Joseph Kleitsch was born in Deutsch St. Michael, Branat, Hungary on June 6, 1881. Since Kleitsch’s mother died when he was 3 ½ years old, his stepmother fostered his interest in art by supplying him with paint materials. His artistic talents emerged at 7 years of age and he was awarded a scholarship by his village. Apprenticing under sign painter and mural decorator Lanjarovics, Kleitsch quickly learned different techniques and painting skills within 18 months, quickly exceeding his mentor. He continued his training in Budapest, Munich, and Paris and by 17, he was an accomplished portraitist with such clients as Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. He received the nickname ‘the little Munkácsy” named after the successful Hungarian realist painter Mihály Munkácsy.
He moved to the United States in 1902 to Cincinnati, Ohio and met and lived with Emma Multner who he married in 1904 in Denver, Colorado. In Denver, Kleitsch’s works began to include landscapes and genre painting. Although he was continuously painting, he was still not well-known. To make ends meet, Kleitsch took on several jobs painting still lifes, and painting advertising illustrations for the Union Pacific Railway.
Kleitsch and his wife traveled to Mexico City from 1907-1909, and he returned again in 1911. The introduction of European modern art in Mexico did not influence Kleitsch’s fondness for painting in an academic-realist approach. By 1912, Kleitsch gained prominence in Mexico as a result of his commissioned portrait of President Madero and his wife and received an award from the Mexico Art Associates for the painting.
He returned to Chicago in 1912 and enrolled as a special student in the Saturday School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Kleitsch painted the likenesses of many prominent citizens of Chicago while further studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. A year after his return, his wife Emma died from complications of nephritis in 1913. He later met and married Edna Gregaitis, a public school art teacher. He became strongly involved with the Palette and Chisel Club and participated in many exhibitions there and at the Art Institute of Chicago. The increased exhibitions of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, along with old masters, and the occasional European abstract art during this period in Chicago provided Kleitsch with knowledge and awareness of these various styles and its various forms. By 1919, he had gained recognition as an outstanding portraitist by his peers and critics.
At the height of his fame, Kleitsch decided to move to California in 1920. Upon moving to California, he settled in Laguna Beach with his wife Edna and established the Kleitsch Academy. He taught and was active in the local art scene establishing himself as a successful portraitist in the Laguna Art community and exhibited in Los Angeles at Stendahl and Hatfield Galleries. In 1922, he had his first successful one-man solo show at the Stendahl gallery. After the exhibition, Kleitsch consistently made trips to San Francisco, Carmel, and Europe in search of subject matter. He left to Europe and returned in 1927 and held another solo exhibition in 1931. While some of his followers were disappointed by his lack of mission scene paintings, the exhibition received good reviews.
In 1930, when the Depression hit America, Kleitsch went through a difficult period in which he could not collect debts on his paintings. Through all this, he was continually inspired by the local scenery and could often be seen in and around Laguna painting street scenes with figures, gardens in bloom, coastals, and landscapes. Kleitsch died of a heart attack on November 16, 1931 in Santa Ana, California. A memorial exhibition of his works was held at Exposition Park, Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1933 and another exhibition at the International Art Exhibition containing 27 paintings was organized by his wife Edna and held at the Tower Auditorium of the Drake Hotel in Chicago.