was not strong, since he was suffering from tuberculosis, so his daughters, Sigrid and Chloris, often helped with any heavy work.
Carl had two exhibitions in 1933, one at Cunningham’s Studio and another in Montréal. His last exhibition was in March of 1935, shortly before he left Galt for England with his wife Madonna, an arrangement they thought would be permanent. They were only able to stay four months before Carl began to have a series of strokes and wanted to return home. Carl’s last years were full of illness and excruciating pain, only eased by a newfound addiction to codeine, a medication whose use was not regulated then. He continued to paint to the end, and his last works are full of vibrant color. Back in Toronto, penniless and desperate, Madonna wrote to their old friend, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. King arranged for Carl to be taken care of for the last months of his life in the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital. He died on February 27th, 1936 at the age of 74.