Leon Van Loo: A Man of Many Talents

My first few months at the NKU Archives have been a transformative experience, as both a budding historian and student of the university. Northern Kentucky University is incredibly lucky to have such a friendly and obliging staff on hand to help aid those in need of obtaining further information and resources in regards to independent/group projects and research-oriented study. Artifacts in the archives are so much more than remnants of the past; there are real people inside the boxes, with first-hand accounts to offer and amazing stories to share.

I’ve been working on a number of small projects for both the University Archives and Special Collections departments. The tedious process of going through a collection is one that must be handled with great care, consideration, and an eye for detail, whether you’re putting old photographs in to new sleeves or transcribing oral histories to post to an online repository. The Fitzgerald and Garrett Collections, most notably, have proved to be both inspiring and exceedingly interesting.

The Fitzgerald Collection, for example, is an assembly of pieces — including archaeological dig artifacts and hundreds of photographs — that belonged to Mr. William Fitzgerald and his family. Fitzgerald, a local historian and member of the Boone County Kentucky Historical Society and Florence City Council, was a prominent figure in the community. Amongst the photographs I was sifting through, there was a cabinet card (a style of photograph which was commonly used in the late 1800s/early 1900s, consisting of a photograph mounted on a card) with a stamped logo for a local gallery and studio in Cincinnati belonging to Mr. Leon Van Loo.

portrait of female                                        Back of print showinf Van Loo's gallery information

Photograph (front-R; back-L) from MS 23 William And Ann Fitzgerald Collection, Eva G. Farris Special Collections, W. Frank Steely Library, Northern Kentucky University

 A photographer, painter, and art collector, Leon Van Loo was a man of many talents and interests. Originally from Belgium, he studied photography under Charles Waldack, his idol and mentor. Waldack opened a gallery at 32½ West Third Street in Cincinnati in 1858. Over the next several decades, Van Loo would travel all around the world collecting pieces for the gallery. In 1875, he introduced a new kind of photography, a style he would become synonymous with, a style he called “ideal.” A revolutionary process, images were printed on zinc oxide and applied to blackened sheet-iron, which presented a pearly, transparent surface that had never been seen before.

Later in life, Van Loo became one of the founding members of the Cincinnati Art Club. He died in Cincinnati on January 10, 1907 and left a strangely amusing request in his will, “To the Cincinnati Art Club the sum of $250 to pay for a dinner to be given in the club-room, as soon as practicable after my death, to the members of the Club. If there is such a thing as the spirit of the dead returning to earth (which I do not believe), I shall be with the boys on that festive occasion.”(Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct.27, 1907 and Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, Jan 15/30, 1907)  A sense of humor, beyond the grave; I like it!

In archives, one photograph can lead you down a hundred different roads. It truly is a delight coming in to work and awaiting what new discoveries might be made that day. In the case of Mr. Van Loo, all it took was a stamp on the back of a cabinet card and a particularly interesting name to spark an interest. His story is one of hard-work, determination, and talent, and even though many people have never heard of him or his work — despite having garnered a Wikipedia page (a 21st century honor that surely means you’ve made it) — I’m happy to share with you a piece of his life, if only just a snippet.

Post by Alexandra Daniels


About NKU Special Collections and University Archives

Eva G. Farris Special Collections and Schlachter University Archives, W. Frank Steely Library, Northern Kentucky University
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2 Responses to Leon Van Loo: A Man of Many Talents

  1. erhed83 says:

    I googled him when I saw his headstone at Spring Grove cemetery. It isn’t huge but it has style and stands out, so I wanted to know more. Found Wikipedia but this adds to his tale, thanks for writing.

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