Student Perspectives on the Art Collection

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Permanent link for Mathias Alten's Connection to Furniture City on October 22, 2020

Student Perspective Provided By:

Erin Harshberger
Major: English and Education
Minor: Political Science
Class of 2021

In preparation for the exhibition MATHIAS J. ALTEN: AN AMERICAN ARTIST AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY that traveled to The Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, September 20, 2020 through January 31, 2021, the #GVSU Art Gallery team, including staff and students, gathered stories and information about Alten's life and work that create a vivid portrait of the artist. Here, Erin Harshberger, GVSU class of 2021, reflects on Alten's role in the furniture industry of early 20th Century Grand Rapids and the lasting legacy of that period.

'Magazine Cover, Commonwealth, Cabinet Maker'
Mathias Alten
1921
Courtesy of Grand Valley State University Special Collections & University Archives

"In the early 1900s Grand Rapids was a leader in fine, handcrafted furniture production due to the availability of lumber and skilled immigrant workers settling in the city. There was a semi-annual furniture market that attracted wholesale buyers from across the country, which brought on the title “Furniture City”. At the time, cabinet makers were both workmen and merchants, so it’s likely that the man on the cover of this magazine is both. The timing of this project; researching the life and work of Mathias Alten, aligned with my move to the city of Grand Rapids. While exploring my new neighborhood I started to see connections between the history I was researching and my new city. There is an ice cream shop on Cherry Street called Furniture City Creamery that I innocuously visited on a break from writing about Alten, only to look up from my cone to see the title of the shop and be instantly reminded of him." Erin Harshberger

Learn more about Mathias Alten's work and life online at mathiasalten.com.


Permanent link for Mathias Alten's French Studies on October 15, 2020

Student Perspective Provided By:

Erin Harshberger
Major: English and Education
Minor: Political Science
Class of 2021

In preparation for the exhibition MATHIAS J. ALTEN: AN AMERICAN ARTIST AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY that traveled to The Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, September 20, 2020 through January 31, 2021, the #GVSU Art Gallery team, including staff and students, gathered stories and information about Alten's life and work that create a vivid portrait of the artist. Here, Erin Harshberger, GVSU class of 2021,

shares her thoughts on a unique painting by Mathias Alten.

'French Studies'
Mathias Alten
Oil on board
1899
2004.440.1

"These four studies of hayfields and seashores painted in oil on a single panel were done on a trip to France. The trip was meant to broaden Mathias Alten’s exposure to and practice of new styles of painting. This is a look into Alten’s personal growth and the progress of his technique. I was really drawn in to this piece; something so imperfect and personal shared in a gallery is something I’ve never seen before. In these four quadrants there is evidence of Alten’s traditional training, in the intricate brush strokes of the golden grass on the bottom right. You can see stylistic growth from this time in France in the broad, long strokes that outline the pond on the top left. In the bottom left quadrant he uses thick dark gray strokes for the ship’s sails layered on top of each other, similar to the top right side where the colors of the landscape lay atop each other to create depth. 

Working on this project has required me to dive deeper into Alten’s finished pieces that are so highly esteemed; paintings that are more commonly seen in a gallery setting. It is unusual to display art in its preliminary stages. Alten probably thought this study would never be seen by anyone other than himself, but seeing it next to his finished pieces highlights how much effort goes into a finished painting." Erin Harshberger
 

Learn more about Mathias Alten's work and life online at mathiasalten.com.


Permanent link for Mathias Alten's Plein-Air Painting & Technology on October 8, 2020

Student Perspective Provided By:

Erin Harshberger
Major: English and Education
Minor: Political Science
Class of 2021

In preparation for the exhibition MATHIAS J. ALTEN: AN AMERICAN ARTIST AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY that traveled to The Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, September 20, 2020 through January 31, 2021, the #GVSU Art Gallery team, including staff and students, gathered stories and information about Alten's life and work that create a vivid portrait of the artist. Erin Harshberger, GVSU class of 2021, learned about a technological breakthrough in painting tools in the early 1900s.

'Summer Landscape with Split Rail Fence'
Mathias Alten
Oil on canvas
circa 1913
2019.54.4

"While researching information about West Michigan painter Mathias Alten’s process I discovered some interesting facts about the development of portable painting tools in the 1800s. In 1841 the tin tube was invented allowing painters to take their materials out into the environment with them for the first time. This was revolutionary, before this invention painters had to mix their paints themselves in the field, using pigment and oily animal fats. They stored them in pig bladders that were tied on the end and would pop them to access the paint, but the bladders couldn’t be resealed. Just as important to the process was the creation of the box easel; a portable box that carries a canvas, has space for all the desired tools, and when opened, holds the canvas like an easel. This was the beginning of en plein-air painting, which is the act of painting a landscape outdoors, on site. This bit of information was particularly fun to research, because the concept of the paint tube seems so simple now—I had never given a second to the need for these things before." Erin Harshberger

Learn more about Mathias Alten's work and life online at mathiasalten.com.


Permanent link for Mathias Alten's "The Grand River" on October 1, 2020

Student Perspective Provided By:

Che Robinson
Major: Art History
Class of 2021

In preparation for the exhibition MATHIAS J. ALTEN: AN AMERICAN ARTIST AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY that traveled to The Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, September 20, 2020 through January 31, 2021, the #GVSU Art Gallery team, including staff and students, gathered stories and information about Alten's life and work that create a vivid portrait of the artist. Che Robinson, GVSU class of 2021, was particularly interested in this painting...

'The Grand River'
Mathias Alten
Oil on canvas laid on board
1904
2006.200.1

"While I was looking through old photographs of Grand Rapids I stumbled across images of men and women sitting in boats on flooded streets. I was immediately interested since I recognized many of the streets as ones that I drove down everyday. I eventually learned that in March of 1904 the Grand River flooded, reaching a record breaking 19.6 feet and causing 2 million dollars in damages (45 million when adjusted for inflation) to homes and businesses in West Grand Rapids. 

In his painting The Grand River, Mathias Alten depicts the river as moody and vaguely threatening. Smoke drifts up into the sky from industrial buildings which dot the opposite bank. The sky itself is a murky yellow, loose brushwork gives it a swirling movement that is reflected in the river below. The view of the river itself is blocked by skeletal black bushes that stretch out over most of the composition, blocking the viewer from access to the river. Alten painted this image in 1904, perhaps reflecting the recent devastation." Che Robinson

Learn more about Mathias Alten's work and life online at mathiasalten.com.


Permanent link for Mathias Alten's Portraits of Women on September 17, 2020

Student Perspective Provided By:

Che Robinson
Major: Art History
Class of 2021

In preparation for the exhibition MATHIAS J. ALTEN: AN AMERICAN ARTIST AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY that traveled to The Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, September 20, 2020 through January 31, 2021, the #GVSU Art Gallery team, including staff and students, gathered stories and information about Alten's life and work that create a vivid portrait of the artist. Che Robinson, GVSU class of 2021, was particularly interested in these paintings...

'Nude with Amaryllis'
Mathias Alten
Oil on canvas
1935 – 1936
1999.509.1

"This was one of my favorite labels to research. I saw this piece in the Gordon Gallery and had wondered what the Grand Rapids community thought about a married man painting nude women in the 1930s. I found the answer to my question unexpectedly while reading through old newspapers that had been digitized by the Grand Rapids Public Library.

Years before he painted this piece, in 1906, the Grand Rapids Herald printed an in-depth story detailing salacious rumors that Alten had employed a local woman to pose nude for him and his class. I expected to find antiquated views of the female body, but Alten surprised me. In the paper he is quoted as defending the modeling profession as an important part of the artistic process:

 'Grand Rapids is the hardest city I ever saw in which to get a suitable model... there is a decided aversion to posing in the nude… [Women] will not take up the work for fear the finger of scorn will be pointed at them for once having been a model for some great painter. Such a view is not only narrow, it is sinful...it is for the sake of art and art alone, and as such, is sacred to anyone who has any artistic instinct. I respect my models as truly as I do any good woman and so do my students.'" - Che Robinson

Portrait of Camelia Alten Demmon
Mathias Alten
Oil on canvas
1924
2000.305.1

In preparation for the exhibition MATHIAS J. ALTEN: AN AMERICAN ARTIST AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY that traveled to The Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, September 20, 2020 through January 31, 2021, the #GVSU Art Gallery team, including staff and students, gathered stories and information about Alten's life and work that create a vivid portrait of the artist. Che Robinson, GVSU class of 2021, was particularly interested in this painting...

"Camelia Alten is Alten’s second daughter. Born in 1899 she lived in Grand Rapids until her death in 1999. This portrait was painted by Alten in 1924 just after her wedding. Here she is depicted as the very idea of the “Modern Woman”. She stands tall and confident, wearing the fashionable flapper style of clothing that was still considered quite risque at the time. She had also just attended college at Michigan State Normal College (Now Eastern University), representing the growing trend of women pursuing a higher education. 

While researching Camelia I was able to read a copy of her diary from 1917 that has been preserved by the Grand Valley State University Special Collections. In the diary she is just about to finish up high school. I felt an affinity for her while reading about her everyday life studying for finals, going to the movies with friends and learning how to drive the new family car. All of the things she wrote about felt familiar to my own teenage experience, even though mine had happened almost 100 years later." -Che Robinson

Learn more about Mathias Alten's work and life online at mathiasalten.com.

 


Permanent link for Mathias Alten & the 1918 Spanish Flu on June 2, 2020

Student Perspective provided by:
Che Robinson
Major: Art History
Class of 2021

Twilight  and Forest Park
Mathias Alten
Oil on composition board
circa 1918
Private Collection

"While doing research on Mathias Alten for the Gallery I found that he was also semi-quarantined in Grand Rapids during the Influenza outbreak in 1918. The outbreak prevented him from traveling, so almost all of his paintings from this time are of local landscapes.

During the fall of 1918 public gatherings were discouraged in Grand Rapids and many people, including #Alten, went to the countryside to entertain themselves. For us, going on a walk or a hike is a great way to experience spring while also following social distancing guidelines." - Che Robinson

View more of Alten's work in his online catalogue raisonné.



Page last modified October 22, 2020