Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on Jnauary 29, 2007 with the permission of the Museum of Wisconsin Art. This text accompanies the exhibition Midwestern Virtues: A Robert von Neumann Retrospective, being held at the museum January 10 through March 25, 2007. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Museum of Wisconsin Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Robert von Neumann 1888 - 1976
by Janet Treacy
This retrospective celebrates the life and work of one of the leading artists and teachers of twentieth century Wisconsin. Like so many of his peers and predecessors, Robert von Neumann came to Milwaukee from Germany bringing both artistic talent and exceptional technical ability. He was a prolific painter and printmaker and became one of the most influential teachers to a host of key Wisconsin artists. During his long and productive career, he made paintings, drawings, prints and watercolors. He was passionate about creating his artwork and as well as passing on traditions of art to his students.
Robert Franz von Neumann was born September 10, 1888, in Rostock, Germany, a port on the Baltic Sea. Little is known of his life before he began his art education at the United State Schools for Applied Arts in Berlin where he studied with acclaimed artists Bruno Paul and Emil Orlik. He developed skills that certified him as a noted freelance designer and illustrator. During World War I he served for four years in the German infantry but was discharged in 1919 with serious wounds that necessitated an artificial foot. After the war he returned to Berlin and Weimar for more studies.
In 1926, with his first wife, Katherina and young son, Robert Jr., von Neumann immigrated to the United States and settled in Milwaukee. He immediately found work as a staff artist at the Milwaukee Journal Company and for Perry-Gugler Engraving Corporation. He taught at the Layton School of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, but the major portion of his teaching life, from 1930 until his retirement in 1959, he held his position at Milwaukee State Teacher's College, now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In addition, he was on the faculty at Ox-Bow Summer School of Painting in Saugatuck, Michigan. His active career stretched into the 1970s, as he continued to sell his work and to keep in contact with fellow artists and the artistic community.
During the 1930s, Regionalism grew as an artistic movement in America. It was a time that artists focused on their day-to-day American life experience. Artwork took on regional characteristics, documenting the look and feel of the time. Von Neumann observed and understood all of this; he did not subscribe to the newer "Modernism." He witnessed the population shifting from the farm to urban settings. Works often took on a limited palette and somewhat somber tone. Strong visual compositions featured line, color and pattern and works of this period remain as an important record of the 1930s and 1940s. Changing economic conditions brought financial hardships to artists in the years between the Depression and World War II. Fortunately, many of Wisconsin's dedicated artists of that era found excellent teaching positions, including Gustave Moeller, Emily Groom, Elsa Ulbricht, Santos Zingale and Joseph Friebert as well as Robert von Neumann. These artists fostered a nurturing atmosphere by taking pride in their community and by traveling together, often on Sundays, to sketch local scenes.
Von Neumann's long career as an educator is very impressive. He came to the art faculty at Milwaukee State Teacher's College, after the death of the highly respected, Gustave Moeller. He taught countless art students and became their much loved professor. At all times he was kind, modest and generous and truly a gentleman. Robert Schellin, a close friend and fellow professor on the art faculty, knew von Neumann first as his student and later as a teacher. Speaking in December, 1961, at a retrospective at the Milwaukee Art Center (now Milwaukee Art Museum) Schellin told the audience: "I will address von Neumann's teaching career only, because his works speak adequately for themselves. " He reminisced about the day when the esteemed teacher told the class in his hesitant English "of the joys of being an artist, of being aware of the finer things in life, of being sensitive to surroundings, of being an interpreter of these things for others to see".
Von Neumann's strength as a teacher came with his ability to become a colleague and guide to his students. He encouraged students to follow their own direction and not copy their instructor. Observing his students' originality gave him much satisfaction and is, no doubt, why he was so admired.
During the 1940s and 1950s, even with his demanding teaching schedule, he continued to produce high quality work for competitions and exhibitions. In addition to the familiar fishermen subject matter, works included; portraits, Wisconsin landscapes and scenes from travel. Von Neumann was an excellent painter whose oils and watercolors retain clear, bright color in well-balanced compositions. Energetic brush strokes convey a sense of vigor, and realistically depict moving water. He was known as a gifted lithographer and engraver. It is difficult to determine just when most of his works were produced, since they were not dated and because his style remained so remarkably consistent throughout the years.
A long tradition of artist colonies developed for summertime studies. A popular destination of von Neumann and other well-known Wisconsin artists was Ox-Bow School of Painting in Saugatuck, Michigan. Under the auspices of the Art Institute of Chicago, it attracted artists from all parts of the country to sketch along the Michigan shore of Lake Michigan. Milwaukee's own Elsa Ulbricht served as director there for thirteen years. The environment was perfectly suited for working outdoors and especially for von Neumann and his interest in boats, water and dunes. As a member of the faculty, he taught landscape painting.
To be sure, Wisconsin's natural beauty also held tremendous appeal for German-born artists; there were fertile farm fields, scenic rivers and the wondrous beauty of Lake Michigan. It is interesting to note the similarities between von Neumann's birth place, so close to the Baltic Sea and the city in which he settled. It might be said that some of the Baltic experiences found their way into later works. Large bodies of water were certainly important for this artist. It is not surprising then, that Jones Island became a recurrent destination for sketching. The area, a marshy island between the Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic Rivers, was settled by German and Kashubian immigrants, who made their living by fishing Lake Michigan. But since there was never any deed for that land, the city of Milwaukee evicted "squatters" in the l940s and the area became industrialized. Von Neumann was attracted not only to the waters of Lake Michigan but also remote spots along its shorelines. He once took his student Santos Zingale for a sketching trip to Jones Island, where Zingale expected to observe activity from land, only to find out the plan was to sail right along with the fishermen onto the rough waters. Within minutes, he became seasick. This student, however fond he was of his teacher, did not appreciate the seafaring experience at all. Certainly, he was not the only student that ever accompanied von Neumann on these outdoor adventures.
Sketching outdoors was a common practice of the time. For this, von Neumann preferred using watercolors for quickly recording a scene. He took his drawings back to his studio, reformulating them from memory-no doubt, even to the days of his youth, remembering similar activity on the Baltic Sea. His scenes became ambitious, depicting several large muscular figures fully occupied with vigorous tasks. The characters are vivid and seem alive. Models are all real hard working people and include both males and females. He favored outdoor life and labor, such as; harvesting apples and tobacco, feeding cows, threshing hay, working horses and life on or near water. A hallmark of his work is its expressiveness, evoking drama between physical labor and human form. This is what makes his work so impressive. These strong images, in exquisite detail, speak to issues that he was exploring and what he wishes to say. Once he said that "a thing like a potato harvest, seemingly a trivial thing, can, in a painting, be of value".
Throughout his active life he participated in professional artist associations. He was an early member of Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors, serving as President from 1931 to1932. He was instrumental in founding the Wisconsin Watercolor Society in 1952. In 1935, Milwaukee Printmakers was founded with Robert von Neumann serving as an officer. He participated in countless WP&S exhibitions and he was a frequent prizewinner. He often exhibited at the Milwaukee Journal Gallery of Wisconsin Art, the Layton Art Gallery and the Milwaukee Art Center. His work was seen regularly the Dorothy Bradley Gallery in Milwaukee. His work was collected and known internationally.
Robert von Neumann received many honors during his lifetime. In 1972, von Neumann was awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Also in 1972, the Milwaukee Art Center (now Milwaukee Art Museum) held a retrospective exhibit in honor of his 85th birthday. Two important shows mounted at UWM in his honor were: a special Memorial exhibition in 1986 followed in1989 by Robert von Neumann: Works on Paper, 1930-1970.
In addition his works are in the collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris; The Chicago Art Institute; the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.; the Lipperheide Museum, Berlin; the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Milwaukee Art Museum; West Bend Museum of Art and the Miller Art Center in Sturgeon Bay, among others.
There is always a question about the nature of creativeness and physical fragility. No doubt von Neumann's final months in the nursing home saw him weakening. Regardless, he continued to paint while confined there and the last work he completed is included in this exhibition. In 1976, at the age of 87, he died of pneumonia at Cedar Lake Community near West Bend, where he spent the last year of his life. At the time he was survived by his second wife, Hildegarde, whom he married in 1953. She, too, came from Rostock and was a devoted wife. Still surviving is his daughter Angela von Neumann Ulbricht, born in 1928, and an artist in her own right. She and her husband, John, live in Galilea, Mallorca. His son, Robert, born in 1923, is deceased.
About the author
Janet Treacy is Exhibition Curator for Midwestern Virtues: A Robert von Neumann Retrospective. She holds degrees 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.
About the exhibition Midwestern Virtues: A Robert von Neumann Retrospective
Settling in Wisconsin in the 1920s from his native Germany, Robert von Neumann adopted the regionalist style of the 1930s and was one of the last of the German-American artists to mold and shape Wisconsin art. While scenic Wisconsin themes were common in his work, his best known work features common laborers and fishermen portrayed as heroic figures. Von Neumann worked in all two-dimensional media and excelled in printmaking. This retrospective exhibition, being held January 10 through March 25, 2007 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, is the first of its kind in thirty years.
Gallery wall panels from the exhibition
About the Museum of Wisconsin Art
Since 1991, the museum has become widely known throughout the country as the home of the most comprehensive collection of Early Wisconsin Art and the Wisconsin Art Archive -- the primary source for information on early Wisconsin art. The goal is to become one of many regional art museums in the country with a collection chronologically representative of all Wisconsin's visual art media.
The Museum's vision follows an historic pattern of focusing on Wisconsin art that has been in place since it was founded in 1961 with a core collection of paintings by Carl von Marr, one of Wisconsin's most noted late 19th century artists. (Marr was related to the museum's founding Melitta S. Pick family). In 1988 the museum's collection management policy was established, resulting in the assembly of a significant vintage collection of regional art from Wisconsin's golden age of cultural development. That collection was first unveiled a decade later as part of the state's sesquicentennial program in 1998. Since then the reputation of the museum's collections and archives has gained such momentum that today it is the leading source of art and information on this topic.
As of 2007 the museum's collection is relatively small, but tightly focused, with just under 2,000 works of art, representing nearly 300 Wisconsin artists from the timeframe of Euro-American settlement in Wisconsin to around 1950; the archives represent nearly 6,000 artists during the same timeframe. However, art was created in Wisconsin hundreds of years before white settlement and to not acknowledge that or any of the art that was created in contemporary times creates a limited and narrow understanding of Wisconsin art.
The Museum of Wisconsin Art is located at 300 South 6th Avenue, West Bend, WI 53095. The Museum was formerly named the West Bend Art Museum. Please see the Museum's website for hours and admission fees.
Resource Library editor's note:
Janet Treacy's essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on January 29, 2007 with the permission of the Museum of Wisconsin Art. This text accompanies the exhibition Midwestern Virtues: A Robert von Neumann Retrospective, being held at the museum January 10 through March 25, 2007.
If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or other texts please contact the Museum of Wisconsin Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Nancy Shield, Associate Director of Operations, Museum of Wisconsin Art, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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