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Segment from pages 23-26 of essay titled "A Place in History" by Janet Treacy. The essay is contained in the 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"

 

A Place in History

by Janet Treacy

 

A historical account of Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors (WP&S) begins with the story of confident and enthusiastic men and women who crafted a sound organization that has grown beyond a century and continues to thrive. To grasp the story is to recognize the remarkable energy within the cultural community in the late nineteenth century, when America was blossoming as an urban and industrial nation. This was a time when great numbers of well-educated German immigrants, seeking opportunity to freely develop their talents, settled in Wisconsin. Milwaukee became their cultural center, and it was from this environment that the early organization emerged. While amalgamating recollections and memoirs of the times is necessarily provisional, sifting through research material and recalling personal experiences makes it possible to build a plausible account. It is fortunate that meeting notes, catalogues and newsletters from the earliest days have been carefully preserved at the Milwaukee Public Library and are readily accessible to all. These records, as well as those housed at the Milwaukee Art Museum, are the greatest source of information on significant periods and events of this celebrated organization.

The originators of the Society of Milwaukee Artists were energetic and sincere persons who were swept up by the pulse of the turn-of-the-century era. Surely, from their humble circumstances and means, they could not have foreseen the impact that the Society would have on future generations of artists. Because they were committed to high standards, they made good fundamental decisions. They sought professional members and elected jurors from the membership. They drafted a constitution that defined their objectives: to promote the organization and Wisconsin Art, to hold group exhibitions, to encourage purchases by the state or municipalities, and to promote legislation that would benefit their organization and other arts groups.


EARLY ENVIRONMENT

Several factors contributed to the ultimate formation of this society, foremost being the arrival of panorama painters in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1885, William Wehner of Chicago brought a number of German-born painters to Milwaukee to join a few American-born painters to produce Civil War scenes for the American Panorama Company. These immense paintings were rolled on spools and then scrolled across a theater stage, with the shows often accompanied by music and commentary. On occasion, the audience was entertained by squeaking sounds and spasmodic movement of the canvas. After a few years, when the popularity of these attractions waned and the group dispersed, Frank Enders, Richard Lorenz, George Peter and Robert Schade remained in Milwaukee to offer art instruction from their studios. These men and their students were among the founding members of the Society of Milwaukee Artists, precursor to Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors. They understood that as a group they could accomplish what an individual could not.

Other significant painters in or from Milwaukee at the time were Henry Vianden (1814-1899), Robert Koehler (1850-1917) and Carl von Marr (1858-1936). These influential teachers, along with the panorama painters, created an atmosphere conducive to building cultural associations and art education programs. German-born artists among them valued their European education and Old World traditions and sought ways to reintroduce these cornerstones into their new surroundings. So it was that many attempts were made to find the right way to bring that about. Over time the city experienced the development of The Milwaukee Art Association in 1872 and the Milwaukee Museum of Fine Arts for the State of Wisconsin in 1882. In 1887, Frederick Layton, a successful meat packer with a keen interest in fine art, opened the Layton Art Gallery, which initially housed his personal collection of fine painting and sculpture. In 1894, The Milwaukee Art Students' League was established by young artists Edward Steichen and Gustave Moeller along with instructors Richard Lorenz and Robert Schade. The Wisconsin School of Art evolved as the League's teaching program from 1900 to 1910 under the guidance of Alexander Mueller. In 1911, the Milwaukee Normal School took control of the financially faltering school. By 1927, the two-year Normal School became the four-year State Teachers College from which, in 1957, became the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The Wisconsin Art Institute emerged as a school in 1889. In Louis Mayer's words, " It was here that George Raab, Alexander Mueller, George Niedecken, then a boy, and Miss Jessie Schley received their foundation in art studies." Lorenz had studied in Saxony, Mueller in Munich, Raab and Miss Schley in Paris. When this extraordinary group returned to Milwaukee in 1900, the time was right to form an enduring society for Milwaukee's professional artists. Influential leaders of art activity in Milwaukee met on October 22, 1900 at Louis Mayer's studio to lay the groundwork. The time had come to share their commitment to each other and to the community. The group included:

Frank Enders (1860-1921) was born in Milwaukee, studied with Henry Vianden at the Munich Academy. He was a panorama painter and prominent locally as a landscape painter.

Bruno Ertz (1873-1956) was born in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. He became interested in art at an early age and it became the focus of his life. A self-taught artist, birds and insects were his particular interest. He worked for the Milwaukee Public Museum, later moving to Illinois.

John Hieinizer (1844 - ?).

Fritz Kerl 1853-1920) was born in Germany, studied at the Berlin Academy and Dusseldorf, painted poetic landscapes, and was a music composer. He was music critic for the German daily newspaper in Milwaukee.

Richard Lorenz (1858-1915) who was born in Germany, was a panorama painter and producer of narrative paintings. He studied at the Weimar Art School and was Director of Wisconsin School of Design (Wisconsin Art Institute). He was a prominent art teacher in Milwaukee and held private art classes in his studio, where he taught, among others, Mayer and Mueller. He enjoyed visiting ranches in the West and painting scenes that were disappearing from the frontier. He was well known for painting horses.

Alexander Mueller (1872-1935) was born in Milwaukee to German parents, and studied in Weimar and Munich. He became director of the Milwaukee Art Students' League and remained involved until 1915 when it disbanded. He was chair of the art department of Milwaukee Normal School until 1923. He was an influential art teacher and advocate of traditional art instruction.

George Peter (1859-1950) was born in Vienna, Austria, studied there and in Munich with Vianden. He was a panorama painter with a specialty in painting animals. He pursued a long career with the Milwaukee Public Museum creating numerous backdrops for large dioramas.

George Raab (1866-1943) was born in Sheboygan, and was curator of Layton Art Gallery from 1902-1922. He studied at the Weimar Art School in Paris and with Milwaukee artists Lorenz, Schade and Vianden. His paintings included landscapes and portraits. He was a well-known art teacher in Milwaukee, having taught at the Wisconsin School of Art. and, after 1922, at the Normal School.

Robert Schade (1861-1912) was born in New York. He was a panorama painter who was locally prominent as a painter of portraits, still life, landscapes and allegorical subjects in the Germanic academic tradition. He studied with Vianden and Enders in Munich, and taught at the Milwaukee Art Students' League and at the Wisconsin School of Art.

Charles Sprinkman was born in Germany about 1844, and was a portrait artist.

Louis Mayer (1869-1969) was born in Milwaukee, and was a student of Lorenz. He studied in Paris and became the first president of the Society of Milwaukee Artists. He was painting and sculpting in Milwaukee from before 1900 - 1912 when he left for New York, where he devoted his life to sculpture.

Jessie Agnes Schley was born in 1852 in Wisconsin. She studied at the Wisconsin Art Institute and in Paris, returned to Milwaukee in 1900, and subsequently moved to Chicago.

 

ESTABLISHING OBJECTIVES

Carefully handwritten notes from early meetings cite the general objectives of the new organization and the steps to accomplish them. Notes from November 10, 1900 report, " The purpose is to promote interest of art in general, for the purpose of mutual aid and encouragement, to depend on the support of the public, in particular on those citizens who believe in the ennobling and educational influence of art." Clearly, the individuals drew strength and energy from each other as they sought to gain status for the group. Seeking suitable quarters for exhibitions, the group applied to the Milwaukee Public Library Board of Trustees for the use of a third floor room for at least three annual exhibits. The Library seemed intrinsically appropriate for the purpose and it was easily accessible to the public. To keep high standards for the exhibits, they elected a nine-person jury from a combination of members of the new society and library trustees. Decisions would be final. However, if any object were found to be offensive, a two/thirds majority vote of the Library Art Committee would eliminate the piece even if it had been voted in by the jury.

The organization became The Society of Milwaukee Artists. Original officers were Louis Mayer, president; Richard Lorenz, vice-president; Frank Enders, secretary; and Alexander Mueller, treasurer. The first exhibition was to be held in December 1900. Mueller proposed that all-deserving work be accepted whether done by a society member or not. That decision set a precedent that remained for many years. Enders, Harold Hall, Lorenz, Mayer, Raab and Schade were elected to the jury panel. Later, Franz Biberstein (1850-1930) was added. Inclusion of sculptors was voted on and accepted so it was that Paul Kupper (d. 1908) was invited to the next meeting. By the fifth meeting, on November 27, an eleven-paragraph constitution was completed.

In addition to the Milwaukee Public Library, which hosted the first four exhibits, shows before 1910 were hosted by the University Club, the old Industrial Building. For a time there was disagreement surrounding exhibits at the Milwaukee Art Institute for fear that the Institute would take control, but when other sites proved unsatisfactory, the exhibits continued to be held at the Art Institute.

By the mid teens, the community was energized by an increase in art schools in Milwaukee. Teachers were now American-trained. Artists were aware of new forms and techniques through travel, especially to New York and Chicago. Across the nation there was a quest for native themes, for example, the American working class, the American rural landscape and the burgeoning modern city. Tall buildings, automobiles, railroad yards, and machines replaced the formal European style portraits and landscape scenes. Students drew subject matter from the everyday urban world, from gathering places such as parks and beaches. Studying together and having the ability to exchange ideas about current trends was appealing. As the artists' community grew statewide, there was demand for the Society to hold periodic exhibitions outside of Milwaukee. It was within this context that in 1913 the Society adopted its new name, Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors (WP&S), an identity that was more inclusive of state artists. Two primary objectives were to provide group exhibitions statewide and to provide a larger venue for sales. George Niedecken (1878-1945) unassumingly avowed, "Artists need sales in order to go on working." Niedecken, an acclaimed interior designer who created custom furniture for many Frank Lloyd Wright homes, spoke as first president of the newly renamed group.

The first exhibit of Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors was held at the Milwaukee Art Society in March 1914. Included were notable younger artists: Gaetano Busalacchi, Susan K. Cressy, Frank Dudley, William Schuchardt, Francesco Spicuzza, Raymond Stelzner, Albert Tiemann, Dudley Crafts Watson, Mabel Key, Richard Lorenz, Gustave Moeller, George Raab, Jessie Schley, Adolph Shulz, Ada Walter Shulz, Emily Groom and F.W. Heine. Because shows were now open to all state artists, and to illustrate the point, Charlotte Partridge compiled a list of participants' hometowns, Antigo, Lake Geneva, Rhinelander, Racine, Oshkosh, Madison, LaCrosse, Green Bay, Merrill and distant cities of Chicago, California, New York City and France, indicating the widespread appeal of WP&S exhibits and the obvious growth in membership. In the spirit of cooperation with other art organizations as outlined in the constitution, WP&S held shows jointly with the Wisconsin Society of Applied Arts (1916-1936), which later became Wisconsin-Designer Craftsmen. Because of longstanding debates whether craft was a fine art or not, there were disagreements. But the issues were resolved and the relationship continued into the 1940s.

Members often held leadership positions in the community. In 1920, Layton School of Art opened with Charlotte Partridge (1883-1975) as director. When she resigned in 1953, she had served as curator/gallery director of the Layton Art Gallery for twenty-five years. Emily Groom (1876-1975) inspired many future members during her thirty-five year tenure at Milwaukee-Downer College Art Department. Elsa Ulbricht (1885-1980) was instrumental in the formation of the Art Department of Milwaukee State Teachers College. Prominent teachers Fred Logan, Gustave Moeller, Francesco Spicuzza, Howard Thomas, and Robert von Neumann educated yet another generation of distinguished artists such as Ruth Grotenrath, Carl Holty, Schomer Lichtner, Gerrit Sinclair, Robert Schellin and Santos Zingale, all active members of WP&S through the thirties and forties and beyond.

WP&S exhibits have not been without controversy. In 1906 a Salon Refuse was held by rejected artists unhappy with their fate. At one time the public became enraged at viewing avant-garde works of Van Gogh and as well was disturbed by African sculpture. The eighth annual exhibition, in April, 1921, created quite a stir, attracting over three hundred attendees including such distinguished names from Milwaukee society as Eschweiler, Callen, Gallun, Pfister, Hoan, Pabst, Kronshage, Holty, Quarles and Vogel. This event was referred to as the secession exhibit and a statement in the program addressed the controversy directly. "Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors believe it is essential to the life of the organization and integrity of their profession, to demand opportunity for free thought and action that will enable them to determine what standards and professional ethics for art and art workers shall be in Wisconsin and will not be governed by rules laid down by a group of laymen." Members of the community had requested removal of an offensive artwork from the exhibit. WP&S members stood firmly in defense of their freedom of expression. The organization worked just as the originators intended and the artists had a platform from which to demonstrate solidarity.

An oft-repeated situation arose at the eleventh annual exhibit, where the records state that artists were placing a higher dollar value on their works than was considered appropriate for a buying public. President Paul Hammersmith asked for drastic changes to be made noting that "unless the price seems reasonable, the work will not be offered for sale and will be marked as such." In the thirties, Robert Schellin painted a large mural, not unlike the social commentary of Mexican muralists that included two nude figures. The community became so embroiled in the controversy, that screens were positioned to hide the figures. Schellin was amused by the furor, feeling that the issue was not the nudes, but that critics saw the art in sexual terms. Nudity has often been a matter of public concern. Even in rather recent times, it has been deemed inappropriate for women to participate in life-drawing classes having nude models. In defense of Schellin, Santos Zingale explained, "Artists were independent, progressive thinkers, agreeing with the basic ideas of the John Reed Club (for example) to work for peace, social justice and equality." It was not indicative of radical politics, but simply a demonstration of sympathy towards justice, a stance that is often taken by artists.

Annual exhibitions were a major vehicle for artists to have their work seen by their peers and to be reviewed by prestigious jurors. During these early years, Regionalist artist Grant Wood (1892-1942) juried the twenty-second annual exhibition, while John Steuart Curry (1897-1946) juried the twenty-fourth in 1937. Curry subsequently found his way to Wisconsin where he became the first artist-in-residence at the College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin-Madison. His successor, Aaron Bohrod (1907-1992) also served as a juror in 1938. This particular exhibit was a high point for WP&S drawing nearly a thousand entries. Meeting minutes of the thirties explain a jurying method that used beans to cast votes. Three black beans indicated rejection, three white beans meant acceptance, three red beans or two white and a red cast a doubtful vote, to be rejudged at another time.

About the author:

Janet Treacy graduated from Marquette University and Mount Mary College in Milwaukee. From 1980 - 1996, she was a member of the Milwaukee Art Museum's curatorial staff. In that capacity, she was responsible for numerous regional art exhibitions, publications, lectures and programs. Today, she is an independent curator and writer, and serves in an advisory capacity to several arts-related organizations in Wisconsin. She resides in the metropolitan Milwaukee area.

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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