Brother Cletus Behlmann infused art with spirituality

Cletus Behlmann

Brother Cletus Behlmann’s “Mission Concepcion” earned $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at Vogt Auction Texas. Image courtesy of Vogt Auction Texas and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — There might never be an New York City art gallery exhibition devoted to the art of Brother Cletus Behlmann (1933-2016) or a retrospective of his paintings in a major museum, but that does not diminish his talent nor the appreciation fans have for his art. The prolific artist, whose works are in many private collections and in public buildings around San Antonio, Texas — where he spent many years — devoted himself to his faith and made a vocation of expressing divinity through art.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, as one of 12 children, Behlmann went to Catholic schools and took his final vows in 1958, becoming a Marianist brother. The Marianists are encouraged to discover their gifts and use them in creating a relationship with God. Behlmann not only created many artworks with religious themes but also donated most of them to support a variety of nonprofit organizations.

Cletus Behlmann

This rendering of “Arneson River Theater” brought $4,500 in October 2022 plus the buyer’s premium at Vogt Auction Texas. Image courtesy of Vogt Auction Texas and LiveAuctioneers

Behlmann had already beema brother and teacher for many years when he sought — and was granted — permission from the Society of Mary to pursue art full time as a vocation. He studied art at the Institute of Art in Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis and got St. Mary’s University Art Center up and running in the late 1970s in San Antonio, where he established an artist’s studio.

He worked in a variety of media from metal and stained glass to ceramics, but he is best known for his bright and colorful paintings, which friends said reflected his own optimistic and cheerful personality. Most of his paintings are framed in wood. but the artist seldom put any under glass. Most measure around 20 by 26 inches.

While most of his religious-themed artworks have been described as being able to pull the audience into a kind of retreat with God, all of his works aspired to be thoughtful and inspirational, including his country and village scenes and paintings based on memories of his travels.

His religious paintings are among his most desirable works and do well in the secondary market. A fine example is his oil on paper on Masonite, Mission Concepcion (shown at top of page) which was originally purchased directly from the artist’s studio. It achieved $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at Vogt Auction in Texas.

Cletus Behlmann

“Sky, Earth, Water,” and oil and mixed media on canvas, sold for $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022 at Vogt Auction Texas. Image courtesy of Vogt Auction Texas and LiveAuctioneers

Many of his paintings, even his secular ones, have been described as being a “celebration of life” and certainly fitting this bill is Sky, Earth, Water, an oil and mixed media on canvas, which sold for $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022 at Vogt. The Texas-based auction house has auctioned more than 20 paintings by Behlmann in the last two years. For would-be buyers, however, pickings are slim these days and it seems likely that collectors are hanging on to Behlmann’s artworks. When they do appear at auction, fine examples bring several hundred to several thousand dollars each.

Cletus Behlmann

A framed watercolor, “Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany,” took $700 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020 at Austin Auction Gallery. Image courtesy of Austin Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Some of Behlmann’s paintings are based on memories of his travel memories. A framed and signed watercolor, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, earned $700 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020 at Austin Auction Gallery. The whimsical painting features a trio of abstract figures in the foreground, and while the overall color palette is restrained, one large sunny yellow building creates a striking focal point.

By comparison, an early oil on canvas village scene that sold for $500 (plus buyer’s premium) at Ahlers & Ogletree auction house in August 2022, has an overall warm tone with rich colors, as if the buildings are bathed in the late afternoon glow of the sun.

Cletus Behlmann

An oil on canvas village scene realized $500 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022 at
Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery. Image courtesy of Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Collectors are drawn to Behlmann’s use of color and energetic lines but perhaps they also see something intangible that gives them a deeper meaning. His paintings seem to embody the late artist’s joie de vivre. When interviewed by a Marianist magazine in 2011, he said his spirituality infuses his art, adding, “It comes from inside me onto the canvas.”