Like many artists, Gelhaar struggled to balance his aesthetic dream with economic realities. It was a lack of financial security that brought him to Paris in the late 1880s. Born in Sweden, Gelhaar worked hard to save his money for the passage. It was in Paris that he became influenced by the French Impressionists and met Robert Henri, who became a close friend and painting companion. Henri urged Gelhaar to follow him to New York, which proved to be a short detour. Gelhaar married briefly and moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania around 1892 when he was 31.
Why he left New York is unclear, but once in Bethlehem he was embraced by the Moravian community. In the tradition of hiring well-known artists as teachers (Grunewald and Luckenbach had taught at Moravian earlier in the 19th century), Gelhaar became head of the art department of Moravian Seminary and College for Women. He also taught sketching at Lehigh University.
In 1930, at age 69, he was impoverished and desperate. He moved to California hoping to find new galleries in which to sell his art. Two years later he moved to Hawaii.
In 1934, at age 73, he committed suicide by tying a satchel filled with rocks around his waist and jumping off Diamond Head Rock on the island of Hawaii. In doing so, he had hoped to avoid being buried in a pauper’s grave. Misfortune followed him even in death. His body floated to the surface. He was later buried by friends. His tombstone reads “Vaya con Dios.”