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.

The Alabastine Company

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The Alabastine Company, founded in 1879, produced a variety of paint products from the gypsum that was mined from the shale beds abundant in the area surrounding Grand Rapids, Michigan. Though the company was founded in New York, it derived its name from its largest gypsum quarry near the town of Wyoming, just south of Grand Rapids.

Alabastine color sample brochure, 1925
Alabastine color sample brochure, 1925

It’s earliest product, a dry pigment wall paint, was marketed as a “sanitary” and “hygienic” alternative to more traditional wall coverings of the day, such as lead-based paints, whitewash, and wallpaper.

Alabastine Home Color Book

The company advertised broadly in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, the Delineator, and House Beautiful, and created colorful advertisements, catalogs, and other promotional materials.

Alabastine Stencil Catalog

The company was in business until about 1948 when it failed due to mismanagement. More information about the Alabastine Company can be found online at Antique Home Style and HistoryGrandRapids.org.

School-Pak Alabastine Art Paint Kit

These items, along with other Alabstine Company odds and ends, can be found within the Special Collections in Seidman House.

Grand Rapids Carnival of Fun

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Cover of the “Carnival of Fun 2 Step” music for piano solo by Dan Ball, 1897

The first Grand Rapids Carnival of Fun was held in October 1897 and organized by the Hesperus Club. Modeled after the “Carnival of Rome,” Grand Rapids’ carnival was a four-day festival of parades, music, Midway acts and games, and the election of Carnival King and Queen. Advertisements and souvenirs featured images of leprechauns, devils, jesters, and people in fanciful costumes.

At a meeting of the Hesperus Club in November 1897, heated debate arose about the worth and morality of the recently concluded festivities. It was reported in the Grand Rapids Herald that during the 4 days of the carnival there were 61 arrests for drunkenness, compared to 8 from the preceding week and 10 for the following week. Such public displays of “immorality and degradation” were met with furious opposition from a number of the city’s prominent businessmen and ministers, including Gen. Byron M. Cutcheon, the very founder of the Hesperus Club itself.

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However, since the carnival’s events and attractions brought a great financial boost to the city, Grand Rapids’ Mayor,  Lathrop C. Stow, declared that the city was none the worse for having held it. The following summer the organizers petitioned the city once again to repeat the Carnival of Fun. The new mayor, George R. Perry, citing “no law to prevent” the holding of the carnival, granted permission for its use of public streets once again.

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Carnival of Fun 1898 commemorative envelope – “More fun than last year.”

The 1898 Carnival of Fun was nearly twice as large as the previous year. It held opening ceremonies, three parades, free shows on four stages, fireworks, Midway games, food stands, and more. Local businesses even ran special carnival sales to attract both locals and out-of-towners.

Following the rousing “hot time” of the 1898 Carnival of Fun, a conference of ministers gathered to oppose the “immorality and drunkenness” of the carnival. The conference demanded that the carnival never be repeated, noting that arrests for public drunkenness increased threefold from the first year to the second. They vowed to fight any future proposals of carnivals with all of the weapons at their disposal. Their efforts were victorious, and the Grand Rapids Carnival of Fun was never held again.

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