Mathias J. Alten


An American Impressionist Painter

February 13, 1871

Mathias Joseph Alten born in Gusenburg, Rhine Province, Germany to Michael and Maria Kyllburg Alten.


Alten’s family moves to Marpingen, Germany. Young Mathias remains in the village until 1884. From an early age Mathias earns extra money by drawing and painting portraits. Lacking access to artist’s supplies, he improvises using such materials as miller’s chalk and laundry bluing.

April 1885

Alten is apprenticed as a painter and paperhanger in the town of Saint (Sankt or Skt in German) Wendel, Germany. He also paints religious subjects in Roman Catholic churches and secular subjects for theatres. He becomes a certified apprentice under the tutelage of Joseph Klein.

January 1889

Alten arrives in the United States with his parents, brother John, and sister Katherine. The family moves to Michigan, settling with fellow German immigrants on the west side of Grand Rapids. Alten finds work as a decorator in local furniture factories.


While employed by Charles C. Nooneman, Alten creates decorations for the Rathskeller, a German brew house at 90 Canal Street in Grand Rapids. During this same period, Alten begins taking art lessons at Edwin A. Turner’s studio.


Alten works for David Wolcott Kendall at the Phoenix Furniture Company. He paints Chrysanthemums, the first of many, signing it “M. Alten,” the signature he would use throughout his career.

December 1, 1896

Birth of the Alten’s first child, Ella (later called Eleanore). 

December 1898

Alten sails alone to Europe.

November 1, 1898

Mathias Alten becomes an American citizen and immediately applies for a passport for European travel.

November 13, 1898

A second daughter, Camelia, is born to Mathias and Bertha.


Mathias Alten begins his formal artistic education in Paris studying academic painting at the Académie Julian. He later enrolls at the Académie Colarossi and wins a gold medal in figural drawing. Alten explores Italy during the summer, painting and visiting museums in Rome, Florence, Siena, and other cities. Returning to France, he paints landscapes and peasants along the northern coast at Étaples.

September 1899

Alten returns to Grand Rapids. He and Constant Fliermans open a joint studio and art school in the same rooms where Alten’s first teacher, E. A. Turner had maintained his studio. Alten continues teaching evening art classes in Grand Rapids for the next twenty-five years.


Alten paints the stage scenery for the Landwehr Hall, a Grand Rapids social club for German Americans.


Alten exhibits two paintings at the National Academy of Design, New York and shows Husking Corn at the Society of Western Artists show at the Art Institute of Chicago.

October 19, 1903

A third daughter, Viola, is born to Mathias and Bertha Alten.


Alten creates several murals for the F. P. Wilcox home on College Avenue designed by Grand Rapids architect W. R. Clarke.

Along with other Grand Rapids artists, five of Alten’s paintings are exhibited at Bissell House in Grand Rapids. Included in the show is Forrest Emerson Mann, who becomes Alten’s longtime friend and travel companion.

Alten paints Picnic at Macatawa, a study of the Alten family at leisure.


The Alten family occupies a new home on the northeast corner of Hope Street and Fuller Avenue in Grand Rapids. Alten paints murals in the vestibule and decorates the ceiling of the reception hall with mosaic tile work and other embellishments.


Mathias Alten has his first local one-man exhibition at the Ryerson Library in Grand Rapids including sixty-five paintings and drawings.

The Art Institute of Chicago exhibits Cutting Cabbage and The Color Mixer.

December 1908

Alten stages an exhibition of thirty paintings in the rotunda of the Morton House Hotel in Grand Rapids.

August 1910

Alten returns to Europe for an extended stay, accompanied by Bertha, their three daughters, and his student Norman S. Chamberlain.


The Alten family settles temporarily in Scheveningen, Netherlands, a well-developed resort town in an area replete at the time with fishing villages on the North Sea. There, the artist produces several paintings inspired by draft horses hauling heavy fishing boats at the seashore, as well as village and canal scenes, seascapes, and landscapes. The family travels through Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Germany.


Alten instructs life drawing classes for the Grand Rapids Art Students League located above Peck’s Drug Store in downtown Grand Rapids.

The large north-light windows were installed entirely for the League’s studio and have only recently been exposed with the removal of the mid-20th century metal sheathing, which covered the entire building.

During the 1920s, Altens’ own studio was on the Monroe Center side and was the last of a series of downtown locations where he maintained a publicly accessible studio.

April 1913

Fifty-nine Alten paintings are included in the nineteenth exhibition of the Grand Rapids Art Association.

Fall 1913

Alten returns to Old Lyme, Connecticut.

July 1913

Mathias and Bertha purchase a home at 1593 East Fulton Street. The location of the home was convenient for Mathias for exploration by foot or streetcar to find suitable landscape subjects. The location of their home was also convenient because it was located at the end of a streetcar line that led to his downtown studio.


With the outbreak of World War I in Europe, Alten remains predominantly in Michigan painting rural landscapes and scenes of Grand Rapids.


Alten receives a commission for a life-size painting, Portrait of Bishop Edward Kelly, Bishop of the Grand Rapids Diocese, and exhibits thirty paintings in November at the Grand Rapids Art Gallery.

Summer 1927

Mathias Alten travels to Taos, New Mexico where he paints more than forty canvases depicting Native Americans and the southwest landscape. He becomes acquainted with Irving Couse, a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists, another important regionalist artist colony.


Smoking Apache, one of Alten’s Taos paintings, is shown at the National Academy of Design in New York.

Summer 1928

Alten returns to Spain, this time with his student Kreigh Collins. Acting as her father’s business agent, Eleanore Alten Gilleo, secures commissions for several portraits of Michigan Supreme Court judges.


Mathias and Bertha travel to Hollywood, Florida where Alten completes several canvases. The couple then visits the artist colony at Laguna Beach in Southern California, where he produces more coastline compositions in addition to California Mission scenes.

February & March 1929

Holt Galleries in New York City stages a one-man exhibition.

Summer 1935

Alten travels to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where he paints Greek sponge fishermen with their colorful boats. His fascination with fishing scenes continues closer to home, where he creates several images of Leland, a picturesque fishing village in Northern Michigan.

During his final two years, Alten paints autumn and early winter landscapes in the rural areas surrounding Grand Rapids and continues to exhibit at his home.


Alten regularly documented himself in self portraits throughout his career. This is perhaps the final self portrait. It was created at Alten’s home studio at 1593 Fulton Street in Grand Rapids. The brushes in his hand are in the GVSU Collection.

March 8, 1938

Mathias Joseph Alten suffers a fatal heart attack in his home.