Mathias J. Alten: The Dean of Michigan Painters

by Evan Granda

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.