West Bend Art Museum

West Bend, WI



Preface essay by Thomas D. Lidtke, Executive Director, West Bend Art Museum from pages v-vi of 2000 exhibition catalogue titled "Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors / Wisconsin Artists in All Media" published in connection with the same named exhibition held October 18 - November 26, 2000 at the Museum. Essay reprinted with permission of the West Bend Art Museum.

(left and right: rear and front covers of exhibition catalogue titled "Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors / Wisconsin Artists in All Media"



Throughout the 19th century Milwaukee continued to be a boomtown with the arrival of each Great Lakes passenger ship and train from the east. Most of the growth in the city and state during the previous quarter of a century was the result of mass migration from Europe, particularly from the German speaking countries of Europe. The city was often referred to as Little Munich. Many of these new Americans who settled in Wisconsin were well educated and brought with them a desire to integrate European art and culture into their society which helped to nurture art in Wisconsin.


A Century of Artistic Endeavor

by Thomas D. Lidtke


During the 19th century, Wisconsin rapidly expanded due to the influx of European immigrants. Most of these 19th century expatriates found an emerging cultural system that was quite different than what they were accustomed to, yet their desire to retain some of the vestiges of the past remained strong. Artists are a good example of how this expatriate readjustment took place. When they arrived in Wisconsin they no longer were bound by a system of royal patronage, recognition and subsidies. While they did not have to worry about being encumbered by an authoritative, hierarchical, cultural tradition, they needed to establish new bases of support, patronage and professional association.

Although progress was being made in many areas of Wisconsin's cultural frontier, absent in this new and burgeoning cultural scene were established galleries, world class art museums and art schools that the early Wisconsin immigrant artists were familiar with in Europe. What art education did exist in Wisconsin at the time included a few private painting classes held in artists' studios and general art lessons taught at a few private colleges. This void required serious art students to consider traveling abroad for their advanced training.

By 1900 the people of Milwaukee were well aware of what a grand city Milwaukee was becoming. Their vision of a new eminent cultural and industrial center was elevated by the World's Columbian Exposition also known as the Chicago World's Fair and the White City. The Fair's grand buildings, pavilions and displays amazed the whole world just a few years earlier in 1892 and 1893. Fortunately for the artists of Wisconsin and the region, the Fair became a catalyst that encouraged the public's interest in art. Exhibiting at the Fair were several artists from Wisconsin whose status was greatly elevated by this pivotal event. Among others, the list of Wisconsin' s artists at the Fair includes Richard Lorenz, Susan Frackleton, Helen Farnsworth Mears, Cyril Colnik, and Wisconsin expatriate Carl Marr whose paintings, The Flagellants and Summer Afternoon were exhibited.

While many of Wisconsin's 19th and early 20th century artists were finding an emerging private patronage in the state, a few decided more could be done to encourage art appreciation and enhance art sales. As a result, they saw the need to establish a professional artist organization. On October 22nd, 1900 The Society of Milwaukee Artists was created. At this time, the first generation of Wisconsin-born artists were beginning to emerge. Some of these artists joined the German expatriate artists to form this new artist society.

By the turn of the century, Southeastern Wisconsin had grown enough to foster the formation of the Milwaukee Art Students' League and the Wisconsin School of Art, also known as the State Art School. Through an evolutionary series of mergers, this organization was eventually absorbed by the state's college and university system. Founding members of the Society of Milwaukee Artists, George Raab from Sheboygan and Alexander Mueller from Milwaukee started the school; and the young Milwaukee artist, Edward Steichen, who later gained international fame for his photography, was instrumental in forming the Milwaukee Art Students' League.

This was a time when Wisconsin art students began to have more choices for learning the skills of an artist at local, less expensive educational institutions; however, the lure and excitement of attending art school in Europe continued to be strong well into the early part of the 20th century. On the advice of several German-American mentors, many of the Wisconsin students continued until World War I to take their cultural pilgrimage to Europe, making it more difficult to establish reputable art schools within the state.

The European schools of choice were the German art academies where the students' mentors had studied. A partial list of the young Wisconsin art students destined to study in Germany includes Adam Emery Albright and WP&S members Frank Enders, Louis Mayer, George Raab, Gustave Moeller and Alexander Mueller. The academy of choice was the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich where Carl Marr was a professor and later its director. Marr was Milwaukee born and reared. He taught and counseled some of the last generation of students from Wisconsin who studied in Germany. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, The Seven Arts Society of Milwaukee, the American Association for Art and Literature as well as several European monarchies honored Marr for his accomplishments in painting, arts administration and cultural advancement.

By the end of the first quarter of the 20th century, American art and artists were beginning to emerge. Wisconsin students were losing interest in the European art academies. The affordability and appeal of the state's colleges and universities, as well as more prestigious art schools in the United States, had finally turned away this trans-Atlantic tradition.

While the German connection to Wisconsin art was greatly diminished after World War I, it did continue when several post war German artists immigrated to Wisconsin after World War I and World War II. These include Carl Holty, Robert von Neumann and later Guido Brink, all of whom were members of the Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, and significant to Wisconsin art.

During the second decade of the 20th century The Society of Milwaukee Artists changed their name to the Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, and around that time, several of their members were instrumental in establishing art departments and degreed art programs at numerous colleges and universities. A short list of some of these WP&S members would include Richard Lorenz, Gustave Moeller and George Raab. They in turn, were followed by the next generation of WP&S artist teachers which include Joseph Friebert, Emily Groom, George Goundie, Morley Hicks, Clarice Logan, Dorothy Meredith, Burton Potterveld, Norman Rupnow, Alfred Sessler, Gerrit Sinclair, Helmut Summ, Howard Thomas, Elsa Ulbricht, Robert von Neumann and James Watrous. Many of today's members of the Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors / Wisconsin Artists in All Media fondly recall these individuals as their teachers and mentors. In like tradition, several of these form the third generation of WP&S / WAAM artist teachers. As the organization matured, its membership became more inclusive, reflecting a broader representation in media, style and area of the state where members were living. Eventually the organization changed its name to the Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors / Wisconsin Artists in All Media.

During the mid part of the 20th century, local and regional structures of all types diminished, disappeared, or were reorganized, while national and government systems grew. This transitional period in our country fostered specialization in all areas of society, and in the process, caused the fragmentation, weakening and or demise of some groups and organizations, which tended to be generalists. In the area of the visual arts, examples of specialization and nationalization include the formation of narrow interest groups such as the now defunct Wisconsin Printmakers and the current groups, Milwaukee Men's Sketch Club, Wisconsin Watercolor Society, American Watercolor Society and Colored Pencil Society of America.

This trend towards specialization and nationalization reveals the organizational strength, adaptability and tenacity of the Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors / Wisconsin Artists in All Media, which has survived this trend of fragmentation and reorganization.

Reflecting on the past is interesting and valuable; however, planning for the future is essential for survival. One can only wonder what this artist organization will look like on October 22, 2100. For that matter, one can only wonder what form the visual arts would have taken.

I also wonder what the founding artists of this group would think of it today. I'm sure that they would be pleased. Congratulations on reaching 100 years and best wishes for the next 100.

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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