By 1900, slightly more than a dozen of Julius Stockfleth’s German kin had joined him in Galveston.
On a single day in September that year, a dozen of them died.
Stockfleth had been born 43 years earlier in the island town of Wyk auf Föhr in Germany’s northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein.
His father, Friedrich, was a sailor and a ship’s carpenter, and the son shared an affection for the sea — not to sail it, but to paint it. To that end, Julius Stockfleth apprenticed with a landscape artist in Wyk, learning to capture on canvas impressions first apprehended by his eye.
Stockfleth proved gifted, and by the time he was 26 had assured himself of as much, setting out, like so many before and after him, for the alluring promise of America. A brother, Peter, had preceded him by a decade, landing at the port city of Lake Charles, La., hard against the Calcasieu River.
Julius followed him there, arriving in 1883, before, two years later at the age of 28, setting out for Texas and finding his way to Galveston, where he became a conspicuous presence, setting up his easel and oils everywhere, conveying to his ubiquitous canvas whatever attracted his eye.
He earned the bulk of his livelihood through portraiture, granting the island’s proud and well-to-do a certain perpetuity beyond their inevitable expiration. One such portrait, that of himself, shows Stockfleth with a cultivated beard, his collar turned up as though against an unseen bluster.
Yet, it was in painting land- and seascapes that he derived his greatest pleasure.
He painted the handsome estates of Galveston’s landed gentry.
He painted the city’s wharves, capturing the quotidian goings-on of the busy port with an eye keen to the various schooners and freighters and tugs in the background bay.
And, too, he painted the loft buildings for rent to the less well-to-do, one of which, a portrait of “Lucas Row,” had barely dried by the time the 1900 Storm blew its subject to smithereens.
By the day of the Sept. 8, 1900, disaster, his older brother had abandoned Lake Charles for Galveston at the blandishments Julius wrote to Peter regarding the beauty and opportunity available on the teeming island.
While both men survived the storm, Peter did so only by way of a miracle, having latched onto a passing timber at the hurricane’s height and being borne by the sea’s onslaught onto the mainland. One of their sisters, Leonora, also survived.
Otherwise, gone were all others closest to them, including another sister and a sister-in-law, nieces and nephews, all of whose names history never noted.
Yet, Julius Stockfleth, in a way known to artists and intellectuals, found in the storm’s wake the material of a lifetime.
The German émigré thus became the only artist to record the aftermath with brush, oil and taut canvas, rather than with film, tripod and quick shutter.
One image, perhaps Stockfleth’s most famous, was painted while the city remained submerged. It depicts Tremont Street down which a small boat burdened with harried men makes its way through flotsam and choppy surf amid unblinking façades.
To capture the enormity of the “wrack and ruin,” as a Daily News editor phrased it days later, Stockfleth rendered the image on a canvas he first painted black then largely covered over in hues that rendered midday night.
The island was, of course, well acquainted with hurricanes, having been struck repeatedly in its less developed past. The 1900 Storm, however, when Galveston was at its peak in population and prosperity, sounded a clarion call.
Two years later, building began on a seawall to retard such future invasions and, too, soon began an audacious effort to raise every structure and underground pipe and main.
Stockfleth captured both endeavors, the latter in his 1905 portrait of the Nicolini house at Tremont and P 1/2 during the grade raising as sand was relentlessly pumped into the city, one four-block square after another.
Then, for reasons unknown, two years later the artist and his surviving sister shoved off, returning to their homeland where, to the day he died in 1935, he was known to nervously trod the dikes guarding Wyk auf Föhr as storms threatened from the precarious North Sea.
Julius Stockfleth had, it would seem, preserved the ravages of Galveston’s immortal storm both in oil, and in unrelenting memory.