Jes Wilhelm Schlaikjer was born at sea September 22, 1897. His father, Erich Hansen Schlaikjer, was born 1862 in Aabenraa, Denmark. His mother, Clara Ryser, was born 1875 in Switzerland. His parents married in Germany in 1896. The following year they emigrated to America on the world's largest steamship, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. The ship made the crossing in record breaking time, and as it approached New York harbor their son was born. At first his parents reportedly named him "Wilhelm Parker Schlaikjer" after the ship's name "Wilhelm" and the ship's American pilot "William Parker" of Pilot Boat #3.
The family moved to Ohio, Kentucky, and eventually settled on a homestead farm in Carter township, Tripp County, South Dakota, where they raised five sons, Jes (b.1897), Arthur (b.1901), Oscar (b.1903), Hugo (b.1905), and Erich (b.1906).
He had a natural talent for drawing and was a popular cartoonist in school. A few of his topical cartoons were published in a local newspaper in Carter, South Dakota.
In 1916 he graduated high school in Winner, SD, and then enlisted in the Army during the Great War. He served in the Signal Corps of the Army 1st Division in France as a telegrapher. He rose in rank to Chief Receiving Operator at the Lafayette Radio Station in Paris.
After the war he remained in France to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Lyons.
By June 3, 1920 he was back at home living with his parents on the farm in South Dakota, where he worked as a telegrapher for the CB&Q (Chicago, Burlington & Quincey) railroad line.
In September 1920 he moved to Chicago to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met Dean Cornwell and Harvey Dunn. He also met a fellow art student, Gladys de Groot, of Salt Lake City, Utah. Two years later on September 14, 1922 they were married and moved to New York City, where they lived at 3201 Oxford Avenue in the Bronx. They had two children, Jes Erich, born 1924, and Helen Jean, born 1926.
At this time his illustrations began to appear in Scribner's, Collier's, American Legion, Red Book, Woman's Home Companion, and Cosmopolitan Magazine.
On November 21, 1928 he won $1000 First Prize at the National Academy of Design annual juried exhibition.
On October 23, 1930 he opened an art studio at 58 West 57th Street, which was near the Art Students League. The monthly rent was $15. The building was filled with studios of notable artists, such as Edgar Franklin Wittmack, Alexandre Archipenko, and Franklin Booth.
He painted covers for pulp magazines, such as Adventure, Everybody's, Frontier Stories, West, as well as a memorable series of cover paintings for Black Mask. Most of this work for the pulps was signed with a distinctive splat, which is in fact cleverly composed of the initials JWS with a scribbled date. This illegible signature may have been designed to intentionally disguise his work for the pulps without jeopardizing his career in the more distinguished slick magazines.
In 1932 he became an art teacher and an honorary member of the National Academy of Design.
On May 11, 1933 as the controversial Rockefeller Center mural by Diego Rivera made headlines, a reactionary group of conservative artists hastily formed the Advance American Art Commission, of which he was a founding member along with Dean Cornwell. According to the New York Times the group was "designed to function solely for the purpose of publicly coping with the existing foreign evils and abuses threatening American Art."
In 1942 during WWII he became one of the top artists that worked for the U.S. War Department painting posters for recruitment, war bonds, blood drives and the Red Cross.
He and Gladys remained in Washington after the war. They lived at 4526 Verplanck Place. He also had an art studio at 808 17th Street, N.W., where he ran a thriving business painting portraits of politicians, businessmen, retiring officers, and commissions of historic figures.
In 1947 he taught at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts.
The artist also had a remarkable lifelong hobby as an armorer. He enjoyed forging iron in a blacksmith shop, where he handmade mediaeval armor, swords, shields, cutlery, and guns.
Jes Schlaikjer died of Parkinson's disease at the age of eighty-four at home in Washington, DC, on August 21, 1982.
© David Saunders 2009