Editor's note: The following text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 9, 2009 with permission of the author and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through either this phone number or web address:


"Minnesota Painters"


Noble Dreams & Simple Pleasures: American Masterworks from Minnesota Collections

by Sue Canterbury


Art in Minnesota during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century concentrated mostly on factual documentation. Artists such as George Catlin, Seth Eastman, and Frank Mayer raced to create visual records of the region's unspoiled landscape and its native people before all was lost to the merciless march of time. By the 1870s, however, the burgeoning lumber and milling industries fueled a rise in affluence that sparked new hopes and visions for the region, emphasizing quality of life and cultural viability. A new quest for aesthetic beauty promoted the pursuit of art for the good of heart, mind, soul, and society.[1]

Before the turn of the century, Minnesota's art culture was centered in Minneapolis and was a very modest pursuit, initially championed by the ladies of local society. The city's first art exhibition, comprising works from Minnesota collections, opened in September 1878, and within four years, articles of incorporation were drafted for the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts. Officially founded in January 1883, the society made clear from the outset an intention to advance the love of art through exhibitions and lectures. Most important, though, for the growth of an art culture, was the goal of establishing permanent facilities for the exhibition and study of art. The future role of art in Minneapolis was secured at the opening of the Minneapolis School of Art (today's Minneapolis College of Art and Design) in April 1886, under the direction of Stephen A. Douglas Volk.[2] However, it was Robert Koehler, the school's second director, arriving in 1893, who built a solid foundation in the city for both the practice and appreciation of fine art.[3]

Paralleling activities in Minneapolis were the efforts of various cities around the state, as they set up their own arts organizations. The St. Paul School of Fine Arts was established in 1894, evolving into the St. Paul Institute of Arts and Sciences after the turn of the century.[4] Although short-lived, New Ulm's art school opened in 1892. To the north, Duluth founded its own Art Institute in 1907.[5]

Integral to promoting artistic output in Minnesota were opportunities for exhibition -- a means by which artists could gain exposure to the broader public while also gauging their progress among peers. Several artist organizations, such as the Minneapolis Art League (founded and led by Koehler), and the Chalk and Chisel Club (which later became the Arts & Crafts Society), provided exhibition opportunities. By the 1880s, some commercial venues also opened to area artists, including the Stevens and Robertson galleries in St. Paul and, in Minneapolis, the Beard Gallery and John S. Bradstreet's Crafthouse.[6] The Minnesota State Fair and, from 1886 through 1893, the Minneapolis Industrial Exposition served as large-scale exhibition platforms. The latter also exposed local artists and the public to works by a range of artists, from the old masters to contemporary Europeans and Americans. After the turn of the century, annual exhibitions by the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts and the State Art Commission continued to serve the needs of the growing arts communities around the state.[7]

In spite of these local opportunities for education and exhibition, it was a professional rite of passage for Minnesota's aspiring artists (and their peers across America) to seek increased levels of training in other major cities. Some studied at the Art Institute of Chicago or the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. However, the majority studied in New York at the Art Students League or the National Academy of Design. For those fortunate enough to have the means (or a sponsor), study in one of the academies of Europe was the ultimate goal. Although many of the artists returned to Minnesota to practice their profession, some failed to find necessary commercial support and departed to pursue professional fulfillment elsewhere.[8] It remained a sad truth that Minnesota did not always render to its own artists the same respect and support they gave to artists situated on the East Coast or in Europe.[9] However, those artists who chose to establish themselves in Minnesota became the mentors who shaped the artists of a new generation and continued to build upon the legacy of their artistic forebears.

When viewed through the lens of state history, arts education, exhibitions, and commerce gained the support of a growing frontier community with extraordinary speed. Such an achievement was made possible only through the unflagging efforts of visionaries, and the support of citizens who saw the viability of their communities closely linked to the aesthetic enrichment of their environment. It is to these prescient individuals that the Minnesotans of today, who benefit from the art museums, art schools, commercial galleries, and an extensive artist community, owe a great debt of gratitude.



1. Michael Conforti, "Introduction: Art and Life on the Upper Mississippi 1890-1915," in Minnesota 1900: Art and Life on the Upper Mississippi 1890-1915. Newark: University of Delaware Press (1994), p. 16.

2. Roy A. Boe, The Development of Art Consciousness in Minneapolis and the Problems of the Indigenous Artist. Master thesis. University of Minnesota (1947), pp. 6-16. Unless noted otherwise, all information in this essay relies on Boe's scholarship.

3. Koehler was indefatigable in his support of the arts in Minneapolis. During his 24 years in the city, he served as director of the School of Art, founded and led the Art League, served as president of the Minnesota State Arts Commission (beginning in 1903), and edited the Bulletin for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The Society's annual exhibitions were also under his direction and he used that forum to expose the public and artists alike to the best of contemporary artistic practice.

4. Prior to establishment of St. Paul School of Art, Douglas Volk had been teaching art classes in the city, a practice he took over from Charles Noel Flagg (1848-1916), who returned to New York in 1887.

5. Thomas O'Sullivan, "Robert Koehler and Painting in Minnesota, 1890-1915," in Conforti, ed., Art and Life on the Upper Mississippi: 1890-1915. Ex. cat., pp. 93-121, 97. In addition, the author notes the establishment of art interest groups that met on a regular basis in the cities of Faribault, Red Wing, Winona, and Moorhead.

6. O'Sullivan, p. 98.

7. O'Sullivan, p. 99. State law required the exhibitions of the State Art Commission/Society to be held in a different city every year in an effort to decentralize artistic opportunities.

8. See Rena Coen, Minnesota Impressionists. Afton, Minnesota: Afton Historical Society Press (c. 1996), who notes the departure of several artists for greener pastures. David Ericson of Duluth spent most of his career between Europe and Provincetown (pp. 38-40). Alexis Fournier relocated to East Aurora, New York, to teach and work with the Roycroft Community, later living in Brown County, Indiana. He maintained a home in Minneapolis for many years and continued to visit and exhibit here for most of his career (pp. 42-44). After returning to the state for a couple of years, Alexander Grinager relocated to the New York area in 1896, where he remained for the rest of his life (pp. 51-53). Even artists who had come from elsewhere to foster the arts in Minnesota suffered from lack of commercial support. See Boe (p. 17), who notes that Douglas Volk's departure was connected to the lack of local portrait commissions needed to supplement his salary as director of the school in Minneapolis. Returning to New York in 1893, he quickly secured both professional recognition and financial success. See O'Sullivan (p. 107), who writes that Robert Koehler, in the view of many, sacrificed his professional career by remaining in Minneapolis to do "missionary work for art."

9. O'Sullivan (p. 107) notes that Minnesota artists were not accorded the same respect given to their peers situated on the East Coast and in Europe. He cites in particular how East Coast artists were awarded the decorative commissions for the new State Capitol.

About the author

Sue Canterbury is associate curator of paintings and modern sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Previously, she was assistant curator at the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She received her B.A. in art history from Wellesley College and her M.A. from the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art. She was curator of the traveling exhibition, Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris, and author to the accompanying exhibition catalogue of the same title. She has been a contributing author to several catalogues, including, Villa America: American Moderns 1900-1950.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 9, 2009, with permission of the author and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which was granted to TFAO on March 9, 2009.

The above essay excerpt by Sue Canterbury is found within pages 42-44 of the catalogue titled Noble Dreams & Simple Pleasures: American Masterworks from Minnesota Collections. The 56-page illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition of the same name, being held at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts February 22 - May 3, 2009. To obtain a copy of the catalogue please see http://www.artsMIA.org/

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Tammy Pleshek of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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