West Bend Art Museum

West Bend, WI



Preface by Thomas D. Lidtke, Executive Director, West Bend Art Museum, on pages v-vi of 1998 exhibition catalog (Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 97-061471) titled "Foundations of Art in Wisconsin." The exhibition of the same name premiered at the West Bend Art Museum on August 12, 1998 and then was shown at two other museums. Preface reprinted with permission of the West Bend Art Museum.


left: rear cover; right: front cover, Foundations of Art in Wisconsin exhibition catalog


Preface to "Foundations of Art in Wisconsin"

by Thomas D. Lidtke


This year marks the 150th anniversary of Wisconsin statehood. Throughout 1998, the West Bend Art Museum has examined the development of visual arts in Wisconsin as expressed through its collections, publications and temporary exhibitions. The state sesquicentennial is significant for our art museum because we house the largest collection of art work by the Milwaukee-born American-German artist, Carl von Marr, and because we have a significant regional collection of Wisconsin art from the time of Euro-American settlement in Wisconsin to 1950.

Today a number of museums have wisely moved away from unfocused and eclectic collection practices of the past. Many small and mid-sized art museums have developed or redefined their collection mission to focus on specific niches

The West Bend Art Museum's regional art collection chronicles the contributions of Wisconsin's artists. It is a visual record of the people, places and events that impacted the state. Regional collections, particularly those in states like Wisconsin where the visual arts heritage is rich, have gained attention over the past decade. Today, interest in high quality regionalist work has gone far beyond the boundaries of the state or region in which it was created.

William Gerdts, a foremost authority on American regional art and Professor of the Ph.D. Program in Art History at The Graduate School and University Center of The City University of New York stated, "The interest in regional American painting and sculpture is growing tremendously in the literature on American art, in exhibitions, and among collectors and dealers. We are learning of accomplishments which often rival the best of nationally established art and artists, and yet reflect regional concerns of a distinct nature - ethnic, political, social, economic and cultural."

The development of Wisconsin's visual art history beginning with the white settlement era closely parallels the expansion of the Western frontier. Although the French explorers probably sketched this territory in their field notebooks during the 17th and 18th century, the earliest art known to be produced in the Wisconsin region was created by Americans from the East Coast who were here for a few years shortly after the British lost control of the Wisconsin territory. These early itinerant Yankee artists were followed by artists that were trained in London's art academy, the largest number of them being Scottish. In turn, these artists were followed by a much larger and more influential group of immigrant artists from the German-speaking countries of Europe. This early international cross-pollination of intellectual and creative ideas produced an interesting interwoven social fabric in Wisconsin. It's a history that needs to be more closely studied to properly place Wisconsin's art history in a broader and more complete context. During the second half of the 19th century, that mix of people became increasingly dominated by German-speaking people who would profoundly affect Wisconsin for decades to come.

Beginning with the mid 19th century, many German intellectuals, known as 48ers and Free Thinkers, abandoned their homeland in favor of places where they could apply their political and social philosophy. Within a few short years, over 4000 of these people sought political asylum and opportunity in Southeastern Wisconsin. This major influx led the way to broader German immigration, which provided a strong base of support for the professionally-trained immigrant artists who settled in Wisconsin between 1849 and the turn-of-the-century. These émigré artists brought with them and passed along skills acquired from Europe's leading art academies. For obvious American patriotic reasons, German ethnicity in Wisconsin diminished significantly during World War I, but the German influence in Wisconsin on quality-of-life issues such as art, music and literature continued well after the war years and to a certain extent continues today. This should not be surprising since a large number of Wisconsin's citizens during the time of World War I were actually born in Europe's German-speaking regions. It is because of this solid influence that even today there is interest in Europe for Wisconsin's early artists of German heritage. The 1996 exhibition, VICE VERSA: GERMAN PAINTERS IN AMERICA AND AMERICAN PAINTERS IN GERMANY, held at the German History Museum in Berlin included several 19th century American-born Wisconsin artists of German heritage.

Additionally, one of Switzerland's canton art museums has recently exhibited the work of Swiss 19th century artist, Franz Biberstein, who settled in Milwaukee in 1886.

Wisconsin is unique among the Midwest states in that it has a preponderance of visual art venues. This is due in large part to the state's strong visual arts legacy, which is examined in this publication. At least three community sculpture parks and 45 year-round, not-for-profit art galleries, museums and community art centers exist in the state to offer exhibition opportunities for artists. Many of these are collecting institutions. Within the last several years alone, five separate fine arts groups based in small to mid-sized eastern Wisconsin cities have acquired buildings to develop community art centers and a series of major expansion plans were undertaken or announced by art centers throughout the state. At a time when government funding for the arts seems to be in peril, this expansion seems to indicate that the people of Wisconsin are willing to privately support the visual arts.

The history of the state has always been one of on-going support for the arts albeit private versus governmental support. As stated previously, this form of cultural benevolence began in Wisconsin during the mid part of the 19th century when Wisconsin's upper and middle class immigrant population developed their sense of social concern for people of all classes and backgrounds. This desire to have greater control over quality of life issues was something new to most of those immigrant people, something they had little involvement with in their aristocratic homeland. Wisconsinite's resolute interest in the arts seems to raise at least one important question. Why do the citizens of Wisconsin continue to be so interested in the arts? The answer to this question became increasingly more apparent as we prepared for this exhibition.

As the West Bend Art Museum began to delve further into the history of Wisconsin regional art, it became obvious that radio broadcast technology, governmental programs, social concerns, significant people, pivotal events and key organizations have made a dynamic impact on the state's art scene.

For Wisconsin's sesquicentennial year, we decided to focus on what we believed to be some of the most important of those which could easily be grouped. The following are just some of the stories that form the foundations of art in Wisconsin. It should be noted that throughout this publication, there are numerous references made to Milwaukee's panorama painters.

This group of roughly 20 professional artists, most of whom were trained at the German art academies had, without a doubt, the most profound and lasting impact on Wisconsin art. Several of the following essays reveal how they impacted Milwaukee's art schools and art societies. The ripple effect they had on succeeding generations, organizations and indeed this art museum, exists to this day.

There are literally hundreds, if not over a thousand more stories that could be told regarding other significant people, places and events which have influenced Wisconsin art.

While some of their stories have been told by others, the vast majority will remain stored away in archives until the time when we and other curators, historians and eager graduate students reveal them to us.

Although the story of the Foundations of Art in Wisconsin begins with east coast Americans and Europeans who settled here, I feel obliged to conclude by reiterating an earlier lesson of state history. This lesson taught us that the place we call Wisconsin has many communities that have been continually inhabited by consecutive groups of people for well over 1000 years. The first group of people to settle in these communities had their own distinct forms of art and creative expression. Their artifacts and fascinating stories are also part of our collective cultural history. Their creative endeavors are revealed in numerous publications and other collections throughout the state.


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

For further biographical information 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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