The Katzenjammer Kids Take to the Air

It took a cartoonist to paint the first serious depiction of aircraft flight.

No fan of aviation, Rudolph Dirks was persuaded by a friend to attend the air meet. The “bizarre carnival atmosphere” delighted the artist, who rushed home to paint “The Fledglings,” considered the first serious artistic attempt to depict aircraft flight. (NASM)
Air & Space Magazine

On November 3, 1908, Rudolph Dirks, a 31-year-old newspaper artist, cartoonist, and aspiring painter, joined 20,000 fellow New Yorkers streaming out of their urban neighborhoods and heading to Morris Park in the Bronx. Notices distributed around the city over the past week had announced that the well-known horse and automobile racetrack was now an “aerodrome,” the site of an exhibition and tournament sponsored by the Aeronautic Society of New York.

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The program for the event sounded promising. A five-cent, 40-minute subway ride from Manhattan plus a 50-cent entrance fee would give spectators a look at the wonders of the dawning aerial age. Advertised were “distance races for gliders” and “wind wagon pursuit races,” men shot from catapults, and competitions between balloon and parachute descents.

Not one of the powered machines on display would leave the ground that day, or any other, and the only glider pilot to take to the sky during the meet, 16-year-old Laurence Lesh, ended up with a broken ankle. Still, the crowd was treated to the sight of balloons and kites in the air, and was able to examine the winged craft up close.

Rudy Dirks, more excited by the crowd than by the flying machines, rushed back to his 14th Street studio eager to capture the scene while it was fresh in his mind. With no prepared canvas available, he tore down a large linen window shade, stretched it, and began a large oil painting, which he would title “The Fledglings.” While he had serious aspirations as an artist, he was already famous as the creator of the pioneering comic strip “The Katzenjammer Kids,” and that background shows. The painting he started that day has the feel of a single frame of a comic strip, with the lively crowd surging across the scene, milling around the aircraft, and even climbing into the trees.

More than any photograph of the period, Dirks’ painting captures the energy of a crowd gathered for their first glimpse of winged craft, which were just beginning to carry humans into the air. Across the painting stretches a fantastic assortment of flying machines. Most are the work of dreamers whose imaginations were not yet bound by technological reality. Still, some of the craft were airworthy. The biplane on the right of the canvas is obviously one of the large gliders constructed by the brothers Adolph and Charles Wittemann, who had begun advertising themselves as aeronautical engineers, based on Staten Island, as early as 1906.

The biplane glider with the wingtips drawn together, second from the left, is almost certainly Laurence Lesh’s aircraft. For those in attendance, the red automobile poised to tow the glider aloft would have been one of the big draws. It is the Thomas Flyer, just back from its victory in a New York-to-Paris race in which it had traveled west across North America, Asia, and Europe.

By squinting and using some imagination, we might guess that the high-wing craft, second from the right, with one group of men pulling it and a fellow at the rear pushing, is a glider that Aeronautic Society member Louis Adams purchased from Gustave Albin Whitehead, a controversial figure from Bridgeport, Connecticut, who claimed to have flown a powered aircraft two years before the Wrights. If he had, he must have forgotten the secret of his accomplishment, for there is no indication that Whitehead, who lived to see Lindbergh fly the Atlantic, ever left the ground again.

The strange craft with the drooping biplane wings (far left) may well be a large model produced by Arthur Mitchell. Perhaps Dirks’ memory of the wing configuration was incorrect, or perhaps the craft had suffered a serious accident, as the figure in the tree and the individuals clustered at the rear of the machine suggest.

Over the next few years, Henri Rousseau, Pablo Picasso, Robert Delaunay, and a handful of other European artists would begin to portray the impact winged flight had on society and culture. But Rudy Dirks led the way. “The Fledglings” pre-dates the work of those far better known painters, and stands as the earliest serious artistic reaction to the dawn of the air age. Thanks to the generosity of John Dirks, the painter’s son, “The Fledglings” is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, and will soon be displayed in the Museum’s Early Flight gallery.

About Tom Crouch

Tom Crouch is a senior curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s aeronautics department. An historian of early flight, he is the author of The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

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