This article previously appeared in the Vol. 10 No. 1 (Summer-Fall, 1993, pp 40-45) issue of Voyageur: North East Wisconsin's Historical Review. Reprinted by permission. Voyageur is published by the Brown County (WI) Historical Society:


A Cosmopolitan Life in Wisconsin: Mathilde Schley's Hunger for the Beautiful and Useful

by Peter C. Merrill


It was a pleasant spring day in June 1928. In Cologne, there was a sense of exhilaration in the air; the grey winter had passed and there was a blue sky with puffy clouds illuminated by sunshine. Along the street walked a 64-year old woman in a tastefully made, loose-fitting frock. Pausing at a newspaper kiosk, she glanced at the headlines. A new government had just been formed under a Socialist chancellor and the German Republic was pursuing a policy of reconciliation with the powers that had defeated Germany in the World War. One of the headlines mentioned Konrad Adenauer, the 52-year old mayor of Cologne. Turning to the newspaper vendor, the woman asked directions in a precise, carefully enunciated German. "Of course," answered the man. and gave directions to the international press exhibition which was being held nearby.

The scene just described is imaginary, but might well have taken place. It was the time of the Weimar Republic, a year before the onset of the world-wide economic depression that would ultimately propel Hitler to power. The woman was an American from Wisconsin who had come to Cologne to attend the press exhibition, the only American woman to receive an official invitation. Since 1923 she had been contributing articles to German-language newspapers in Milwaukee, articles which told about German settlement in Wisconsin. She was not, however, a professional journalist, but a dressmaker. The dress she wore was one she had made herself.

Mathilde Georgine Schley was born May 4, 1884 in Horicon, Wisconsin, the oldest of the nine children of Friedrich Schley and his wife Johanna.[1] Both of her parents had been born in Germany and had been brought to America in childhood. They were "Old Lutherans," members of a religious sect which migrated to Wisconsin before the Civil War. Mathilde had grown up in a bilingual community, one in which local newspapers were often in German and where German, the language of Martin Luther, was definitely the language of the Lutheran Church. But the world in which Mathilde Schley had grown up was now changing. Like many German-Americans of her generation, she had witnessed the widespread repudiation of German language and culture which had taken place in America at the time of the First World War. Mathilde was concerned about whether the younger generation of German-Americans in Wisconsin would maintain its use of the German language and whether it would preserve an awareness of its ethnic heritage. It was this concern which motivated her between 1923 and 1933 to pour out a flood of newspaper articles in German, most of them having to do with the migration of the Old Lutherans to Dodge County. Later she would gather these articles into two privately printed books, Deutschamerika (1935) and Fritz, Pät, Jules und Hänk (1940).[2]

As a young woman in Dodge County, Mathilde Schley had been an independent spirit, disinterested in marriage and bent on finding a means of earning her own livelihood. For a time she worked as a telegraph operator and later, from 1888 to 1891, she was in Kansas, where two of her cousins were living. She found employment there as a drawing teacher and exhibited her art work in shows at Neodeska and Wichita. Among the artists who were painting in Kansas at that time were George Melville Stone, John Noble, and William Alexander Griffith. There is nothing in Mathilde Schley's correspondence, however, to indicate that she was aware of their work.

After the period in Kansas, she lived for a time with her parents in Oak Grove, Wisconsin, but by 1893 had moved to Watertown and established a dressmaking business there with her sister Lydia. The following year they moved their business to Milwaukee, which opened vastly widened horizons for Mathilde Schley. For one thing, she was now able to get art instruction from highly qualified teachers. Two of these, Otto von Ernst and Richard Lorenz, were German immigrant artists who had received their training at Weimar and Düsseldorf. Both had helped to paint the large panoramic paintings which had been produced in Milwaukee during the 1880s. Von Ernst ultimately returned to Germany but Lorenz continued his career as a professional artist and art teacher in Milwaukee until his death in 1915. Mathilde Schley's other teacher was the Milwaukee-born Alexander Mueller, who headed the Milwaukee Art Students League and the associated Wisconsin School of Art at the turn of the century.

The style of painting to which Mathilde Schley was exposed by her teachers in Milwaukee was the German academic style of the time, a style which favored a realistic depiction of the subject matter, often in dark tones. But only a few of her surviving paintings reflect these early influences, while her mature work characteristically consists of brightly illuminated outdoor scenes accomplished in an impressionistic style. One reason for her shift in this direction was undoubtedly the rising influence of impressionism in the United States at this time, though she must have also been affected by what she saw during a trip to Paris in 1899. The pointilistic technique which was a hallmark of her work was also due to impressionist influence, though it derived partly from her use of a palette knife rather than a brush to apply paint. Still another influence must have been that of Dudley Crafts Watson, an imposing figure in the Milwaukee an scene between 1914 and 1924. As an art teacher, Watson exhorted his students to strive toward an open technique characterized by brilliancy of light. He must have recognized these qualities in Mathilde Schley's painting, which he praised for its individual character.

The known corpus of Mathilde Schley's work includes more than sixty oil paintings plus a few drawings in ink, charcoal, or crayon. Less than forty of the paintings can be presently located, but a number of the others are known from photographs.[3] Thirty of her paintings are landscapes and ten others depict rural buildings in a landscape setting. Her work also includes still lifes, floral paintings, and portraits. Of these, two are particularly interesting. One, which was painted from a snapshot taken in Germany in 1926, shows her sister Lydia standing by the Schlei River in Schleswig-Holstein. The other shows her sisters Lydia and Jenny standing in a rose garden of the family home in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. A painting which definitely stands apart from Mathilde Schley's other work is To Valhalla, an allegorical scene showing a procession of robed figures. The work was probably suggested by "Echo of the Dead," a poem by her sister, Clara Schley. The work reveals an element of German romanticism in an otherwise practical-minded temperament. This romantic turn of mind also reveals itself in Mathilde Schley's reported enthusiasm for nature and in her expressions of rapture at the sight of the full moon.

Only one of Mathilde Schley's works is known to be in a public collection. This is a painting of the historic Octagon House in Watertown, Wisconsin which is at the Octagon House Museum. A number of her paintings survive in the possession of family members or in other private collections.

Although she sold few paintings, Mathilde Schley was something more than a talented amateur. Her work was widely exhibited and her name was regularly listed in such national directories as the American An Annual and Who's Who in American Art. She was active in several professional associations, including the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors. Her paintings were often included in their annual shows at the Milwaukee Art Institute and could also be seen in the Milwaukee Journal's Gallery of Wisconsin Art and at shows in Chicago, New York, and other cities.

There were a number of woman artists in Milwaukee when Mathilde Schley was living there. She certainly knew the ones who exhibited at the same shows, a group which included Emily Groom, Elizabeth Telling, Stella Harlos, Marguerite Grossenbach, and Jewel Krueger. She must have also known the German-born Helms Jahn-Heynsen, who was about her age, and was presumably aware to some extent of such younger artists as Charlotte Partridge, Elsa Ulbricht, and Frida Gugler.

Mathilde Schley's millinery shop in Milwaukee prospered, particularly after she was able to advertise at the turn of the century that she had just returned from Paris. Her prosperity, combined with a favorable exchange rate, allowed her to return to Europe in the summers of 1926 and 1928. During both these trips she visited the ancestral homes of her grandparents in Silesia and Pomerania, visits which fueled her interest in the history of the Old Lutheran migration from Germany to America.[4] In 1925 her prosperity also enabled her to build the Schley Apartments, a small apartment building in Milwaukee where she and her sister Lydia subsequently lived. She had a circle of women friends who gathered at their apartment for coffee. Most were well-to-do and, like herself, unmarried. One of her friends, Franziska Tauber, was a music teacher and a daughter of William Tauber, a local artist. Mathilde played the piano well and liked to attend operatic performances. She was interested in architecture and was an inveterate sightseer, often taking walks around Milwaukee to admire churches and other public buildings. Everyone who knew her seems to have recalled what an indifferent cook she was. Although she had received a conventional religious upbringing and was well read in both the English and German Bible, she resisted her sister's efforts to get her to join a church.

People who knew Mathilde Schley have described her as having been cool but at times capable of emotional outbursts. The overall impression one gets is that of a highly individualistic personality. Family ties meant a great deal to her, however. Nearly all the portraits she painted were of family members and the paintings of houses were of the homes of family members. The family's home at Beaver Dam, called Mittagsruhe (Midday Rest), was the subject of several paintings. Her feelings toward both her parents and her German heritage are revealed by the following statement which she attached to a questionnaire sent to her in 1935 by Porter Butts, an art historian at the University of Wisconsin:

My father at the age of 3 came with his parents from the broad stretches of the Nordsee. His innate honesty and German Redlichkeit left an indelible impression on his offspring as well as neighbors and other associates.
Our mother at the age of 12 had already imbibed the advantages of the excellent Prussian school system, which we have vainly attempted to adapt for our American needs. She inculcated a hunger for the beautiful as well as the useful into the minds of her children.[5]

It was from her mother especially that she had absorbed her facility in the German language and her enthusiasm for German culture and tradition. Her unqualified faith in the value of everything German was so internalized that any attack on it would have seemed to be a personal affront. One can imagine what a blow to her the tide of anti-German sentiment during the First World War must have been. The great interest she bore toward her ethnic heritage suggests that she viewed it as a part of herself, while her books and paintings were, in a real sense, an extension of her personality. She was not the sort of person to experience any doubts about her identity; she knew exactly who she was and where she came from. She was a German-American, she was from Dodge County, she was a member of the Schley family, she was of Old Lutheran stock, and she was a beneficiary of German civilization, German letters, and German art. But she also knew herself to be a person of cosmopolitan background. Didn't she speak French? Hadn't she been to Paris? And hadn't her paintings been exhibited in New York and favorably commented on in a Paris magazine? And yes, she was independent. Perhaps she belonged to the first generation of American women who could be independent without incurring social disapproval. One way she was able to manage it was to cultivate the support of her female cousins and her five sisters. In the end, however, she was alone, her sister Lydia having left Milwaukee and gone back to Dodge County. On a chilly March day in 1941 she collapsed in the street outside her apartment. She was brought inside and put to bed. As she lay dying of pneumonia, she kept repeating the phrase "meine Bücher, meine Bücher" ("my books, my books"). Perhaps it was the two books she had written which occupied her mind in these last moments, the books that were, in a sense, her children. She had looked upon these books as a means by which her memory might be perpetuated and had taken great care to insure that copies were placed in several libraries, including the library at Harvard University. Death came to her at the Schley Apartments in Milwaukee on March 20, 1941 . She was 76 years old.

What can be said about her paintings? The first thing one should concede is that they are distinctive enough to be interesting. She was not outstanding and she was certainly not influential, but she was different. In fact, everything about her was just different enough to be interesting. Perhaps the art of Mathilde Schley deserves a second look, a more careful scrutiny, and a more positive evaluation. Is it possible that Mathilde Schley has been overlooked as a significant regional artist of her time?


1. For basic information on Mathilde Schley end her family background, see "In the Journal's Gallery of Art: Mathilde Schley, Milwaukee Journal, October 29, 1925, sect. 1, p. 10. For more substantive details about her life, however, and for assuming the task of locating and photographing her paintings, I must acknowledge the collaboration of Eugene B. Meier, Jr. of Palatine, Illinois. Mr. Meier, who is the grandson of Mathilde Schley's sister Celia, has for years been an indefatigable researcher into his family's history, searching out documents and conducting interviews. He has been unstinting in his willingness to share this information with me and to respond at length to my many inquiries.

2. Deutschamerika (Milwaukee: Westside Printing Co., 1935, 88 pp.). Fritz, Pät, Jules und Hänk (Milwaukee; Westside Printing Co., 1940, 112 pp.). The articles gathered in these books appeared originally in such newspapers as the Milwaukee Sonntagspost, the Milwaukee Herold, the Chicago Sonntagspost and the Dodge County Pionier.

3. Photographs of selected paintings by Mathilde Schley were reproduced in her two books and also in two privately printed books of verse by her sisters Clara and Celia: Clara Schley Goeldner, Threads in Rhyme (Watertown, Wisconsin, 1941) and Celia Schley Meier, Come with Me (Rockford, Illinois, 1944).

4. Milwaukee Journal, October 31, 1928, p. 6, and Milwaukee Journal, April 27, 1941, sect.. 7, p. 7.

5. Artist's Data for Studies in Wisconsin Art. Questionnaire filled out in 1935 for Porter Butts, an art historian at the University of Wisconsin. The original document is at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.

About the Author:

Peter C. Merrill, who currently resides in Boca Raton, Fl, was born in 1930 in Evanston, IL. He was affiliated with the Department of Languages and Linguistics, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL from 1968 to 1998, retiring as a full professor.

Dr. Merrill received a B.A. in Anthropology from Yale University, a M.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Columbia University.

He is an expert on 19th-century German-language writers in the U.S., the German-language stage in the U.S. and German immigrant artists in the U.S.

Dr. Merrill has authored four books on related subjects and written forty-three articles and numerous book reviews and professional papers.

Image of Dr. Merrill and his biographical information courtesy of the author.

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010-2015 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.