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.

Book Art: The Beauty of Marbled Paper

by Tracy Cook

Paper marbling can be summed up as the “method for producing colored designs on paper or on the edges of books in which liquid colors are first suspended upon a liquid surface” (Wolfe, 2[i]). The liquid bath is typically thickened with Tragacanth, a natural gum, before ink or paint is dropped into it. To create the patterns, one may use a variety of instruments such as brushes, styluses, or combs to manipulate the paint or ink. The paint is then transferred by absorption onto the paper by placing the desired portion into the liquid bath.

If you would like to view an example of paper marbling by The Folio Society, click here.

Paper marbling was mainly used in book binding and calligraphy in Europe after the 17th century, with its peak popularity for book binding and wallpaper falling in the 18th century. Today, paper marbling is still used for book binding, among various other things, but are printed more often than created. Paper marbling was not just used for looks though, it also ensured authenticity because creating an exact duplicate is basically impossible. Creating the patterns is extremely difficult and mistakes cannot be undone.

With a steady hand, various sized brushes, styluses, and combs, and numerous colors of paint or ink, a variety of patterns can be created. Since there are so many patterns of paper marbling, we are going to focus on some of our favorites that are held here in the Special Collections and University Archives.

Turkish (Stone)

This is possibly the oldest known paper marbling pattern, dating back as early as the 15th century. This is one of the basic patterns created when multiple colors are dropped onto the surface using a marbling brush. The colors will continue to constrict as more colors are added leading to the beginning colors appearing as veins and the later colors appearing as “stones”, or large spots. This pattern can be utilized as a base for other patterns.

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 1. Investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Vol. 10-12, United States. Congress. House. Select Committee on Assassinations. Washington : U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978-1979, 12 vols.
2.  Byron, George G, Baron. Works of Lord Byron. Vol. 3, London, Murray, 1833, 9 vols.
3. Carlyle, Thomas. Thomas Carlyle’s Collected works. Library ed., vol. 13, London, Chapman, 1871, 34 vols.

Gold Vein

This pattern follows the same process as Turkish, except bronze must be the first color dropped in to create the effect of the gold veins running between the stones, which gives this pattern its name.

Addison 5
Addison, Joseph. The works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison. Vol.
1, London, Vernor and Hood, 1804, 6 vols.


Argued to have been created in the mid-19th century, this style begins with a Turkish base before a brush or stylus is drawn twice vertically through the bath with the second pass halving the first. Repeat this step horizontally. Then, draw vertically in wavy lines that emulate the way a snake moves.

Burlesque Homer 14 cover Burlesque Homer 14

Bridges, Thomas. A burlesque translation of Homer. 4th ed., vol. 1, London, G.G. and J. Robinson, 1797, 2 vols.


One of the other basic marbling patterns, named for the French word meaning “matchless” or “unrivaled”. The desired colors are dropped in regulated sizes before a comb is drawn through the bath horizontally twice. Then, a smaller comb is drawn across vertically, although it can also be done horizontally. Multiple, contrasting colors can be used to make this pattern really pop. This pattern can also be utilized as a base for other patterns.

Byron 1 cover
Byron, George G, Baron. Works of Lord  Byron. Vol. 3, London, Murray, 1833, 9 vols.

36 Sexagenarian
Beloe, William. The sexagenarian. Vol. 1,  London, F.C. and J. Rivington, 1917, 2 vols.

Double Comb

After creating a nonpareil pattern, a wider comb is drawn once more through the bath which causes the arched lines to become separated into arched columns. The new columns can either be straight or manipulated further into waves.

Addisoniana 4 Cover Addisoniana 4

Phillips, Richard. Addisoniana. Vol. 2, 1803, 2 vols.

French Curl

This pattern can be created using any base, but bases with multiple colors will work the best. Once the base is completed, a stylus or brush is dipped into the bath and swirled, creating the curls that this pattern is named for.

l'hisoire 28

Auvigny, M. d’. L’Histoire de France. Paris, Chez Theodore Le Gras, 1749.

[i] Wolfe, Richard J. Marbled Paper : Its History, Techniques, and Patterns: With Special Reference to the Relationship of Marbling to Bookbinding in Europe and the Western World. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. A Publication of the A.S.W. Rosenbach Fellowship in Bibliography. EBSCOhost.

Michigan Picture Postcards

Postcard. Why Don't You Come to Holland, circa 1910
Holland, Michigan. Why don’t you come to Holland, Mich. and runabout the town with me, circa 1910

Among the many instruments that people have devised to communicate with one another, the postcard fills many roles. If you need a simple way to send a quick note, to let someone know you’re thinking of them, to save or send a souvenir of your travels, or merely to document your own surroundings – postcards can meet all of these needs and more.

The American postcard was first developed in the 1870s, and the first souvenir postcard in the 1890s. They quickly became immensely popular, with their “Golden Era” spanning from around 1907 to 1915.

During that period, the U.S. Postal Service introduced the “divided back” postcard, which included a line on the blank side to separate the address area from the message area. Also during this period, Kodak produced a specialized “postcard camera” which enabled the quick production of “real photo” postcards.

The postcards highlighted in this exhibit come from our American Picture Postcard Collection (RHC-103).  Their photographs and illustrations depict the locales and sights of Michigan, and show us how things used to be.

Summer through Art: The Mike McDonnell Papers

Various containers painted by Mike McDonnell.
Colorful Still Life, unidentified, by Mike McDonnell

Coming into the Grand Valley Special Collections and University Archives this summer, I had very little idea of what archivists actually did. As an English major, I had studied the wide range of career fields through studying abroad, teaching, and mentoring. However, my History minor remained untouched. As I hurtled toward my senior year here at Grand Valley, I began to wonder what kinds of job opportunities I could find with my minor and discovered archivist was among them. The first place I contacted was the Grand Valley Special Collections and University Archives and I am glad I did. Thanks to the Archivist for Collection Management, Annie Benefiel, I was able to get an overview of what the job of an archivist entails. Her passion and patience in mentoring me through every task, led me to have a greater understanding and appreciation for the important work archivists do.

In my first few days, I was given tasks to help preserve and promote just some of the documents Grand Valley has to offer. I began with transcribing and scanning letters from World War II, reliving the blossoming relationship of a young couple separated by the sea. Next, I tracked down papers for a researcher, sifting through an unfamiliar world of politics from committee meetings to luncheons, to letters about planning and numerous copies of speeches. Then came my biggest task: the papers of Mike McDonnell.

Mike McDonnell standing next to his art.
Mike McDonnell standing next to “House on a Stool” which currently graces the wall outside the Administration Office on the 4th floor of Mary Idema Pew Library at GVSU.

When I began working on the Mike McDonnell collection, I had no idea who this man was or what his story was. Through researching his own work, interviews, and photos, I feel like I’ve met a friend. In organizing and processing the collection, it became clear that Mike McDonnell was someone who understood that his life’s passion was to make art, it was as simple as that. In many of the newspaper articles I scanned, he said time and time again, that making art was never about money. He acknowledged he could make a respectable amount on a painting, but never had the idea of money in his mind. I believe he was interested in seeing how far his art could go. Whether it was a specific subject, or a certain style of painting, he was always experimenting and documenting those important artistic journeys.

Mike McDonnell with portrait of young woman.
Mike McDonnell with a portrait of a young woman behind him.

Though his interviews provided insight into his professional life, Mike McDonnell’s personal photos also revealed who he truly was. Looking through the pictures, you get the sense that he was hardworking, friendly, and goofy person who liked to hang out with his friends and farm animals. In the photographs donated to Grand Valley, his work can be seen lingering in the background or even taking center stage. His life was surrounded by art in various forms and his paintings, I believe, reflected that.

After getting up close and personal with his donated belongings, it becomes clear why this collection needed to be preserved. Mike McDonnell is a key figure in the history of Michigan painters. His attention to detail, the wide range of subjects he experiments with, and his precision through the medium of watercolor allowed me to appreciate the fact that Grand Valley has this collection, pieces of his work on display on its campuses, and that I was lucky enough to process this one of kind collection.

Mike McDonnell in his studio.
Mike McDonnell surrounded by his art.

Every Wednesday, I’d arrive on the Grand Valley Allendale Campus, go over to the Seidman House and get lost for the next four hours in paintings, receipts, slides, and photos all relating to Mike McDonnell and his work. I would walk out into the hot summer afternoon and think of how to see the world like an artist of his caliber would. Looking back at this summer, it has seemed to fly by in a sea of green folders and papers of all shapes, sizes, and ages, and I’ll miss it all. I’m so grateful to the Grand Valley Special Collections and Archives Department for taking me under their wing, allowing me to have been a part of processing this wonderful collection, and getting the grand tour of life as an archivist. It has been truly unforgettable.

Andrea Bazan

The Mike McDonnell papers (RHC-120) were given to GVSU Special Collections & University Archives in May 2017 in conjunction with a gift of McDonnell’s art to the GVSU Art Gallery. The materials are available for research use in the reading room in Seidman House.