Anton Otto Fischer, as described by his daughter Katrina Sigsbee Fischer viewed “the sea [as] more an escape than an early love.” He was born in 1882 to a poor family in Munich and orphaned at five years old. In 1898, he signed on to serve on board the Renskea, a Norwegian galleass serving the timber trade. He later served on board the Norwegian barque the Agustina; a Swedish steamer; a trawler; and a British barque the Gwydyr Castle.
With $700 saved up from his six years at sea, Fischer headed for Paris, stretching his limited funds for two years of study under Jean Paul Laurens at the Academie Julian. On his return to America, he briefly joined Albert Herter, a well-known muralist. Then Fischer headed for New York City where he produced his first “professional” painting, a black-and-white marine portrayal of two sailors looking to sea toward their wrecked ship. That sale to Harper’s Weekly launched his art career, and, despite some very lean intervening periods, he soon received other commissions.
Everybody’s Magazine invited him to illustrate “The Heathen,” a Jack London South Seas story. Then began a lengthy collaboration between this famed novelist and the young artist, now on the ascendancy.
Fischer was, indeed, a rich and prodigious output, awesome by any standard: Rudyard Kipling’s “The Sea Constables” for American Magazine; Joseph Conrad’s “The Shadow Line” for Metropolitan Magazine', and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Death Voyage,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Rough Crossing,” Ben Ames Williams’s “The High Heart” and Norman Reilly Raine’s famous “Tugboat Annie” stories for The Saturday Evening Post. Added to the hundreds of magazine articles he illustrated was that evidence of his unsurpassed perception of the oceans. His many book illustration credits included Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Enormously versatile, Anton Otto Fischer turned his attentions almost exclusively to marine art from 1920 forward. As an illustrator, he had few peers; remarkably, his art graced and enhanced the pages of The Saturday Evening Post for 40 years.
In World War II, Anton Otto Fischer was approached by the Coast Guard. The message in which he was offered a commission, the Commandant of the Coast Guard stated,
“The Coast Guard, as well as, I should imagine, all sailormen, regard you as the outstanding marine artist of the day. ...”
Fischer asked for no easy assignment, instead believing his place to be on North Atlantic convoy runs. He lived °n board the Campbell (WPG-32), facing German U-boats and unyielding weather.
Accompanying some remarkable sketches in his own personal log which became the basis for his uniquely dramatic paintings of men against the sea, Fischer recounts:
“ . . . [S]uddenly, a submarine, running awash, appeared on our port bow. We jammed our rudder hard to the right and the submarine slid along our starboard side .... I was on the bridge at the time and saw the whole action at close range. ...”
“We poured a murderous fire into the conning tower. . . . [T]he submarine, in its dying agony, got in a final stroke. His port diving wing ripped a gash . . . along our starboard side. Soon the engine room was flooded and the dynamos ceased to function. . . . there we were, a stationary target with the moon coming up, making us visible for several miles . . . .”
Such was the harsh world of Anton Otto Fischer, his legacy of war a collection of grippingly dramatic oils of merchant ship torpedoings, the rescue of their crews, and the visible feelings of men always a step from death. Fischer admirably fulfilled his wartime commitment, bringing great distinction to a lofty title Artist Laureate of the Coast Guard, conferred informally by the Commandant.