West Bend Art Museum

West Bend, WI



Essay segment by Gay Donahue on pages 6-7 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.


Society of Milwaukee Artists

by Gay Donahue


The Society of Milwaukee Artists, later to be known as Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, organized on October 22, 1900, represents a turning point in the history of art in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.[1] At the turn-of-the century, a small coterie of approximately 10 to 15 artists living in Milwaukee, founded a professional artist association which was intended to establish a greater public appreciation for fine art and a more secure economic position for Milwaukee artists. The realization of this goal became possible when, by 1900, the first generation of Wisconsin-born artists had returned from an academic European milieu, which provided these enterprising turn-of-the-century artists with the skills to gain cultural and economic support in Milwaukee. These young, spirited men were joined by several older artists who had immigrated to Milwaukee as early as 1885.[2]

The older artists were trained at the German Academies of Weimar, Düsseldorf, Leipzig and Munich. Milwaukee, known at that time as "Little Munich", attracted these artists in 1885, with the promise of employment in studios, which were producing a popular form of art, called panorama paintings. The panoramas drew large crowds paying to see huge canvases, which were painted with landscape and historical scenes, rolled by spools across the stage. It was a popular phenomenon for less than a decade and by 1890, its popularity was on the wane.[3] When it had ended, most of these artists who were from German-speaking countries elected to stay in Milwaukee, supporting themselves as instructors and selling their works. As instructors, they found employment with the Wisconsin Art Institute, supported largely by Captain Frederick Pabst,[4] and later in the Milwaukee Art Students League, founded in 1894 by the first generation of their students.[5]

European study was encouraged for every Milwaukee student who came under the tutelage of these older panorama artists. After spending several years abroad, the younger men joined with their teachers in the studio of 31 year old Louis Mayer in order to establish this new organization, which was devoted to the interests of professional art and artists. The purpose for the inception of the group, stated at its first meeting was:

The Society of Milwaukee Artists, having been organized to promote the interest of art in general and for the purpose of material aid and encouragement, depends on the support of the public and in particular on those citizens who believe in the ennobling and educational influences of art.[6]

Louis Mayer became the group's first president. Alexander Mueller, another of the younger artists who had just returned to Milwaukee from abroad, was made treasurer. Richard Lorenz, former panorama painter and teacher to both Mayer and Mueller at the Wisconsin Art Institute in the early 1890s, was chosen for vice-president. Frank Enders, the only panorama painter who was a native of Milwaukee, was the secretary. Other founding members included Frederick Heine, Bernhard Schneider, Conrad Heyd, George Peter, Robert Schade (all former panorama painters), George Raab (recently returned from study in Europe), Jessie Schley and Julia Johnheyson. The group's membership never exceeded 15, usually averaging 10. Membership dues went to support the publication of catalogues, and the exhibition space was to be provided by the community. A selection jury of six membership artists and usually a few trustees of the institution hosting the exhibit were chosen annually to limit the number of works being exhibited at one time.[7]

The public exhibition was the means by which society members felt they could best promote the arts in Milwaukee. The group sought to hold at least three exhibitions annually of no less than two weeks duration each and proposed that the exhibitions occur on a permanent basis.[8] Exhibition space was first provided by the Milwaukee Public Library where the first four shows were held between 1900 and 1903. The first exhibition was the largest in the society's thirteen years with twelve artists showing a total of sixty-one works.[9]

The landscape became a very important subject for paintings made by the Society of Milwaukee artists, and a look
at the earliest exhibition catalogues will testify to the importance of depicting local scenery and its changing appearance in daylight. This type of landscape was exemplified by Bernhard Schneider's paintings of the Milwaukee River and Cedarburg areas. The idea presented in much of Schneider's work is one that attempted to evoke a mood of tranquility in the viewer.

In 1903 the Public Library could no longer furnish exhibition space to the artists, and they were left without a permanent place to exhibit. Later exhibition locations during the following years were Bressler's Gallery, the University Club, the Old Exposition Building (before it burned in 1905), and the subsequent Auditorium Building, which was built in 1908.[10]

The artists continued to meet and to exhibit occasionally despite the discouragement they felt by their failure to gain permanent exhibition space. In 1906, a special meeting was called by members in an attempt to organize a society for the promotion of art and to organize exhibitions of local artwork. The inclusion of non-artists in the organization and a proposal to purchase art from local artists, which was to be placed in public buildings in the city, were additional aims discussed within the context of this proposed new society. Although this new group was never established, the idea it generated was acted upon in 1910 by the Milwaukee Journal newspaper company, which offered to buy paintings by Milwaukee artists to be hung in public buildings and schools. This offer represented a vital step toward corporate patronage in Milwaukee and one which escalated during the second decade of the 19th century.[11]



1. Archives of American Art. File #544 under Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors Organization. All original material taken from meeting notes was microfilmed by the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution.

2. Porter Butts, Art in Wisconsin, Madison Art Association, Madison, Wisconsin, 1936, p. 109.

3. Frances Stover, "The Panorama Painters' Days of Glory," The Panorama Painters and Their Work, Milwaukee County Historical Society, Milwaukee, January 28, 1969.

4. Butts, op. cit., pp. 126 and 131. Porter Butts sees the Milwaukee Art School evolving into the Wisconsin Art Institute in 1888 and ultimately into the Milwaukee Art Institute. This author understands the Wisconsin Art Institute to have evolved into the Milwaukee Art Students League and not into the Milwaukee Art Institute.

5. Milwaukee Art Student's League 1900-1943. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Library, Special Collections, 9/5/5.

6. Archives op.cit. Notes were taken on November 10, 1900 at the group's second meeting.

7. The Forum Exhibition in New York of 1916 set the pace for unjuried shows in America.

8. Ibid.

9. Society of Milwaukee Artists, 1900-1902, Milwaukee. Original exhibition catalogues for the first four exhibits.

10. Archives, op. cit.

11. Notes were taken on February 20, 1906. The offer by the Milwaukee Journal was noted in the minutes.

About the Author:

As of the date of the publication catalogue Gay Donahue was an art history graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee . Shortly after graduating from UWM, she became a corporate art curator for the Miller Brewing Company in Milwaukee. As of 1998 she was also an instructor at Waukesha County Technical College and resided in the Milwaukee metropolitan area.


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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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