Otto Henry Bacher was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to a family of German descent. He first studied art at the age of sixteen with local genre trompe l'oeil still-life artist, DeScott Evans. Although he studied with Evans for less than one year, Bacher's early work, comprised mainly of still lifes, betrays Evans's influence.
After a short period in Philadelphia, where he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Bacher returned to Cleveland and met Willis Seaver Adams, an artist from Springfield, Massachusetts, who had just recently arrived upon the Cleveland art scene. Soon the two artists were rooming together. Adams was instrumental in the founding of the Cleveland Art Club, as well as the establishment of the Cleveland Academy of the Fine Arts, to the board of which Adams had Bacher appointed. Also during this time, Bacher began to learn the process of etching from local etcher and landscape painter Sion Longley Wenban.
In 1878, Bacher and Adams left for Europe. After stopping briefly in Scotland, Bacher went on to Munich, where he enrolled at the Royal Academy. He quickly tired of the rigors of the Academy, and soon he was studying with Cincinnati artist Frank Duveneck, the prime American exponent of the Munich School. In 1879, Bacher made a trip to Florence with Duveneck as one of the celebrated "Duveneck Boys." Early the following year, the group proceeded to Venice, where Bacher and several other artists established studios in the Casa Jankovitz.
By this time an avid printmaker, Bacher had his etching press sent from Munich, and it was in his Venice studio that he taught Duveneck the rudiments of etching. Soon Bacher, Duveneck, and other members of the Duveneck circle were experimenting in printmaking. Among the group's contributions were some of the first American examples of monotypes, which they called "Bachertypes" because they were printed using Bacher's press.
It was also in Venice that Bacher met the venerable American expatriate artist, James McNeill Whistler. On learning of Bacher's press and his collection of etchings by Rembrandt, Whistler made himself a regular visitor to Bacher's studio, and he eventually took his own room in the Casa Jankovitz. Bacher spent much of the rest of 1880 with Whistler, the two artists sharing etching techniques. From Whistler, Bacher learned tone and line graduation; from Bacher, Whistler learned his etching techniques, including better ways of using the acid bath which produced less tedious and more efficient work. Bacher visited Whistler occasionally in the years that followed, and in 1908 he published With Whistler in Venice, his famous recollections of his time with the great artist.
Bacher spent the next two years traveling extensively throughout Italy, with Venice as the center of his operations, and he produced a number of important etchings of Italian subjects. Bacher sent several of these works to America in 1881 to be included in the Society of American Artists' exhibition that year, and had a similar group of works shown at the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers' first exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in London. Following the exhibition, Bacher, along with several other of the American contributors, was elected a Fellow of the Society. Bacher collected twelve of his etchings of Venetian subjects and sold them in bound volumes through his New York dealer, Frederick Keppel.
Bacher returned to Cleveland in January 1883 as a fully cosmopolitan artist. He set up a lavish studio furnished with exotic items and objets-d'art he had collected on his travels, and began to hold art classes as a means to supplement his income. He soon joined with Joseph De Camp in forming a summer sketch class in Richfield, Ohio. Bacher and De Camp also planned the Cleveland Room for a major loan exhibition in Detroit that year. During this period, Bacher increasingly painted in oil, and he began to produce sun-dappled canvases in an impressionistic mode.
Unable to sell any paintings from this early period, however, Bacher left Cleveland for Paris in 1885, where he planned to undertake further studies. Stopping first in London to visit Whistler, Bacher stayed only briefly in Paris before heading to Venice, where he spent the remainder of the year. In January 1886, Bacher returned to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Julian, and also entered the atelier of Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran. The life of the student seems never to have suited Bacher, as he stayed in Paris only through June, before departing again for Venice. For the next six months he lived with Robert Blum and Charles Ulrich in the Palazzo Contarni degli Scrigni on the Grand Canal. At the end of the year, Bacher returned to New York, and settled permanently there after marrying in 1888.
Bacher remained an important printmaker and illustrator for the remainder of his career, and it is primarily as a printmaker that he is known today. He continued to produce a number of etchings, and also worked as a commercial illustrator, both for magazines, such as The Century, and he produced images for several illustrated books. He received his greatest recognition in 1904, when he won a Silver Medal for his etchings at the St. Louis Exposition.
In addition to his work in printmaking, Bacher also produced and sold a number of oil paintings and pastels throughout the 1890s and early 1900s, many of which he exhibited in New York at the Society of American Artists and the National Academy of Design. These works demonstrate Bacher's assimilation of Impressionism, both in his treatment of genteel interior scenes as well as the landscape.
One of his works, Nude Outdoors (1893, Cleveland Museum of Art), has been recognized by William Gerdts as perhaps "the most fully Impressionist treatment of the nude in American art" (American Impressionism [New York: Abbeville Press, 1984], pp. 245, 246 illus. in color).
Bacher spent the last years of his life in Lawrence Park, Bronxville, New York. Along with all the members of the Society of American Artists, Bacher was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1906.
He died of an unexplained illness in 1909.
Biography from Thomas B. Parker, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York City