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Wisconsin Art History in Brief, an Outline

by Gary John Gresl

I. Art of Indigenous People/Native Americans/Indians prior to European settlement: Petroglyphs, effigy
mounds, artifacts, decorations and carvings, clothing and adornment, basketry, later beadwork and
trade objects modified to suit Native aesthetics

II. European explorers, adventurers, reporters and students of culture: British Isles to include Samuel
Marsden Brooks, Alexander Marquis, Eastman Johnson; Germany, Austria, Switzerland to include Henry Vianden, F.W. Heine, Franz Biberstein, Richard Lorenz and many others.

III. Panoramas of the 1880’s drawing academically trained artists to Milwaukee, including Lorenz, Heine,
Biberstein, etc. Milwaukee appeared to be a thriving city drawing artists and artisans to it.

1V. “Artistic Movements”, 19th, 20th to the 21st Century, patterns of art development, subject matter, style.

19th to early Century…Academic Realism as supported by European academies, with Carl Von Marr
as the chief example, being taught by Henry Vianden in Milwaukee and then in Germany, living in
Germany and Wisconsin, serving as Director of the Royal Academy in Munich, and being an
internationally important figure in the visual arts. (Of course, realism is still being produced.)

19th to early 20th C... Impressionism as tentatively employed in some cases by such as Von Marr.

Late 19th and Early 20th C… Craftsman-Mission style as seen in work by George
Niedecken, Frank Lloyd Wright, Susan Frackelton

Early 20th C. Abstraction… tentatively employed in basic representation, e.g. by George Raab et al,
but more importantly abstraction after 1913. The 1913 New York Armory show, revealing progressive
European styles to American audiences, had a venue in Chicago, and stirred media and topical interest
inspiring artists to stretch their tastes. Edmund Lewandowski was a nationally known Modernist employing abstraction in the “Precisionist” movement. Some artists left the conservative climate of Wisconsin for more accepting environs, for example, Georgia O’Keeffe.

Early to Mid 20th C… Nonobjective forms made their way into WI art as in the work of Carl Holty, who grew up in Milwaukee but moved away. Generally, Wisconsin art remained more conservative and slowed to acceptance due to the strength of academic teachers, traditions, public tastes and support, with new movements arriving late. By the 50’s/60’s, with television, publication, increased colleges and galleries, information and ease of travel, we have gradually become a World culture. Brooks Stevens, internationally known modernist artist/designer/businessman, established his company in Milwaukee in 1934.

Early 20th C…Social Realism, American Scene Painting, Along side of abstraction and nonobjective forms,the Ash Can School of painting interpreting the less attractive underside of life in cities grew
early in the 20th C. This Social Realism was one half of the American Scene painting. In
the Midwest and other regions outside of major cities there was the Rural Regional movement of the
Twenties into the early Fifties as exemplified in work by John Steuart Curry, Carl von Neumann,
Gerrit Sinclair, et al, locally, plus Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton at a national level. (Curry,
living and teaching in Wisconsin, forms a national triumvirate with Benton and Wood.)

1930’s-50’s Magic Realism (Surrealism) Wisconsin had a group of artists involved in this movement including John Wilde, Karl Priebe, Marshall Glasier, Leonard Beck, Gertrude Abercrombie, Sylvia Fien, and Dudley Huppler.

V. Teachers such as Henry Vianden, Lorenz, Gustave Moeller, Carl von Neumann, had kept alive
concerns and interest in the quality of academic realistic interpretations. Other independent artists such
as Francesco Spicuzza, et al, took in private students and small classes.

Later in the 20th Century, progressive teachers and others such as Edmund Lewandowski, Lucia Stern, et al, proceeded to use and influence new forms of expression. The art culture in the world had changed enormously, allowing for freedoms and wide acceptance in art production. James Schwalbach, associated with a Rural Arts directive at the UW Madison created the important “Let’s Draw” radio program of the 40’s-50’s, and is credited at reaching more art students than any other method of teaching to its day.

The UW system itself has provided highly important influential teachers including Warrington
Colescott, Alfred Sessler and others involved in printmaking at UW Madison; Harvey Littleton in the field of Studio Glassmaking; Donald Reitz and Paul Donhauser in ceramics. In textile arts the
currently named School Human Ecology at UW Madison has been important. (Formerly called School
of Home Economics and for a time the School of Family Resources and Consumer Sciences.) At
UWM, Elsa Ulbricht taught and practiced art in several mediums, and was importantly involved in the
Works Progress Administration programs. These programs also gave work to many other notable WI artists, such as Shomer Lichtner and his wife, Ruth Grotenrath. A variety of important murals came to be due to the WPA. UW Madison thru its Agriculture Dept. and a Rural Arts Program had an Artist in Residency position with Curry and subsequently Aaron Bohrod as representatives. Bohrod had been involved in Social Realism and later was noted for his fanciful still lifes (related to Magic Realism).

VI. Art related societies and associations have served as vehicles for artists and supporters to garner
attention and support, and to strengthen ties and influence. These include the 19th C. Milwaukee Art
Association, the Wisconsin Art Institute begun in 1888, a Wisconsin School of Design, the Milwaukee
Art Student’s League, the Association of Milwaukee Artists begun in 1900 which changed its name in
1913 to Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, The Wisconsin Designer Crafts Council begun about
1916, The League of Milwaukee Artists begun in the 1940’s(?), The Layton Art Gallery which was
associated with the Layton School of Art (Charlotte Partridge and Miriam Frink founders), MIAD
which followed the closing of the Layton School, Downer College that became UW Milwaukee, and
currently Riverwest Artist Association, ABEA, Bayview Arts Guild, MARN, AC Art Group, plus many
associations around the state…Menomonee Falls, Ripon, Lake Geneva, Madison, Door County, etc.
(For example, the Peninsula Art School and the Kewaunee Academy.) While not currently noted as an
important venue for artists, the Wisconsin State Fair at one time was a more notable venue. In
Madison’s UW Student Union Porter Butts began the first student run art gallery associated with a
major university in the US. This idea spread around the entire world. In the last five years there has been the establishment of the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards jointly sponsored by the Museum of Wisconsin Art, The Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, and WP&S.

VII. Sculptors of importance include Vinnie Ream Hoxie, Helen Farnsworth Mears, Louis Mayer,
Richard Lippold. (Sculpture is too often neglected compared to two dimensional art.)

VIII. Photographers include H.H. Bennett, Orlando Goff, David Barry, Edward Steichen. Goff was an
example of a 19th C. itinerant photographer moving from job to opportunity, and there were many
such photographers in the 19th C. Steichen, who studied art in Milwaukee, became one of the most
important photographers in the world.

IX. Wildlife artists such as Owen Gromme, Bruno Ertz, sometimes associated with museums and natural
history exhibits. Wildlife stamps, competitions and exhibits like the nationally acclaimed Birds in Art
at Wausau’s Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum spur interest and respond to and spur popular appeal.

X. Patrons have always influenced art by their example of support, their choices and their largesse. In the
20th C. we have the important patron of the Milwaukee Art Museum, Peg Bradley and her
philanthropist daughter, Jane Pettit. In smaller communities we have individuals who also stepped
up in support, like Ruth West in Manitowoc, artist Gerhardt Miller in Sturgeon Bay, Ruth
Kohler in Sheboygan, the Yawkey and Woodson families of Wausau, etc.

XI. Naives, Outsiders, Visionaries, Vernacular and the Self Taught, Wisconsin has a wealth of artists
in who fall in these categories and who have gained national recognition, often thru the environments
that they created. Such artists include: Fred Smith (Concrete Park), Father Mathias Wernerus
(Dickeyville Grotto), Albert Zahn (Bird Park), Bill Every, AKA Dr. Evermore (Foreveratron), Joseph
Barta (Museum of Woodcarving), Mary Nohl (Cottage and Grounds), Eugene von Bruenchenhein,
Nick Englebert, Josephus Farmer, Prophet Blackmon, Norb Kox, etc.

XII. Current Institutions supporting studies and exhibition of historic and contemporary Wisconsin art, as some important part of their stated missions:

The Museum of Wisconsin Art; West Bend, Charles Allis Museum, Milwaukee; Miller Museum
Sturgeon Bay; Center for Visual Arts (CVA), Wausau; Anderson Art Center, Kenosha; Wustum
Museum, Racine; Wright Museum, Beloit College; Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, (The
Wisconsin Triennial), John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan (8 Counties Triennial); Neville
Public Museum, Green Bay; Rahr-West Museum, Manitowoc; Kenosha Public Museum; Walker’s
Point Center for the Arts, Milwaukee; Appleton Art Center; New Visions Gallery, Marshfield;
Bergstrom Mahler Museum, Neenah (7 County Artist Exhibition); Paine Art Center, Oshkosh (H.F.
Mears collection); Fairfield Center for Contemporary Art, Sturgeon Bay; Cedarburg Cultural Center;
Wisconsin Union Gallery, UW Madison (exhibits plus WI collection); Gallery 110 North, Plymouth;
Prairie Archives, Milwaukee Art Museum (George Niedecken materials); and numerous
college/university galleries around the state.


A considerable amount of information included in this brief history is derived from the serious studies
by Tom Lidtke, Director of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, who has researched, published and
conducted college credit classes on WI art history. The archives (over 7,000 files) and publications of the MWA are the most important in the state. The information included in this brief history was collected and interpreted by myself, Gary John Gresl, and will only be my personal subjective review, hardly a comprehensive or objective one, and is solely my responsibility. Others would likely find other artists and subjects to mention and we cannot emphasize the good work of them all.

It seems clear to me that largely thanks to the Museum of Wisconsin Art we have begun a serious study
of the art and artists of this state. However, it also appears we have only begun to scratch the surface, as there remains so much of our history that is yet to be uncovered, artists and works to be discovered, research in many areas to be conducted, plus artistic and social ramifications to be found identified and publicized, with Wisconsin’s place in the national historical and contemporary art landscape to be examined and promoted.


There are numerous publications about Wisconsin Art History produced by the Museum of Wisconsin Art,or sold by the Museum and available there. These deal with general and specific subjects ranging from catalogs regarding certain artists to the role of German American artists. The MWA also has over 7,000 individual files about WI artists in its archives which are accessible thru the Museum’s archivist. It has also compiled many videos/films/CDs about WI art and artists.

Other publications include the classic 1930’s Porter Butt’s book, “Art in Wisconsin”, sometimes available thru antiquarians and used book sellers. An out of print book from 1941 compiled by the Writers Program of the Work Projects Administration, titled “Wisconsin, A Guide to the Badger State”, has a notable chapter titled “Painting and Sculpture”; the Wisconsin Historical Society with offices and storefront in Madison have art related publications, books about Native American culture, as well as an important collection of WI art; the catalog of the Centennial Exhibition of Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, produced by the Museum of Wisconsin Art, has a detailed history of WP&S written by Janet Treacy; individual catalogs of exhibitions, both group and individual, will appear thru galleries and art venue gift shops. WP&S produces a bi-monthly small magazine format publication called “Art in Wisconsin” that is distributed to its members and supporters and provided free of charge at galleries and art venues.

Public libraries, especially the main branch of the Milwaukee Public Library system on Wisconsin Ave, have records about individual artists gleaned from newspapers and publications, as well as related books and periodicals of various sorts. There are also UWM and MIAD to be used for research.

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