Art in the time of a pandemic: How Mathias Alten's isolation was reflected in his work
Mathias Alten's travels throughout the world, especially to art colonies, served a muse for him and tended to lead to periods of increased productivity.
But Joel Zwart of the Grand Valley Art Gallery said Alten always returned to Michigan. It is here that Alten created some of the highlights of his career, particularly the landscapes and agrarian images that are familiar to Michiganders and made Alten a treasured historical artist in this region, said Zwart, curator of exhibitions for the Art Gallery, which holds not only the world’s largest public collection of the artist’s work but also the entire artist Catalogue Raisonné and published scholarship.
"What makes him unique is he made Grand Rapids his home and stayed here despite the incredible draw to art centers elsewhere," Zwart said.
And it turns out some parallels to the times of today kept the devoted world traveler in Michigan for nearly a decade during the prime of his career, Zwart said. Alten's travels first were thwarted by World War I, and then the 1918 flu pandemic further grounded him. Records show Alten finally applied for a passport in 1922.
Zwart and his colleagues have been fascinated to study Alten's works from that time period. His movement restricted, Alten painted what was accessible to him — landscapes around the Grand Rapids area as well as more personal pieces, such as his daughter standing among delphiniums, which are tall, elegant flowers that can evoke the nostalgic feel that Alten perfected in his work.
Even more notable, and a likely reflection of the isolation Alten experienced, is that he did a remarkable number of self-portraits, Zwart said.
"Self-portraits are in some ways a very traditional form of artwork. It's a teaching tool, painting yourself, and a very difficult process," Zwart said. "It’s also a form of self-reflection, with him spending a lot more time with his family and a lot more time in Grand Rapids and in Michigan."
Grand Valley art experts dug deeper into this time period for Alten as part of a larger research project. One of the students assisting with the project, Che Robinson, tweeted some of their findings.
Robinson is an art history major who originally had planned to pursue archaeology as a career but instead chose to work with artifacts in a museum setting. Robinson was also struck by the number of self-portraits Alten did at that time.
The research has deepened Robinson's appreciation for Alten and the fact that he "romanticized Michigan," which was not a high-profile destination for artists. Robinson is also impressed with the versatility Alten showed with different trends in art.
"Especially in landscape scenes, he embraced new artist movements," Robinson said. "He saw something innovative being done and he embraced it."
For more information on Alten’s collection at Grand Valley, visit mathiasalten.com.