West Bend Art Museum

West Bend, WI



Essay segment by Peter C. Merrill on pages 1-3 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. Essay segment reprinted with permission of the West Bend Art Museum.


Art Teachers, Art Schools and Art Museums in Early Wisconsin

by Peter C. Merrill


By the middle of the nineteenth century there were several professional art teachers in Wisconsin. One of the first was the Scotch-born Bernard Isaac Durward (1817-1902), who immigrated in 1845. Another Scotsman, George J. Robertson, was a painter of portraits and landscapes who arrived in Milwaukee in 1846 and later taught art at a girls' school in Illinois. Henry Vane Thorne was a landscape painter and teacher who settled in Milwaukee in 1847 but died a few years later. The English-born Thomas H. Stevenson was a painter of landscapes and miniatures who taught painting in Cleveland and turned up in Milwaukee and Madison around 1855. Soon afterwards he was reportedly in Green Bay.

Two German-trained art teachers in early Wisconsin were Heinrich Roese and James Reeve Stuart (1834-1915). Roese, whose name appears in the Milwaukee city directory for 1869-1870, was a painter of genre subjects and portraits whose career remains generally obscure. Stuart, who was born in South Carolina, settled in Madison in 1872 after having studied in Germany. Although best remembered as a portrait painter, Stuart taught for several years in Milwaukee and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The first really influential art teacher in Wisconsin, however, was the German-born landscape painter Henry Vianden (1814-1899). A native of Bonn, Vianden was a student of the Munich academy and had been active for several years as a professional artist in Cologne before coming to the U.S. in 1844. He has been justly acclaimed for the precisely delineated woodland scenes which he painted in Wisconsin and his local influence as a teacher can hardly be overestimated. He was the first teacher of a whole group of young artists in the Milwaukee area and encouraged his students to continue their art education at academies in Europe. Among his students, the two who were ultimately the most successful, were Carl von Marr (1858-1936) and Robert Koehler (1850-1917), both of whom became successful professionals outside of Wisconsin. Koehler is also reported to have received instruction from Heinrich Roese. Two of Vianden's students who became locally successful artists were Robert Schade (1861-1912) and Frank Enders (1860-1921). Like Carl von Marr, both had been born in the U.S. but came from German-speaking families.

During the 1880s the entire Wisconsin art scene was radically transformed by the sudden appearance of a group of academically trained artists from Europe who had been contracted to come to Milwaukee in order to paint panoramas, large team-produced works intended for commercial exhibition. Although panoramic painting had been a part of American popular culture for several decades, the new wave of interest in panoramas was prompted by a desire to create depictions of Civil War battles in imitation of similar battle scenes produced in Europe after the Franco-Prussian War. A German-born Chicago businessman who engaged the services of more than a dozen European artists founded the first panorama studio in Milwaukee. Among those who remained in Wisconsin after the decline of the 1880s panorama craze were Franz Biberstein (1850-1930), Richard Lorenz (1858-1915), George Peter (1859-1950), and Bernhard Schneider (1843-1907). Biberstein and Schneider eked out a sparse existence as local landscape painters while Peter had a long career as a staff artist for the Milwaukee Public Museum. The most important of the group, however, was Richard Lorenz, who became both a successful professional artist and the most influential local teacher since Henry Vianden.

Richard Lorenz was born into a farm family in Thüringen and received his training at the now defunct Weimar Art School, where his talent attracted immediate attention. After establishing a studio in Milwaukee he began to make frequent trips to the West and soon became recognized for his western scenes and technically masterful paintings of horses. He carried on an active career as a teacher, working partly out of his own studio but also at other locations. Among his many students were several who became the next generation of leading art teachers in Milwaukee: Alexander Mueller (1872-1935), George Raab (1866-1943), and Gustave Moeller (1881-1931). All were American-born artists from German families who were encouraged by Lorenz to seek further training in Europe. All three returned to Milwaukee before World War I and began notably successful teaching careers there.

The most influential of the three was Alexander Mueller, who founded an art school, which was eventually incorporated into what is now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But although his teaching had a critically important impact on the Milwaukee art scene during the first two decades of the twentieth century, the paintings that he himself produced have now almost all disappeared.

When Alexander Mueller retired in 1923 from his post as chair of the Art Department at the Milwaukee Normal School, he was succeeded by his younger colleague Gustave Moeller. Born in New Holstein, Wisconsin, Moeller came to Milwaukee in early life and began his training there. He left a legacy of vibrantly colorful landscape studies, often painting at various places in rural Wisconsin. His promising career was cut short when he died at the age of 49 from complications following an operation. George Raab, originally from Sheboygan, also found a position as one of the teachers at Alexander Mueller's school. From 1902 to 1922 he was curator of the Layton Art Gallery in Milwaukee and later taught for several years in Illinois.

Richard Lorenz was the last of the panorama painters to exert a lasting influence on Wisconsin art as a teacher,
but immigrant art teachers continued to arrive from Europe. The most important of these after Lorenz was undoubtedly Robert von Neumann (1888-1976), who was a master as both a painter and printmaker. After studying in Berlin before World War I, von Neumann served as a front-line officer in the war and was wounded in 1918. After immigrating to the U.S. a few years later he taught in Milwaukee at both the Wisconsin State Teachers College and at the Layton School of Art, exerting a profound effect on the generation of artists who came of age in the 1930s.

One of the less well known German academic artists in Wisconsin was Otto von Ernst (1853-1925), who was trained at the Düsseldorf Academy and at the Weimar Art School, where he probably met Richard Lorenz. After teaching at the short-lived Wisconsin Art Institute and the Wisconsin School of Design which preceded it, von Ernst returned to Germany during the 1890s.

The sculptor Ferdinand König (1860-1943) began his training in Cologne but later studied at the Düsseldorf Academy. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1907 he initially did church statuary but soon found teaching positions at the Milwaukee Art Institute and at Alexander Mueller's Wisconsin School of Art. Around 1917 he won first prize at an annual show of the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors.

By around 1910 it was no longer necessary for Wisconsin artists to seek training abroad. One of the first important art teachers in Milwaukee to be trained entirely in the United States was Elsa Ulbricht (1885-1980), a Milwaukee native who was trained at the Wisconsin State Teachers College in Milwaukee and at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She had a long teaching career in Milwaukee, and at Ox-Bow, a summer arts program near Saugatuck, Michigan that attracted many art students from Wisconsin. Ulbricht also exerted a far-reaching influence through her participation in local art organizations such as the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors and during the Depression she attracted national attention by organizing a WPA handicrafts project in Milwaukee.

Another Wisconsin-born art teacher was Dudley Crafts Watson (1885-1972), a native of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Watson received his training at the Art Institute of Chicago and spent most of his professional career as an associate of that institution. Although American-trained, he made many trips to Europe as an art tour guide. From 1914 to 1924 he was director of the Milwaukee Art Institute and at the same time lectured on fine arts at the Layton School of Art.

Several American-born art teachers in Milwaukee at this time came from outside the state. Four of the most important of these were Frederick Fursman (1874-1943), Emily Parker Groom (1876-1975), Charlotte Russell Partridge (1882-1971), and Gerrit V. Sinclair, who was born in 1890. Fursman was from a small town in Illinois and received training from the Art Institute of Chicago and from the Julien Academy in Paris. Like Dudley Crafts Watson, Fursman had a long connection with the Art Institute of Chicago and like Elsa Ulbricht, he was a leading figure at Ox-Bow.


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.

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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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