Remembering Those Who Served

November 01, 2023

Remembering Those Who Served

Images (left to right): Portrait of Cadet Leonard, West Point , unknown, photograph, ca. 1915, Captain Leonard Gravesite, France , unknown, photograph, 1918, GVSU Special Collections & University Archives, Captain Edward W. Leonard , Mathias J. Alten, oil on canvas, 1920, 2019.15.1, Gift of the Edward A. Leonard Family, Captain Leonard in France , unknown, photograph, ca. 1918, GVSU Special Collections & University Archives, Mrs. Leonard with Portrait, Receiving War Bond , unknown, photograph, 1944, GVSU Special Collections & University Archives


Veterans Day (also known as Remembrance Day in other countries and first known as Armistice Day) is observed in the United States on November 11, honoring the service of military veterans. The observance has its roots at the end of the First World War, where it was intended to honor armed forces members who died in the line of duty during the war. The signing of the Armistice with Germany on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 formally ended major hostilities of the First World War at 11 a.m. that morning. The first observance of this annual commemoration was held the following year, marking that same month, day, and time of the Armistice.

Tragically, Grand Rapids native Captain Edward W. Leonard, serving in France, died less than one month before the Armistice was signed. A graduate of Catholic Central High School and Central High School, Leonard entered West Point, the United States Military Academy, in 1913. He graduated in 1917 and began serving overseas, receiving a promotion to First Lieutenant and then Captain (and at the time of his death as acting major) of the Sixth Infantry. Leonard was an excellent student and officer. Five days before his death, he received a citation for “distinguished conduct in action” from Major General McMahon where he “displayed courage and coolness under fire during the advance on Sept. 14, 1918, by personally reorganizing platoons and organizing his position.” On October 13 he risked his life to provide first aid to a fellow soldier and West Point classmate, who would die later in the evening at an emergency hospital. The following day, shortly after 8:30 a.m., he led his company in an attack on German positions near Romange, France and was killed by a high explosive shell.

Edward W. Leonard was initially buried in France, detailed in a letter to his parents from Lieutenant Colonel John W. Leonard of the 6th Infantry. He noted that Leonard was buried “in a ravine just south of where the attack started,” and that the Chaplain had attended to him. Leonard’s body would eventually be returned to Grand Rapids in 1921, where he would be buried at the Mt. Calvary cemetery. Before this, Leonard’s brother Michael J. Leonard, reached out to artist Mathias J. Alten and commissioned him to paint a portrait of him. The final portrait, complete with a gilded frame featuring an eagle mounted on the top, was completed in 1920. Alten based the portrait on a battlefield photograph of Leonard and a fellow soldier, rendering him alone on an empty field. The work was shared with the community many times, including in a window of the popular department store Herpolshieimer’s, allowing others to remember his service. On this Veterans Day, many years later, we reflect not only on the history of Captain Edward W. Leonard and the portrait that Mathias J. Alten painted of him but all the others who have also served in the military.

(source: GVSU Special Collections & University Archives, Capt. Edward Leonard WWI papers, RHC-217


Mathias J. Alten
Mathias Alten was born in Germany in 1871 and immigrated to the United States in 1889, settling with his family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While better known for his landscape paintings, Alten painted many portraits throughout his career. With the onset of the First World War, Alten’s ability to travel was limited and he began to paint more of Michigan’s rural landscape and those desiring a painted portrait. Alten also painted a number of those serving in the military, including his brother-in-law, Lieutenant Avery C. Gilleo

The portrait of Captain Edward W. Leonard that Alten painted posthumously, is currently exhibited at the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery.

To learn more about Alten’s work in the GVSU Art Collection visit:


Special Collections & University Archives

Artist’s personal effects and papers are often given to Grand Valley State University alongside artwork. Special Collections & University Archives holds a variety of related artist materials, including collections of Mathias J. Alten, Stewart Ashlee, Mike McDonnell, Cyril Lixenberg, and Douglas R. Gilbert. In the case of portraiture, the subjects’ personal effects and papers are also often donated. The Leonard family’s donation of the framed portrait of Captain Edward W. Leonard came with some materials that are now housed at the GVSU Special Collections & University Archives located at Seidman House on the Allendale Campus.

To learn more about Special Collections & University Archives and to view these collections visit:


Veterans in the Collection

The GVSU collection also includes many other images of military veterans. Some of these images are unknown, such as the unknown Civil War Union Soldier who sat for a tintype portrait, or the group of unknown First World War Soldiers who posed for their portrait.

Others, such as the portrait of Col. Ralph Hauenstein , are known to us and commemorate a veteran who has impacted and inspired GVSU with the creation of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

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Page last modified November 1, 2023