West Bend Art Museum

West Bend, WI



Segment from pages 3-6 of 2000 essay titled "Wisconsin Art from Euro-American Settlement to 1950" by Thomas D. Lidtke, Executive Director, West Bend Art Museum. The essay is contained in the Museum's Group Tour Planning Guide prepared for the exhibition Early Wisconsin Art: 1800 - 1950. Essay reprinted with permission of the West Bend Art Museum.


Wisconsin Art from Euro-American Settlement to 1950

by Thomas D. Lidtke



Around the time of statehood in 1848 and due in part to the failed German revolution of 1848, the first large wave of German immigrants had begun to join the Yankees, Irish and British who first settled this part of the western frontier. These new immigrants began to infuse the new state with their own culture. They introduced German tastes for music, theater and visual arts. The early cultural development of Wisconsin was at this time strongly influenced by a specific group of Germans known as the Free Thinkers, many of whom were well-educated intellectuals.

Around this time, German artist Henry Vianden, who was trained at the Munich and Dusseldorf Academies, arrived in Milwaukee. He was to be mentor and teacher to many other important Wisconsin artists including Carl Marr, who later was knighted in Europe and became director of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and Susan Fackelton, who later was the founder of the Wisconsin School of Design and officer of two national art associations.

Although artists were becoming an integral part of Wisconsin society, there were only a few artists on the Wisconsin art scene from the 1840s through 1860s. Most of them lived in Milwaukee. One such artist was Lydia Ely (b. 1840, Wisconsin) who in 1865 organized the first major art exhibition in the state. Like several other Wisconsin artists, she traveled to Colorado on horseback to capture the mountain grandeur and wilderness splendor of the West in her an work. On this particular painting expedition, she traveled with a group of artists from Chicago.

Preceding Lydia Ely by at least two decades were other female artists and art instructors. Little is known beyond the surname of several women artists, such as Milwaukee portrait artist Mrs. Pope, art instructor and miniature painter Mrs. D. Johnson, and Milwaukee college drawing instructor Miss E. B. Warren.

Perhaps one of the most interesting Wisconsin-born women artists was Vinnie Ream Hoxie (b. 1847, Madison, Wisconsin). This Washington D.C. sculptor received national acclaim at a very young age. She lived in Wisconsin only until her mid-teens, eventually moving with her family from Sheboygan to Washington, D.C. She married a prominent Civil War Veteran and attained a relatively high social standing in Washington, D. C. Publications of the time reported her as being "young and possessing great beauty." Because of her beauty, young age and talent, she became the center of jealousy and controversy in the late 1860s after winning a national commission for a posthumous portrait of President Lincoln. Hoxie had Lincoln sit for a portrait shortly before he was assassinated and consequently gained the advantage when it came time for officials to select an artist for the national commission. The competent life-sized statue of Lincoln still stands in our nation's capitol rotunda and is one of many portrait sculptures that she completed.

Another woman artist was sculptor Helen Farnsworth Mears (b. 1871, Oshkosh, Wisconsin). She achieved moderate success as a sculptor and she was one of several Wisconsin artists to exhibit at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Mears later enrolled in the Art Students' League in New York City and eventually became Augustus Saint-Gaudens' first woman student. Her life's story is one of dedication, struggle and profound tragedy. Ely, Ream, Mears and several other early Wisconsin female artists provide examples of the beginning ascendancy and integration of Wisconsin women in the visual arts.



From the mid-1880's until World War I, artists from German-speaking countries were to play an ever-increasing role in the development of visual arts in Wisconsin. German immigrant artists and German-trained Wisconsin artists were to dominate the Wisconsin art scene during the last part of the 19th century.

The largest single influx of immigrant artists to reach Wisconsin occurred in 1885 and 1886 when Chicago entrepreneur William Wehner recruited about twenty academically-trained painters to come to Milwaukee to produce enormous panorama paintings. They were to be part of the entertainment industry. The gigantic canvases were painted between 1885 and 1889. Like today's motion pictures, these canvases were exhibited throughout the country for entertainment and educational purposes. The huge canvases rolled by the viewers, from one spool to the next, as history unfolded before them. Other canvases were stationary and were displayed in a circle. These colossal canvases illustrated life-size figures caught up in the fury of military battle or the religious fervor of biblical scenes. The only remaining painting known to exist from this brief but important period of Wisconsin art history is the cyclorama entitled The Battle of Atlanta. This 50' x 400' painting was restored early in the 1980s and is permanently displayed at Grant Park in southeast Atlanta.

Although Wehner's business was short-lived, several other large canvases were completed by similar Milwaukee ventures. These failed to gain any significant success. By the time the motion picture industry was introduced, the era of the panorama painters had ended abruptly. For entertainment value alone, the large, expensive and static canvases could not compete with the new moving pictures. The artistic significance of these colossal canvases was soon forgotten.

This type of large historical painting was also prevalent in Europe around the mid to late 19th century, and it is safe to say that this type of grand-scale painting had an effect on one of Wisconsin's most successful native sons, artist Carl Marr. Studies and sketches for Marr's enormous religious painting, The Flagellants, were begun in Munich in 1884, the same year Wehner's panorama painters started in Milwaukee. Marr's 13'10" x 25'8" canvas, his magnum opus, was completed independently by him in 1889, the same year the Wisconsin panorama boom had ended. The Milwaukee-born, Munich-based artist frequently returned to Milwaukee during summers and must have been aware of the panorama painters' activity in Milwaukee.

Marr, who was Henry Vianden's most esteemed prodigy, went on to win more European awards than any other American artist to date. His eminent standing in Germany resulted in noble status that was bestowed upon him by a Prussian emperor, a Bavarian prince and an Italian king. At the turn of the century, the Milwaukee-born Carl Geheimer Hofrat von Marr was one of the most, if not the most, prominent artists in Bavaria.

After the decline of the panorama painting industry, many of the artists who were employed by Wehner remained in Milwaukee and went on to become teachers, studio artists and founders of art schools and societies. Several of the panorama painters, including Richard Lorenz, joined Louis Mayer and Jessie Schley in founding the Society of Milwaukee Artists, which is one of the nation's oldest, continuously-running art societies and is known today as the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors.
Although German artists dominated the Wisconsin art scene during the turn of the century and influenced it well into the early part of the 20th century, they were by no means the only artists to make an impact in Wisconsin.



According to Porter Butts' 1936 classic publication, Art in Wisconsin, the first art classes to be taught at an educational institution were drawing and painting classes offered in 1842 at the Madison Female Select School. By 1846, the Milwaukee Female Seminary had advertised a department of drawing and painting which was staffed by some of the women mentioned earlier. From the 1840s to the time of the Civil War, Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay were not the only locations in the state where art was being taught. Several smaller communities also afforded Wisconsin residents the opportunity to learn drawing and painting. An example of this would be the classes taught by self-trained artist Robert Merrill, who in 1865, was the first art instructor at a male college in Beaver Dam and most likely art instructor at its female college counterpart in Fox Lake.

Most of Wisconsin's first art schools were short-lived. They consolidated through merger and re-organization into larger and more professional art schools. By the turn-of-the-century, art education within the state was getting better and becoming more accessible. These schools were staffed with Wisconsin artists who were for the most part trained at European and specifically German art academies. Artists, such as Robert Schade, Richard Lorenz, Otto von Ernst, Emily Groom, Charlotte Partridge, Alexander Mueller, George Raab, Elsa Ulbricht and Robert von Neumann, were among them.

They made it possible for the first generation of Wisconsin-trained artists to receive adequate art training without traveling abroad. Among the many artists who received training from these early schools and teachers were: Fred Berman, John Coit, Joseph Friebert, Robert Grilley, Ruth Grotenrath, Audrey Handler, Carl Holty, Rollin Jansky, Norman Keats, Schomer Lichtner, Mary Michie, Ida Ozonoff, Robert Schellin, Francesco Spicuzza, Edward Steichen, Arthur Thrall, Charles Thwaites, John Wilde, Frank Lloyd Wright and Santos Zingale. Although painting prevailed as the media of choice for Wisconsin artists, several were exponents of sculpture, crafts and graphic arts. The etchings of several of the early panorama painters, plus those of Paul Hammersmith, nationally-known regionalist John Steuart Curry and the block prints of George Raab, Alfred Sessler and Robert von Neumann stand as prime examples of the quality and importance of fine art printing in the state. On a commercial level, Wisconsin became a national leader in quality stone lithography.

By the time of World War I, the state's artists no longer looked to Europe as a necessary source for quality art training. The once-dominant German academies had lost their appeal.

As new and more modern forms of visual expression were introduced to the state's young art students attending Wisconsin, Chicago and east coast art schools, it was becoming clear that the artistic influence of German academic painting on Wisconsin art was waning. Clearly, a more regional form of art was beginning to coalesce.

By the time World War II had concluded, art departments of the state's university system, together with the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, provided well for the training of the state's art students. Traditional interests in painting, sculpture and graphics were expanded to include disciplines and materials that previously were dismissed as merely craft. This environment provided fertile ground which eventually produced several contemporary artists and designers who had attained national recognition in the areas of ceramics, wood sculpture, studio glass, hand-crafted jewelry, paper making and industrial design.

For a related subject please see our article The Grand Moving Panorama: Pilgrim's Progress (1851) (1/8/00)

Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the West Bend Art Museum.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11

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