Early twentieth-century Grand Rapids delighted in Mathias Alten’s art. Impressed with his prodigious output, reviewers, collectors, and casual observers drew inspiration from canvases that brought painterly views of recognizable vistas, as well as the world outside of West Michigan, to the inhabitants of the Furniture City.
Commentators remarked repeatedly on his contributions to the local art scene, his latest paintings and faraway travels, and the awards and honors bestowed upon his work. The artist eschewed the draw of relocating to the center of the early twentieth-century American art world — New York — and instead chose to make his professional home in the same city that welcomed his German family during the late nineteenth century. Grand Rapids’ galleries, art museum, and other public spaces widely exhibited his work; critics here consistently praised the artist, whose close tie to local patrons was rewarded with commissions and decorative projects. Alten returned the admiration and he spoke of his adopted city in glowing and telling terms:
There are many reasons why I like Grand Rapids. Many people say ‘Why don’t you go to New York to live?’ I prefer to stay here … I feel that I am enabled to be a better artist by staying here and working out my own ideas than if I were to pass my time in a luxurious studio in New York with my fellow artists influencing my work. Yes, I know it’s difficult to be here, almost all alone, with no one to particularly encourage me artistically. But I know what I want to do. I paint as I like ….1
Despite his pronouncement that he painted “almost all alone,” Alten traveled a remarkable amount in the early decades of the twentieth century and made excellent professional use of such opportunities. He ventured from West Michigan to pursue artistic training, look at art, and engage with fellow artists.
Paris. That was the one place in the world I had to go. And go there I did.
From his travels, as well as his dogged pursuit of local subjects, over the course of his career, Alten produced a prodigious number of portraits, landscapes, images of workers, and various other genres. This impressive array of works drew the attention of an astute writer in 1923, who acknowledged the commercial pressures on artists and noted that once an artist discovered a winning formula, he eventually “… becomes known as a painter of such and such a type,” with landscape painters never venturing into portraiture or vice-versa. However, “The work of Mathias J. Alten is characterized, not by any particular type, but by the great variety of subject matter which he renders successfully.”2 An examination of his work by type allows for a broad understanding of his wide-ranging versatility, his grasp of his audience, and his artistic priorities.
Although Alten embraced Grand Rapids as his home (and his primary art market), his stylistic evolution and choice of subjects reflect a much broader sphere of influence. Throughout his long career, he traveled widely, often accompanied by his family or by other artists. His cosmopolitan character warranted comment on the occasion of his first solo exhibition in New York, when a reviewer from The New York Times noted that “Mr. Alten has traveled extensively and records of many places appear in his paintings: glimpses of Taos, N.M., of the country around The Hague, of Étaples in France, and of colorful Algiers and Spain.” 3
After an early artistic life that saw the young artist creating portraits in his hometown of Marpingen, Germany, and subsequently decorating furniture for the Phoenix Furniture Company in Grand Rapids, Alten began his formal artistic education in Paris, where he lived for almost a year in 1899. By doing so, he followed scores of earlier American artists such as Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and Childe Hassam. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, newly wealthy American patrons sought to amass collections of European fine and decorative art, which created a market for works that were inspired by the latest trends in modern painting, including Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. This demand encouraged artists to travel to the Continent to learn the new styles, associate with other artists, and seek instruction. These Americans crowded into Parisian art schools and private instructional studios.4
Alten focused singularly on facilitating his travel to France, as he later recalled: “Through prizes and sales I was able to pay my way through my art course here and lay considerable funds aside for the one thing I wanted to do more than any other. Paris. That was the one place in the world I had to go. And go there I did.” 5 (Fig. 1) He studied academic painting at the privately run Académie Julian, whose instructors included the painter Jean-Paul Laurens. Alten later enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, where he won a gold medal in figural drawing. Like many artists in Paris, he attended afternoon sketch classes at a private academy run by American expatriate artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Alten also explored Italy during that summer, painting and visiting museums in Rome, Florence, Siena, and other cities. Back in France, he painted landscapes and peasants, especially along the northern coast at Étaples. Following a tour of the Netherlands and Belgium, he returned home to Michigan, where he opened a studio and art school along with fellow artist Constant Fliermans. He painted and taught in Grand Rapids, with exceptions for travel, for the next three-and-one-half decades.
Mathias Alten came of artistic age at a propitious moment in American history. By the time that his family emigrated to the United States in 1889, the country had been plunged into an extraordinary period of modernization, which saw the expansion of industry, dramatic increases in wealth, radical shifts in the ability to travel (particularly by rail) and to exchange information, as well as unparalleled involvement in international political, economic, scientific, commercial, and social affairs.6
Over the course of his lifetime, Alten experienced the development and increased use of all sorts of modern conveniences such as the automobile, airplanes, streetcars and interurban transit; telephones, movies, and the electric light bulb; and an exponential increase in modern mass media. Between 1880 and 1900, American cities grew at an unprecedented rate, with a population increase of 15 million during the period, owing largely to the expansion of industry, which attracted a steady stream of migrants from rural areas. Such change engendered dynamic and diverse urban centers, as well as pollution, noise, and crime. Henry Ford established his Rouge plant in nearby Dearborn, Michigan, in 1917, which adhered to his “ore to assembly” credo, represented by his push to operate an entirely self-sufficient factory and to refine his highly influential methods of mass production. The Model A was the first automobile produced at the Rouge plant, preceded in 1917 by the world’s first mass-produced and affordable tractor. While Alten’s America experienced the exultations and anxieties of rapid modernization, much of his work betrayed little of the radical change around him, either stylistically or in terms of subject.
Alten did, however, paint modern life in the form of portraits. Writer and painter Jonathan Richardson mused in the early eighteenth century:
… upon the sight of a portrait, the character, and the master-strokes of the history of the person it represents are apt to flow in upon the mind, and to be the subject of conversation: so that to sit for one’s picture, is to have an abstract of one’s life written, and published, and ourselves thus consigned over to honor, or infamy.7
Mathias Alten gained renown throughout Michigan as a portraitist and understood well the importance of a well-wrought likeness. His clients included local businessmen and their wives, clergy, judges, military leaders, and family members.8 He believed in painting from life without a great number of sittings or strict plans: “My work is practically spontaneous,” Alten told W.H. Harvest, “… one session is generally enough. If not, I generally begin all over again at the second session.” He continued, “Painting direct and in no sense from memory or from a camera portrait brings real freshness into the work and in all cases achieves better results.” 9
The immediacy of such an approach can be seen in his portraits of two women, created in very different times. In 1909, Alten traveled to Portland, Oregon, to paint portraits of former Michigan lumberman John H. Haak and Lucinda Haak, his wife. (Fig. 2). Lucinda’s image, one of two paintings conceived as a pair (known as a pendant portrait), adheres to traditional approaches to portraiture. Pendant paintings are typically intended for a particular domestic setting — to hang on either side of a window or fireplace, for example — and relate to each other compositionally or thematically. Lucinda sits in front of an Art Nouveau screen, her gaze fixed outside of the composition. She wears a stylish dinner dress accented by a long fringe feature that defined the raised-waist silhouette. The pinkish-red color of this dress enjoyed extraordinary popularity during the first decade of the twentieth century. Lucinda’s hair, piled loosely on top of her head in the trendy pompadour style, was appropriate for a woman during this time (only young girls to the 44 age of 17 wore their hair down, and then generally in long braids). The sitter appears regal, suitably mature, and distinguished.
By contrast, Alten’s portrait of his second daughter (Fig. 3) portrays a modern and confident young woman in the midst of the Roaring Twenties. Camelia Alten Demmon sat for her portrait not long after she married Ralph Waldo Demmon, an architect whose image graces the pendant painting of this work (Fig. 4). In their respective images, Camelia and Ralph turn toward one another to suggest conversation and to imply affinity. They complement one another in color as well, with Camelia wearing colorful, patterned clothing and set against a darker background and Ralph embodying a lighter palette. Their individual poses align along traditional gender stereotypes — Camelia more closed and compact, with her hands crossed demurely in front of her body, and Ralph occupying more space with one hand firmly planted on his hip and the other outstretched to hold a walking stick. In this way, these portraits adhere closely to conventional portraiture format.
Camelia, however, appears anything but traditional in this image. Just prior to the time that she sat for this portrait, she was attending Michigan State Normal College (which became Eastern Michigan College in 1956, and then Eastern Michigan University in 1959), from which she graduated in 1925. College attendance for all populations increased dramatically in the decades following World War I. While it was not unusual to see women enrolled in American colleges and universities in the early years of the twentieth century, by the 1920s when Camelia attended school in Ypsilanti, the number of women who attained college degrees had risen dramatically.10
Alten shows his daughter’s cool independence through her upright stance, her strong eye contact with the viewer, and her up-to-date clothing. She has bobbed her hair in the flapper style and wears an ornate floral headband across her upper forehead. Her tubular dress is the height of fashion: cap sleeves daringly expose the entire length of her arm and the straight chemise style de-emphasizes any curves in the chest, waist, or hips. Considered rather shocking when first introduced, for its raised hems and lowered waistlines, by the mid-1920s, this flapper-style dress signified the wearer as a fashionable, modern, and youthful woman. Alten highlights his daughter’s beauty with several references to flowers: the headband, the print of the dress (which he punctuates with occasional impasto flourishes), and the decorative fabric flowers that grace her hip.
While Mathias Alten’s oeuvre spans an impressive range of genres, perhaps the subject for which he is best known is landscape, which encompasses rural landscapes, seascapes, and lake vistas. He developed a repertoire of landscape motifs that were deeply rooted in Grand Rapids and its surrounding countryside, and capitalized on his travels to paint the scenery of varied locales. Landscape painting had emerged as a subject in its own right (as opposed to mere background for biblical or mythological events), around the 1830s, when French artists who settled near the Forest of Fontainebleau ventured out of their studios to paint their natural surroundings in an unidealized manner. These Barbizon painters inspired later generations, such as the Impressionists, for whom plein-air painting — that is, working out of doors — became their preferred way to paint. Nineteenth‑century developments in painting technology, notably the metallic tube with pre-mixed pigment as well as light, portable easels, facilitated artists’ excursions away from the studio. This approach necessitated the use of smaller canvases and canvas boards that were easily portable and storable. Alten worked this way too, keenly observing the vicissitudes of nature and in particular the changing THIS PAGE Fig. 5 Mathias J. Alten, Painting Reclining Figure at Laguna Beach, California 1929, Photograph Special Collections, Grand Valley State University Libraries Mathias J. Alten papers RHC-28 OPPOSITE PAGE Fig. 6 A Bayou at North Park 1898, Oil on Board, 10 x 14 in. Gift of George H. and Barbara Gordon 1998.606.1 seasons and weather. (Fig. 5)
The earliest Alten landscapes adopted a Tonalist palette with earthy brown, yellow, sienna, and gray tones predominating. A Bayou at North Park, an 1898 scene from just outside of Grand Rapids, portrays a realistic landscape (Fig. 6). In this small oil on board, dating from before his study in Paris, Alten pays close attention to naturalistic details and differentiates among the varied foliage qualities by using a combination of brushes to apply his paint: his wide, flat brush creates the stiff spiky grasses in the foreground; a long, thin brush articulates each stalk of the reeds surrounding the water; and a variety of short, directed strokes depict the leaves, meadows, and sky in the background. Despite the lack of a true focal point in this painting, Alten treats certain elements (foreground grasses and reeds) with a greater degree of specificity, thus creating a hierarchy among the landscape components.
In France just one year later, a series of small studies suggests that such hierarchical treatment has been abandoned. (Fig. 7) Granted, this small board includes unfinished sketches for four images, but the leveling of foreground and background in each signals that Alten had seen Impressionist paintings that function similarly. Notice, for example, the harvest landscape in the upper right corner in which the haystacks that dominate the foreground share the same degree of detailing as the trees in the background. The color scheme in each small vignette has shifted significantly, with the addition of white, pale blue, and green. With this and other works completed during his studies and travels in Europe, Alten moved away from his early, self-taught, and more academically oriented work toward a brighter palette and a lighter touch.
Upon his return to the United States, Alten continued in this new vein and supplemented his French training with a stay at the Old Lyme artist colony in Connecticut, to which he would subsequently return. Within the first few years after his return from Europe, Alten maintained a heavy exhibition schedule, with works shown in prestigious museum venues in Detroit, Chicago, Toledo, New York, and Philadelphia. While in Portland, Oregon, painting the Haaks’ portraits, the artist captured a picturesque view of Mount Hood and some of the surrounding woodlands, which had recently been designated the Oregon National Forest and maintained by the newly established U.S. Forest Service. (Fig. 8) Anchored in the right foreground by tall pines, some of which are cropped at the top in the manner of the Impressionists, the scene unfolds into the far distance, punctuated at the center axis by the snowcovered peak of Mount Hood. No longer content to paint each shrub and every blade of grass as he had in A Bayou at North Park, here the artist uses an abbreviated brush stroke to suggest stands of trees along the valley floor and short, unblended dabs of white and red to suggest a small group of flowers in the foreground. The palette — mixed with copious amounts of white and blue — practically glows in the early summer sun.
Abbreviations, quick strokes and squiggles of paint, and nonarticulated detail characterized his painting from this point forward. Alten made a conscious effort to relegate the specificity of his earlier work to the past, as he explained in an interview with the Grand Rapids Herald from 1911: “Artists of the old school were slow, deliberate, painfully so,” he noted, describing an approach to painting that could encompass his own “old school” works. “But the painters of the new school work rapidly, and their productions are of course more numerous. We feel it is of no use to dawdle over a canvas …. The motive must be right, the mood right, and when it is, the quick, sure stroke accomplishes as much as the slower one.” 11
The pronounced transition in Alten’s work seen during the first decade of the twentieth century reflected his increased understanding of the painting styles of the late nineteenth century to which American audiences had only recently been exposed. His distance from his contemporaries, however, became apparent with the opening of an exhibition of avant-garde art in 1913, when the New York National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue hosted the International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show. Financially backed by art patrons Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Mabel Dodge and sponsored by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, the Armory Show featured more than 1,300 works of art by American and European artists. Visitors in New York totaled around 88,000, and after the exhibition traveled to Chicago and Boston, that number rose to more than one‑quarter million visitors among the three venues.
This enormous (and enormously notorious) exhibition traced the growth of modern art, from its origins in Romanticism in the early nineteenth century through the rapid development of avant-garde styles, and culminating in the Cubist revolution and such Futurist-inspired paintings as Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art) by Marcel Duchamp, the Armory Show’s undisputed succès de scandale. Various critics declared Duchamp’s Nude to be an “explosion in a shingle factory” and “nothing else than the total destruction of the art of painting.” 12
Profoundly disorienting for its pictorial fragmentation, Duchamp depicts a figure as if in motion, without offering the viewer the reassuring illusion of space, solidity, or time. The work represented a vociferous move away from traditional painting and reflected the artist’s awareness of motion photography, montage, and cinema. Vanguard American artists embraced such innovative, and in some cases, radical new styles, and while some artists retained a conservative approach, the three-dimensional illusionism of traditional paintings appeared increasingly old-fashioned.13 Thus, despite his embrace of a decidedly more fluid and loose facture, Alten’s subjects and style remain firmly entrenched in an Impressionist-influenced realist approach. J. Gray Sweeney attributes Alten’s rejection of modern painting to the artist’s conservative West Michigan context.14 Alten had a firm grasp of his clientele’s definition and understanding of art, however, so his continued embrace of salable art can also be viewed as shrewd business sense. One reviewer applauded the accessibility of Alten’s paintings:
His paintings need no interpretation or explanation. They represent a phase of painting which follows traditions, without, however, subordinating all individuality or personality, but also without striving for originality or naivity (sic) at the expense of sound craftsmanship …. None of Mr. Alten’s paintings are the result of the accidental or haphazard juggling of his materials, nor does he attempt to be clever or different at any cost merely for the sake of being considered original. His canvases are always pleasing and vigorous with sufficient variety to not become tiresome15
West Michigan audiences wanted no shingle factory explosions. They sought unassailable workmanship and recognizable subjects.
Alten delivered. See, for example, two landscapes painted at the outset of World War I, when the artist was forced to remain close to home and turn his attention to producing plein-air renderings of the West Michigan countryside (Figures 9 and 10). Alten painted the rural scenes close to the new home on Fulton Street that he and his wife Bertha bought in 1913, which afforded access to the surrounding countryside. These localized agrarian vistas inspired a new series of landscapes that proved popular with middle‑class Grand Rapids art collectors. In the slightly earlier Early Spring Landscape with Meandering Stream, the yellow-green landscape elements have a liquid quality, in both paint properties and application. Painted quickly, Early Spring Landscape retains a sketch-like quality, with exposed areas around the edges of the board. Alten seems to have laid down the structural elements of the painting first — the bare trees that enclose the scene on the left and right sides as well as the grove of trees in the background, and he draws the eye into the background via the zigzagging stream. He painted over this framework with thickly applied strokes from a heavily laden brush. The moistness in the air feels palpable: everything seems wet, and even the stream appears unconstrained by its banks. Nearly free of civilized traces, a human presence is nonetheless implied by a split rail fence running through the right middle ground as well as the merest suggestion of farm buildings in the upper right.
A larger, more fully realized rendering of the same scene, Spring Landscape with Meandering Stream and Cattle, shows the landscape after the passage of several months, with lusher vegetation and the inclusion of several grazing bovines. Our eye is not drawn into the background as emphatically as in the earlier canvas; instead, we are invited to revel in the soft, nubile foliage that characterizes late spring in Michigan. Alten has mixed more white and yellow into green fields and undergrowth, and the silvery gray of the earlier spring stream has given way to periwinkle blue, lavender, and white. He evinces his interest in the animals in the middle ground by rendering their bodies with great physical presence (Fig. 11). A very close examination of the cattle reveals that each is depicted with just a few black and brown brushstrokes, and in particular, the artist suggests the strong spine of the foreshortened beast closest to the picture plane with thick white paint through which he has dragged the butt end of a paintbrush. The illusion is complete when viewed from a distance. These wartime landscapes betray no strife and present the scenes in an ordered and logical fashion.
Commenting on his landscape paintings, a writer from The New York Times noted that the artist, “… caught the poetry of the Michigan countryside … a poetry that was less far to seek, yet that is as real as the more distant beauty of Spain.” 16 Europe would wait for several years, since the artist worked locally but exhibited nationwide throughout the Great War, showing paintings at the Milwaukee Art Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Scarab Club Annual Exhibitions, which were held at the Detroit Institute of Arts and were considered at the time to be, “… the biggest art event[s] of the year, for Michigan painters and people interested in what their own community is producing.” 17
His next great burst of creative activity came in the early 1920s, when Bertha accompanied him for a months-long trip to Spain and Italy. In Spain, Alten passed a summer painting beach scenes and visiting museums. He gained much critical attention for the paintings he completed in Cabañal, which were shown at major venues across the United States, including the Holt Galleries in New York, where he showed thirty-five pictures in 1929. In a Sunday roundup of gallery activities, The New York Times commented on Holt’s “newcomer,” whose seascapes recalled similar images by Joaquín Sorolla. Sorolla’s name was well known in America since 1909, when the first exhibition of his work, held at the Hispanic Society, took the New York art world by storm. Citing the Spanish painter as the heir to Velazquez, Sorolla’s supporters cited the “bravura, virility, and versatility” of his works, according to art historian and former Museo Sorolla curator Cristina Domenech.18 In the words of a contemporary viewer, Sorolla’s critical and commercial success could be attributed to his willingness to paint, “… the Spain we wanted to see — a romantic land of glowing surface and miraculous light and shade.” 19 In other words, Sorolla understood his audience’s taste.
Alten, too, grasped the types of works that appealed to his West Michigan audiences, and even with their relatively exotic locale and subject matter, the artist reiterated his interest in showing the old ways of doing things:
In regard to the painting I wish to say: They are sardine fishermen at Cabañal …. They go fishing early in the morning … and as they have no harbor or pier their boats are drawn ashore by specially trained oxen .… It’s the only place in the world where they still use this method, and according to my observations during the last fifteen or eighteen years this method is gradually disappearing along with other picturesqueness, as Europe is becoming more modernized.20
The works he painted in Spain garnered extensive coverage in Grand Rapids’ print media outlets from the first exhibition onward: “The artist’s recent trip abroad marked a decided advancement in the brilliancy of his work …. Both at home and abroad, he throws all the strength of his unusually energetic nature into his painting.” 21 Windy Day, Cabañal (Fig. 12), an easel-sized beach scene, depicts men strenuously hauling boats to shore against blustery winds. Breaking waves of beach scenes provide a natural linear structure for perspectival recession into space, much like the way that palazzo pavements functioned in Early Renaissance paintings. The emphatic planarity of the parallel shoreline, waves, and horizon line provides a stable base for this painting; the countervailing pulling and pushing forces (for example, the women heaving the rope and the boys simultaneously thrusting the boat from the water; the billowing sails and the curving diagonal rigging) form a dynamic center to the composition. The sea is a mélange of varying colors, from deep aqua blue to the pale pinkish-orange froth of the breakers. In fact, colors reflect on every surface: shadows are blue, green, orange, and pink. These tonal echoes demonstrate the plein-air work of the artist — these are not studio hues, but rather colors closely observed and quickly applied. Alten uses pure white sparingly, most notably in the impasto dabs of paint that delineate the crest of the waves. His loose but deliberate brushwork varies according to the object, with broad and flat lashes for the water, thin and curving lines for the sails, shorter contour-hugging strokes for the woman’s skirt, and abbreviated, almost caricatured lines for the face of the boy who yells to the women on the shore (Fig. 13).
Alten’s landscapes and seascapes of the 1930s reveal a decidedly freer execution combined with limpid color and light. Paintings undertaken along the shoreline in California, such as Fisherman’s Cove at Low Tide, Laguna (Fig. 14), typify his late style. The deep‑blue ocean that Alten subtly contrasts with the warm orange in the rocks and their reflection energizes an otherwise calm and staid setting. A few small dabs of black striate the rocks, but otherwise colors of sand, sea, and sky, mixed on the palette, animate the scene. Seemingly unfettered, in his later life, by the need for absolute illusionism, Fisherman’s Cove contains passages of near abstraction. His work had evolved — not as much as the Modernists — but his livelier approach hints that he had taken some of the new experiments under advisement, as he explained in 1929:
The biggest change has been made in the past 15 years and I honestly believe that it has been a good change. Nothing is more beautiful than pure vibrancy. What more can art be? 22
Alten’s landscapes most often also form the environment for his images of laborers. In both European and American art history, there exists a rich trove of approaches to depicting workers and an equally abundant number of meanings attached to those images. Through his travels and exposure to art and other media, Alten would have become well aware of the visual culture of rural labor. Spurring the transition from manual to mechanical labor, the Industrial Revolution impacted the social and artistic developments of the mid-nineteenth century. For example, passengers on the quickly expanding railway systems experienced the passing landscape at heretofore unimagined speeds, which profoundly shifted their relationship with the land and its workers. The idea of an individual farmer or groups of laborers who worked the soil provided a natural contrast with encroaching modernity and became symbols of timeless “authentic” values. Mid-nineteenth‑century France, having already experienced revolutions, witnessed the class-based social connotations associated with peasant imagery in works by artists such as Gustave Courbet, whose concern for the plight of the poor was regarded as politically incendiary. On the other side of the Atlantic, the iconography of the ideal American farm — spacious skies, hearty animals, fecund land, and harmonious relationships between man and nature — abounded in the conventional pictorial rhetoric into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries..23 In America, the image of the farm had comprised ideas such as natural goodness, simplicity, family continuity, and pastoral harmony.24 Not solely reserved for academic paintings and literature, rural laborers and their environment proliferated in popular wood engravings and lithographs (such as those distributed widely by the print firm Currier & Ives), magazine illustration (such as Harper’s Weekly and Gleason’s Pictorial, among others), poetry, and songs.
Alten could hardly have avoided such commonplace imagery, and like most American artists who studied abroad, he was acutely aware of the European tradition of paintings of peasants at work and repose. These images appealed to his collectors, who no doubt appreciated the images’ social and cultural values of tradition, optimism, and agrarian ideals. Although hand-wrought labor and more modern methods of farming had coexisted since the nineteenth century, Alten often chose to emphasize the direct working of the land by both man and beast. While in Étaples, he completed a pair of pendant paintings showing a woman and a man, she bent over her knitting and he lost in thought, pipe in hand, rendered in a dark Tonalist palette. From these earliest images onward, the theme of working men and women comprised a large portion of his oeuvre.
In spring 1911, Alten and his family traveled to the Netherlands to pass an extended stay in Scheveningen, a district of The Hague. A fishing village and tourist resort on the North Sea, as glimpsed in a postcard sent by Bertha (Fig. 15), picturesque Scheveningen attracted some of the country’s most prominent painters, including many from the local Hague School, a collective name for the group of artists active in its namesake city during the last few decades of the nineteenth century. This group included Jozef Israëls, Jacob, Willem, and Matthijs Maris, Anton Mauve, and Hendrik Willem Mesdag, whose sweeping panorama of Scheveningen captured the resort in its nineteenth-century state. Hague School painters also reacted to the rapid industrialization of society and, like their French counterparts, painted scenes of rural life tinged with nostalgia for simpler times. The Rijksmuseum began collecting and receiving gifts of these artists’ works around the time that Alten and his family traveled to the Netherlands, so it is quite possible that he was able to see the paintings. Hague School artists emphasized painting out of doors, much like the Barbizon School, and while initially their palette tended toward darker earth tones, under the tutelage of Impressionist canvases, their colors lightened and their marks loosened.
The Hague School influence can be distinguished in Alten’s work from Scheveningen, in particular his Clam Digger, Scheveningen (Fig. 16). The sand, waves, and horizon line form a series of strong horizontal axes receding into space, taking advantage of alternating shades of white with the greenish-brown-gray of the sea and the bluish-gray of the sky. In a scene that, in the imagination, should have just a few watery shades, Alten produces seemingly endless permutations of each hue and pays close attention to reflected colors. Wet, sticky sand shimmers under the even gray light of the coast. The solid digger, while not monumentalized, nonetheless represents the only form to pierce the solid horizon line. Alten closely connects the worker to the tools of his trade — the cart and the wicker basket — through shape: his hunched back echoes the round wheel and basket. Alten uses this technique frequently to suggest unity between a worker and his labor (see Hauling the Boulder, pg. 176). Repeating movement he has no doubt executed hundreds of times, the man stoops over to pull an old bag from the wicker basket, “… just as the old fellow looks and acts every day of his life,” noted one reviewer. 25 His curved back, gnarled hands, sunburnt nose, and graying hair and beard communicate years of labor and adhere to the Hague School’s tenets that resist images of idealized workers. The nostalgic appeal of Alten’s works from Scheveningen rested in their standing fast against the encroachment of modern life, as one critic explained: “There is something in the lines of the face, the contentment with things, peace that is like a breath of fresh air blown into a world where all is hurry and discontent.” 26
Alten continued with the theme of labor upon his return to the United States. He painted Husking Corn, Lyme (Fig. 17) during his stay at the Old Lyme art colony in Connecticut in fall 1911. American artist Henry Ward Ranger founded the colony as a retreat that provided artists with access to a pleasing environment that inspired their plein-air paintings. Old Lyme commonly attracted artists returning from Europe, like Alten, who were “… looking for picturesque country locations to capture the essence of the American people and the American landscape, and the American past.” notes Jeffrey Anderson, director of the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme.7 26 Anderson also remarks that New England represented an ideal of America’s past. Alten took full advantage of his visits to Old Lyme, painting the surrounding countryside close to 50 times. In this idyllic setting, Alten found “subjects galore” and provided “valuable glimpses of this region:”
His oxen, thoroughbreds, standing heavily by, while the farmer husks the corn, or loads his wagon with rails. The canvases do not indicate that Alten found it difficult to shift from the somberness of a Holland setting to the rich browns of a New England hillside on an autumn day. The piles of corn lie a golden mass, the shocks a bit duller, while one can actually feel the soft, sweet breath of a dying summer as the gentle breeze comes floating over the low hills. The sun touches all with a riotous dash of brown and golden, trees, grasses, earth, sky, animals and all.28
Husking Corn, Lyme, with its loose yet emphatic brushwork and very bright color palette, followed the dominant stylistic bent of painters at Old Lyme, who had been strongly influenced by the American Impressionists. The reviewer quoted above did not realize, however, that Alten painted a scene staged by his friend, Henry R. Poore, who had constructed a portable studio (complete with drying room) to facilitate plein-air excursions at Lyme.29 Husking Corn, Lyme is one of his largest and most fully realized Lyme works, and appears to capture manual laborers hard at work. By 1911 when this painting was completed, however, farm machinery had progressed and increasingly, automated equipment was becoming more commercially viable. In fact, the United States Patent Office approved several cornhusking machine patents in 1911 alone.30 Yet the operating modality at Old Lyme was expressly organized around a nostalgic view of the surrounding countryside, which Alten embraced with gusto.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Mathias Alten continued to portray rural labor, not with modern machinery, but rather using the tools and technologies of an earlier century in works such as Haying Time from 1925 (Fig. 18). Throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century, engineers and manufacturers endeavored to perfect the general-purpose tractor that would replace the horse as a source of power, increase efficiency, and lower costs.31 Henry Ford produced his first gasoline-powered tractor in 1907, and in the ensuing years renowned firms such as Deere & Company, International Harvester, and Caterpillar formed and began mass-producing mechanized farm equipment. Higher commodity prices and labor scarcity drove demand for tractors during World War I, and in 1916, Farmer magazine observed, “Even now the manufacturers of tractors find difficulty in keeping up with demand.”32 Agricultural historian Kurt Leichtle has noted that as “… the war ended, the farm literature suggested that a farm without a tractor was old fashioned.” 33 Alten’s focus, therefore, on the draft horses in Haying Time would have been understood by contemporary viewers as reminiscent of earlier times. The horses appear resting during their toils, the brown beast munching sweet grass. Impasto highlights on the white horse’s back suggest a sun high in the sky and thus the perfect environment for making hay.
Alten did not cease looking backward in his images of labor, even as he sought out new locations and subjects. A late picture, created during a trip to Florida, shows sponge fishers with their haul (Fig. 19). When his Tarpon Springs paintings were exhibited for the first time, the artist noted that the setting:
… is like a bit of the old world. Such a group might be found on the shores of the Mediterranean or perhaps in Spain. The sponge fishermen’s love of bright colors is shown in their gaily painted boats. There is nothing else like them on this side of the Atlantic.34
In adhering to formulas of the idyllic past, Alten’s rural labor scenes presented a fixed world that resisted change and relished a direct experience of nature at the same time that technology and capitalism had started to transform agriculture and other forms of rural work into a mechanized industry.
In adhering to formulas of the idyllic past, Alten’s rural labor scenes presented a fixed world that resisted change …
All forms of labor, however, did not warrant equal treatment, and here we can contrast Alten’s backward look in his painted labor scenes with a series of covers that he executed for the Grand Rapids periodical, The Commonwealth: A Magazine for Workers, which celebrated regional industry. A cover from February 1921, for example, reproduces the artist’s Making Brass, a view of the Electric Furnace department at the Wolverine Brass Works (Fig. 20).
The issue features an article by the owner of Wolverine Brass Works, Louis A. Cornelius, which traces the history of brass making from its origins in biblical and classical times. The editor of The Commonwealth, in his introductory biographical essay on Cornelius, follows his up-by-his-bootstraps rise from humble origins to titan of industry. Noting Cornelius’ proclaimed reticence for writing brass’s history, the editor ties his agreement to pen the essay to Alten’s painting of his work floor: “Getting ‘Lou’ Cornelius to write anything except his name on a dotted line is much like trying to make his big electric smelter set type …. After much persuasion, and after seeing Mr. Alten’s painting which appears on the first page, he consented.” 35
Alten clearly had access to either the production floor itself or documentary photographs of the site, because the painting replicates the space with great detail, including its architectural features, electric lights, and the machinery required to produce brass (Figures 21 and 22). The artist captured the most dramatic moment of production with state-of-the-art industrial machines, as chronicled by the proud Cornelius:
All of the operations entering into the making of brass are interesting but to the onlooker the process of melting meets, no doubt, with the most spectacular attraction …. The latest and most improved method is placing the metal, or ingots, in an hermetically sealed container, an illustration of which will be found on the cover page, and applying heat generated by electricity until the mass reaches the required heat for pouring.36
Alten’s image is not purely documentary, however, as he also romanticizes the scene with billowing smoke and licking flames, echoing the ancient myth of Vulcan recounted by Cornelius: Obscure in smoke his flaming forges sound. While bathed in sweat from fire to fire he flew; And puffing loud the roaring bellows blew.37 Given the vast swath of brass-making history narrated by Cornelius, Alten could have chosen an earlier moment or method of its production. Instead, again acutely aware of his audience, Alten celebrates a dramatic moment in a local industry.
“Making Brass” and other covers from The Commonwealth series diverge from Alten’s far more common inattention to industrial production. The artist’s eschewal of painted modern life extended to the decidedly scant number of scenes that explore the urban landscape.
Unlike the Impressionists, whose embrace of modern life included serious study of the rapidly changing and effervescent late nineteenth-century city, Alten focused primarily on images of rural activity, despite having studied in Paris and making a point to visit museums throughout Europe. His relatively few visual forays into urban scenes include two that suggest a greater affinity with quiet, small-town life rather than the hustle and bustle of the modern metropolis. A small watercolor from his years in Paris depicts not the grands boulevards highlighted by his fellow artists, but rather the village-like Montmartre locale in which his studio was located with its empty cobblestone street, small cottages with crumbling walls, and just the merest hint of a larger city squeezed into the background (Fig. 23). Just two decades had passed since Paris had undergone a massive public works project, overseen by City Superintendent Baron Georges Haussmann, that razed large areas of the French capital in order to construct wide avenues, install street lighting, create green parks, and build new residential and commercial structures. Artists and writers such as Gustave Caillebotte, Claude Monet, and Marcel Proust reveled in exposing the physical and social dynamics of the newly transformed urban landscape.
Rue Cortot, conversely, is a tiny passageway wedged between Sacre Coeur, the Roman Catholic basilica that dominates Montmartre’s skyline (and which was under construction during the artist’s stay in the French capital) and the Moulin de la Galette, a popular café immortalized in paint by Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and other denizens of the neighborhood. Artists make choices, and Alten emphasized Montmartre’s more rustic and ramshackle character rather than its entertainments, novel monuments, or any other indices of commerce or industry. Untouched by the anxiety or messiness of modern life, Rue Cortot, Paris instead provides a refuge from the larger metropolis.
Another quiet urban watercolor, this one hazily depicting downtown Grand Rapids, probes the atmospheric effects of a fog-enveloped park (Fig. 24). A Foggy Day presents a study in contrasts, with a strong vertical rhythm punctuated by young bare trees, the upright fountain (nonextant), and the looming bell tower of Park Church in the background, counterbalanced by horizontal elements including shadows, the empty pathway, and a line of barely discernible automobiles. The stability offered by the steadying horizontal and vertical lines is tempered, however, by Alten’s use of the medium to produce an indistinct urban vista. As he did in Rue Cortot, Paris, the artist provides neither city residents nor dynamic action characteristic of the center of Grand Rapids, visible in photographs of the city from the same period (Fig. 25). Rather, nature seems to pull a soft blanket over this corner of what is now Veterans Memorial Park, muffling sounds and stilling any movement.
Alten was not alone in his continuing embrace of realism painted with an Impressionist-inspired brush. American artists such as Stuart Davis, Henry Glintenkamp, George Bellows, and John Sloan meshed both realism and modernism, influenced by their own travels to Europe and the singular effect of the Armory Show. John Singer Sargent, painting in the durable Impressionist style well into the 1910s, created scenes that would have been at home in the 1870s (Trout Stream in the Tyrol, 1914, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). Describing this trend in American art, curator Barbara Weinberg has argued that in order to more easily market their paintings, American artists may have emphasized the positive rather than the disturbing aspects of modern life. She writes, “[T]hey romanticized fading rural traditions and evaded the most emotive recent developments — industrialization, urbanization, and immigration — and the associated discord and civic disturbances. Ambivalent about change in a time of political and economic anxiety, they, like their patrons, preferred comfort to confrontation.” 38 In its style and imagery, Mathias Alten’s oeuvre grew out of an unconventional combination of West Michigan sensibilities and more cosmopolitan experiences. His contemporary audience marveled at the way that his wide variety of works allowed them to view their own world differently. Looking at a painting by Mathias Alten, viewers understood that, “Every new walk in the open seems to have provided a motive, seems to have contained its inspiration. Every different hour of the day, with its shifting lights and shadows, seems to have provided its suggestion. Every cloud gave new atmosphere, every figure had its story and the sea never told the same tale twice.” 39
Mathias Alten, quoted in Edna K. Wooley, “Some Grand Rapids Scenes in Oil: A Chat with Artist Alten,” Grand Rapids Press (December 13, 1905), n.p.
“Nearer to Nature with Artist Alten,” The Grand Rapids Herald (December 9, 1923), 2.
“A Round of the Galleries: Mathias J. Alten Makes New York Bow — Four Artists at the Whitney — Other News,” The New York Times (February 17, 1929), 13.
H. Barbara Weinberg, “Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories, 1877–1915” in H. Barbara Weinberg and Carrie Rebora Barratt, eds., American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life 1765–1915 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010), 114.
Mathias Alten quoted in W.H. Harvest, “G.R. Artist Began His Notable Career Near Inspiring German Miracle Spring,” The Grand Rapids Herald, June 2, 1929.
Weinberg 2010, 114.
Quoted in Re-framing Representations of Women: Figuring, Fashioning, Portraiting, and Telling in the ‘Picturing’ Women Project, ed. Susan Shifrin (Hampshire, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008), 155.
Alten’s daughter, Camelia Alten Demmon, compiled a list of notable portraits, some of which hung at the State Capitol in Lansing among other prominent locations. “Mathias J. Alten,” typewritten text in Mathias J. Alten Archives, Grand Valley State University.
Alten quoted in W.H. Harvest, “G.R. Artist Began His Notable Career Near Inspiring German Miracle Spring,” Grand Rapids Herald (June 2, 1929), 7.
Katherine D. Kalagher, “The Invasion of the Flapper: How the College Women of the 1920s Transformed the American College Experience,” Faculty Publications (2014), 4. http://digitalcommons.goodwin.edu/gen_fac_ pubs/14
Mathias Alten quoted in “An Artist Who is Honored by His Own City,” The Grand Rapids Herald (December 2, 1911), 3.
Julian Street, cited in Milton Brown, The Story of the Armory Show (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1988), 137 and Kenyon Cox, statement in March 15, 1913 issue of Harper’s Weekly, cited in David Bjelajac, American Art: A Cultural History (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 2005), 319. Cox, an American Renaissance painter, espoused classical approaches to art.
Bjelajac 2005, 297.
J. Gray Sweeney, “Mathias J. Alten (1871–1938) in Artists of West Michigan from the Nineteenth Century (Muskegon: The Muskegon Museum of Art and the Detroit Historical Museum, 1987), 128.
“Exhibitions for May: Paintings by Mathias J. Alten” May 1923 in the Mathias J. Alten Archives, Grand Rapids Art Museum.
“A Round of the Galleries: Mathias J. Alten Makes New York Bow,” 13.
Leonard Lanson Cline, “Annual Scarab Exhibit Opens at Art Institute,” Detroit News (November 28, 1920), 20.
Cristina Domenech, “Sorolla and America: Critical Fortune,” in Sorolla and America, ed. Blanca Pons-Sorolla and Mark A. Roglán (Madrid: Ediciones el Viso, 2013), 284.
Unattributed article from the Hispanic Society’s archives, cited in Domenech 2013, 288.
“Sunlight in Spain,” 1929, article in Grand Rapids Art Museum’s Mathias Alten archives.
“Nearer to Nature with Artist Alten,” 3.
Mathias Alten in “G.R. Artist … ” 4.
Sarah Burns, Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 14.
“An Artist Who is Honored by His Own City,” The Grand Rapids Herald (December 3, 1911), 3.
Quoted in Laura Wolff Scanlan, “High Thinking and Low Living: The Story of the Old Lyme Art Colony,” Humanities 28, no. 5 (September/October 2007), n.p.
“An Artist Who is Honored by His Own City,” The Grand Rapids Herald (December 3, 1911), 3.
William H. Gerdts notes that Poore also painted images of oxen, hay carts, and farm laborers and that “Alten’s paintings of the animals virtually duplicate Poore’s work.” “Mathias J. Alten: Journey of an American Painter,” in Mathias J. Alten: Journey of an American Painter, exh. cat. (Grand Rapids: The Grand Rapids Art Museum, 1998), 35.
See Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, vol. CLXXV (February 1912), 604.
Kurt E. Leichtle, “Power in the Heartland: Tractor Manufacturers in the Midwest,” Agricultural History 69, 2 (Spring 1995), 314.
Quoted in Leichtle 1995, 317.
“Alten Art Exhibit Includes Two Portraits of South High Leaders,” article in Mathias J. Alten archives, Grand Valley State University.
Editors, “A Man Who Makes Brass and Can Tell About It,” The Commonwealth: A Magazine for Workers (February 1921), n.p.
Louis A. Cornelius, “Making Brass Since Tubal-Cain,” The Commonwealth: A Magazine for Workers (February 1921), n.p.
Weinberg 2010, 144.
“An Artist who is Honored by His Own City,” The Grand Rapids Herald (December 3, 1911), 3.