Workers pack a Mathias Alten painting.

GVSU to showcase pieces by Mathias Alten, 'Dean of Michigan Painters,' in statewide traveling exhibition

Mathias Alten often painted bucolic scenes, such as farmers using oxen, in a nostalgic response to the immense modernization around him in the early 20th Century.

Another constant for the German-born impressionist artist was his depiction of the Michigan landscape, a collection of beloved pieces from the lakeshore, cities and rural areas that experts say helped cement the reference to him as the "Dean of Michigan Painters."

Now Grand Valley State University, the holder of the largest public collection of Alten's works, will share some of these pieces throughout the state in a traveling exhibition to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Alten's birth in 1871.

"Mathias J. Alten: An American Artist at the Turn of the Century," will begin on Sept. 20 at the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City.

Employees pack a Mathias Alten painting.
A painting is carefully packed for the traveling exhibition.
Image Credit: Valerie Wojciechowski

"Narratives of empathy, peace, love, social justice, equity — all core elements to what it means to be human — are told through art," said Nathan Kemler, director of Grand Valley's galleries and collections. "I believe the stories art tells belong to everybody and we want to take these stories into our communities and across our state."

Other scheduled venues are the Daughtrey Gallery at Hillsdale College, the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing and the Muskegon Museum of Art, said Joel Zwart, curator of exhibitions for the Art Gallery, who added officials are working through hosting dates due to the uncertainty from COVID-19.

The exhibition includes more than 40 works drawn from the Art Gallery collection as well as historical photos and personal artifacts such as brushes to fully tell the story of Alten's life, Zwart said.

Alten's artistic work was one of inspiration from travels to major art and cultural centers around the globe and creating pieces that showed the quiet reflection of himself as well as his surroundings when his travel was limited during World War I and the 1918 pandemic. 

Work is done on a mounting for artifacts.
Katie Pershon worked on mountings for artifacts included in the exhibition.
Image Credit: Valerie Wojciechowski

His lifelong celebration of his surroundings in Michigan, in particular the environmental landscapes, especially resonated with George Gordon, who along with his wife, Barbara, donated 35 paintings in 1998 to initiate Grand Valley's collection. The momentum that ensued after that initial donation not only led to the distinction of GVSU having the world’s largest public collection of Alten's work but also the entire artist Catalogue Raisonné and published scholarship.

"All of this is only possible because of the Gordons' contributions and their passion not only for Mathias Alten but also art in general," Kemler said. "The Gordons could have done several different things with that collection. They shared our vision that works need to be seen, they need to be shared and they need to be out in front as much as possible, not in storage."

George and Barbara Gordon Gallery

Alten's works are on exhibit in the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus. It is open from 1-5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, except for holiday weekends, and admission is free.

George and Barbara Gordon Gallery
Nostalgia was a central theme of Alten's work.
Kendra Stanley-Mills
George and Barbara Gordon Gallery
Alten's paintings invite you to slow down and reflect.
Kendra Stanley-Mills