Mathias J. Alten: The Dean of Michigan Painters

Mathias J. Alten was a 20th century impressionist painter. Born in Germany in 1871, Alten eventually moved to the then-developing town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He began his artistic journey exploring landscapes and subjects around the world while other famous artists like Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh did the same. The impressionist artistic style originated in the 19th century, and many impressionists, like Alten, continued to explore the perspective and composition of impressionism even as new artistic techniques were rapidly emerging. Alten painted over 2,500 paintings during his travels in and outside of Grand Rapids.

Mathias Alten in his Grand Rapids Studio, 1900’s

Alten started as an apprentice for a local artist, Joseph Klein, in the town of Marpingen, Germany. In 1889, after three years of apprenticing, Alten’s family immigrated to the United States, passing through Ellis Island. Settling on the West Side of Grand Rapids, he worked at one of the many booming furniture factories till he met and married Bertha Schwind. A year later Bertha gave birth to their daughter Eleanor, the first of three daughters. Despite his growing family, Alten continued to pursue his artistic aspirations. Six weeks after his second daughter Camelia was born in 1898, Alten left to study in Europe, visiting and painting in Vatican City, Rome, Florence, Naples, Genoa, Alexandria, and Paris. Finally returning to Grand Rapids after nine months abroad, Alten created his first studio and began teaching lessons.

Alten gave studio giving lessons on Tuesday and Friday evenings while improving his mostly self-taught artistic ability. Alten exhibited paintings all at the Michigan State Fair, Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, Toledo Museum of Art, and National Academy of Design, New York. Alten traveled abroad for a second time in 1911, this time with Bertha and his children. They visited the beach of Scheveningen, Netherlands, where he captured the harbor appeal of a small coastal Dutch town. Alten’s artistic style and composition became brighter as he captures the essence of his subjects. This often required him to be on site with his subject, rather than painting in a studio environment.

“Working directly from nature lends strength and color to the work. Studio work is necessary for certain types of work but never as interesting to me as working under the open sky.” – Mathias Alten

The Grand River, 1904

As a Grand Rapids resident, Alten took from the nearby views of the Grand River and its valley. However, many of Alten’s paintings also illustrate his travels in the U.S and Europe. Subjects of his paintings include locales such as Old Lyme, Connecticut; Laguna Beach, California; and Tarpon Springs, Florida. Traveling all across Europe, Alten painted numerous depictions of bridges bounding over beautiful rivers, windmills sprawled across the Netherlands, and collective farmlands and animals. Alten was never without inspiration for his work. After an entire lifetime of a career of canvases and sketches, Alten passed away in his home in Grand Rapids in 1938.

Lake Michigan, 1930

Painting every day of his later life, Alten amassed a large collection of styles and subjects over the years of his travel and experiences. He took his family on numerous excursions to nearby attractions and local beaches to find the next subjects of his paintings. The value of Alten’s artistry has been captured today in Grand Valley’s expansive collection of his work and documentation of his professional and personal life.

Grand Rapids was a large part of Alten’s career and life. The George and Barbara Gordon Gallery displays over forty pieces of Alten’s work. A digital archive of Alten’s work held at Grand Valley State University is available through the GVSU Art Gallery. Biographical stories and additional information about the life and career of Mathias Alten is available at GVSU’s Special Collections.

Women in Sports at GVSU

When Grand Valley College began, the administration focused on building a successful liberal arts program before implementing any official sports programs. GVSC did offer intramural club sports for students who did wish to join a team. In addition, all students were required to take a physical education course. These physical education classes were mainly just basketball games played inside an old barn on campus property. Nearby fields were used for other physical education activities, while also being used for intramural teams as well, some being football, basketball, softball, track and golf, plus more.

Intercollegiate sports came on the scene for Grand Valley in 1964, with the organization of the first cross country team.  It wasn’t until 1968, however, that women’s sports became a part of the Grand Valley legacy. Joan Boand was a faculty member in the physical education department. She first coached the softball team in 1968, and within the next few years she was also coaching teams in basketball and volleyball. She was given the opportunity to award Donna Sass Eaton the first female athletic scholarship in the State of Michigan for softball in 1974.

Left to right: Jim Scott (wrestling coach, GLIAC conference commissioner), Joan Boand (women’s basketball, softball, and volleyball coach), and President Lubbers.

Grand Valley joined the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) in 1972., Two years later, the women’s tennis team won the 1974 GLIAC tournament. The following year, both men and women’s basketball won their respective championships. Throughout the entirety of the 1970s Grand Valley’s women’s softball remained a powerhouse, winning multiple games and qualifying for a variety of GLIAC tournaments. As for the late 1970s, the women’s rowing team dominated the state, winning three Michigan Rowing Championships consecutively.

Women’s softball game, 1990s

The 1980s saw a rise of swimming and basketball for women’s athletics. In 1984, swimming and diving were introduced for men and women for the first time at Grand Valley. Kristen Campbell lead the school being the first person to qualify for the national championship in swim, for both men and women. In 1988, the women’s basketball team qualified and played in the NCAA division II tournament for the first time, although they lost the game.

The 1990s were a time of change for Grand Valley sports. Women’s coach Joan Boand retired, the Meadows Golf course opened, and women’s soccer was added to the available team sports. Joan retired with over 500 wins under her belt coaching the volleyball team to six conference titles. Her legacy was followed by Deanne Scanlon, who continued down the path of success, leading the Lakers volleyball team to a 24-11 record in 1995. To finish up the 1990s, there was an increase in the number of scholarships for women’s golf, along with the first full time coach, Lori Stinson in girl’s golf. In 1999 a new track and cross-country coach was hired, Jerry Baltes. That same year Baltes was hired, the women’s cross-country team placed fifth nationally at the NCAA National Championship.

The 2000s brought only victory and positive change within the women’s sports world at Grand Valley. The volleyball team continued to dominant, advancing to their first NCAA final four tournament in 2001. Although they ended up losing in the semi-final against South Dakota State, the team had made it farther than ever before. Four years later in 2005 the volleyball team qualified again for the national championship, this time held at Kearney, Nebraska, where Grand Valley won its first national title in a women’s sport. In 2006, women’s basketball took home a national championship win as well.

With only about fifty years of women’s sports history, Grand Valley has seen many successful women’s teams. More recently, women’s volleyball won their 17th Crossover tournament in 2015; women’s tennis, cross-country and soccer all won their respective GLIAC tournaments in 2017; and the women’s softball, golf, swim and dive, cross-country and soccer teams all won in GLIAC tournaments in 2019. Not only the teams are celebrating victories, either. Jerry Baltes is also set to receive a 20-year award in 2019 for his time spent working with the athletics program.  

To The Letter S2 E13: Mustering Out

We’ve come to the end of Season 2! We’re wrapping up with a little bit more about John’s life in service and what he did after the war.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

The letter featured in Episode 13 is available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, June 13, 1865


Additional research for this episode:

Thank you so much for listening! Interested in more seasons? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E12: The End of the War

It takes a long time for the Civil War to be officially over in every state and territory. In this episode we take a look at how the end of the war actually came about.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in Episode 12 are available in full below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, March 15, 1865

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, April 9, 1865

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, April 17, 1865

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, April 6, 1865


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E11: U.S. Sanitary Commission

Once again we’re talking about medical needs during the Civil War. This time, we investigate what the U.S. Sanitary Commission was all about.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in Episode 11 are available in full below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, July 30, 1864

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, March 12, 1865


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E10: Black Soldiers in the Army

In this episode we’re talking about the roles of Black men and women in the military during the Civil War.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in this episode are available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Apr. 12, 1864

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, February 25, 1865

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, March 3, 1865


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E9: Vote for President!

Episode 9 is all about the election of 1864, in which only 25 states participated!

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

The letter featured in Episode 9 is available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Dec. 27, 1863


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E8: It’s So Rare We Get Any Mail Here

We couldn’t resist talking about how the mail system worked! While delays in communication were a common theme in Season 1, John hasn’t talked too much about the mail yet. In Episode 8, we take a look at how letters were delivered, especially as troops moved into enemy territory.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in Episode 8 are available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Nov. 8th, 1863

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Dec. 3, 1863

(Notice in the December letter that John wrote in both directions to conserve paper!)


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E7: Bushwhacking

This episode explains “Bushwhackers” and “Jayhawks”. Bushwhackers was the term given to pro-Confederate secessionist guerillas of Missouri, in particular, but was also applied to other guerilla fighters in Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Virginia, and even California. Jayhawks, in contrast, were pro-Union guerilla fighters.

Several famous outlaws in the West got their start as bushwhackers, including Frank and Jesse James.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in the episode are available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, July 21, 1863

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Oct. 27, 1863

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, March 3, 1864


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E6: The Invalid Corps

In this episode we delve into the aftermath of Civil War medicine. What happened to soldiers wounded in action?

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in this episode are available in full below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, July 5, 1863

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, May 19, 1863


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E5: Prisoner of War

In today’s episode we discuss the capture of the 19th Michigan Infantry by Confederate troops near Brentwood, Tennessee and how prisoners of war were treated during the Civil War.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in Episode 5 are available in full below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, April 26, 1863


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E4: Sisters of Charity

In Episode 4, we continue to talk about medical treatment during the Civil War – particularly the role that women in religious organizations played. The Sisters of Charity, Daughters of Charity, Sisters of the Holy Cross, and Sisters of St. Joseph all provided volunteer nurses.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them.

The letter featured in Episode 4 is available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, January 17, 1863


Additional research for this episode came from:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E3: Sawbones

Episode 3 is all about Civil War medicine – which is a huge topic! John was one of many Civil War surgeons, but one of few that had prior medical training.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in Episode 3 are available below in full:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, November 9th, 1862

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, November 30, 1862

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Dec. 28, 1862

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, February 7, 1863

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, March 18, 1863


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E2: Always Be Prepared

In Episode 2 we’re getting into what military camps looked like during the Civil War and how John got involved in the war. He enlists as an assistant surgeon in 1862 with the 19th Michigan Infantry.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in Episode 2 are available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, August 21, 1862

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, October 23, 1862


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E1: An Introduction

We’re so pleased to bring you Season Two of To The Letter!

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them.

This season, we’re discussing the letters of John Bennitt, a Civil War surgeon from Michigan. Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at GVSU.

Letters featured in Episode 1 are available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife, Charlotte “Lottie”, Dec. 1861

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Aug. 21, 1862


For more information about John Bennitt, or if you are interested in reading all of these letters in their entirety, our Curator of Rare Books & Distinguished Collections, Robert Beasecker, edited a book called “I Hope to Do My Country Service” that contains all of the letters, with additional footnotes. It is available through Wayne State University Press.

Questions? Comments? Tell us what you think! Contact Leigh at rupinskl@gvsu.edu or leave a review on iTunes or Spotify!