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Mathias J. Alten papers

Mathias J. Alten papers

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Mathias J. Alten papers RHC-28

Grand Valley State University Special Collections & University Archives
1 Campus Drive
Allendale, MI 49503


Repository: Grand Valley State University Special Collections & University Archives
creatorAlten, M. (Mathias), 1871-1938
Title: Mathias J. Alten papers
Dates: 1893-2008
Quantity: 2.5 Linear feet(7 boxes)
AbstractMathias Alten, was an American impressionist painter and German native who came to Grand Rapids as a youth. Alten is a celebrated American regionalist often referred to as the Dean of Michigan Painters. The photographs and papers document his family life and career and support the collection of Alten paintings owned by Grand Valley State University. The collection includes biographical information, business records, exhibit catalogs, and newspaper clippings collected by family members.
Identification: RHC-28


Arranged in 3 series: 1) Personal and professional files, 2) Photographs, 3) Reference files and publications

Collection Description

The Mathias J. Alten papers document the personal life and career of the West Michigan painter. The collection includes biographical information, business records, exhibit catalogs, and newspaper clippings collected by family members.



1871Born on Feb. 13 in Gusenburg, Rhine Province, Germany
1876-84Alten family lives in Marpingen, Germany. Mathias earns money painting pictures of soldiers stationed there who control crowds making a pilgrimage to the area of a reported apparition of the Virgin Mary. He sells a portrait of the Crown Prince Frederick to the Countess de Wendel.
1885-88Apprentice to Joseph Klein as a painter and paperhanger. He works in Roman Catholic churches and in theaters, and receives an apprentice certificate signed by Klein.
1888-89Employed by Joseph Klein.
1888-90Immigrates to the United States with his parents, brother, and sister. The family lives for a short time with relatives in Ferrysburg, Michigan, moving to the west side of Grand Rapids in the spring. This area is heavily populated by German immigrants at this time. Alten works as a decorator for local furniture factories.
1895Marries Bertha L. Schwind. Together they operate Schwind and Alten, a paint and wallpaper store formerly owned by Bertha's father, who had died the previous year.
1896Daughter Eleanore (Ella) is born Dec. 1.
1898Daughter Camelia is born Nov. 13. Alten becomes a U.S. citizen Nov. 1, and applies for a passport that same day. He leaves in late December for study in Europe when she is 6 weeks old.
1899Enrolls at Academie Julian in Paris. Later enrolls at Academie Colorossi, where he wins a gold medal in figure drawing. He also attends afternoon sketch classes at J. A. McN. Whistler's academy. In the summer he travels, paints, and visits galleries in the Vatican, Rome, Florence, Naples, Genoa, Turin, Herculaneum, Siena, and Alexandria. Returning to Paris, he paints landscapes and peasants, especially along the coast at Etaples. He visits and paints in Holland and Belgium before returning home in September. In October he and another artist, Constant L. Flierman, open a studio and art school in the same room where his former teacher, E. A. Turner, had maintained a studio. Alten continues to teach evening classes in Grand Rapids for 25 years.
1902In the fall he paints at Old Lyme, Connecticut.
1903Daughter Viola is born Oct. 19.
1909Alten goes to Portland, OR to fulfill a commission for a portrait of former Michigan lumberman John H. Haak with his wife, daughter, and son.
1910Alten leaves for Europe with Bertha, his three daughters, and a student, Norman S. Chamberlain on August 24. He goes to Holland first and paints people, homes, canals, seascapes, and landscapes.
1911In the spring he travels with his wife and daughters to Scheveningen, a fishing village/resort on the North Sea. He paints huge work horses pulling herring boats to the seashore. While he is overseas, the two large murals, The Sources of Wealth and The Uses of Wealth, painted in 1910, are installed in the Grand Haven State Bank. A grand opening is held June 3. Alten and family visit Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Germany before returning to America in late summer. While in New York, Alten sees paintings by Spanish Impressionist Joaquin Sorolla and is much impressed with the colorful rendering of many of the same subjects that he had painted in Holland. Bertha and the children return to Michigan, and Alten travels to Old Lyme again, where he stays for three months before returning to Grand Rapids in November.
1912In March Alten sails to Spain, establishing his base in Cabanal, near Valencia, where Sorolla had done many of his beach paintings. He travels to Italy, Austria, Germany, and Tangier, also visiting other Spanish cities such as Madrid and Granada. He tries to visit Sorolla but discovers that he is not at home. Alten's love of animals causes him to describe the single bullfight that he attends as "revolting". He paints many scenes of oxen pulling fishing boats in the brilliant sunlight, and on his return to Grand Rapids in October, his palette remains much brighter than before this trip.
1913Alten purchases a home at 1593 E. Fulton in July, which will be his residence for the rest of his life. In the fall he returns to Old Lyme.
1914Several of Alten's paintings are reproduced as color lithographs for a 1915 calendar printed by Dickinson Bros. of Grand Rapids at Michigan Lithograph on the corner of Fulton & Carlton.
1919Commissioned to paint a posthumous portrait of a young Grand Rapids man killed in action in France, Alten hires a sitter who was about the same size and requests numerous photographs showing the subject's hands and facial features. He uses this same procedure in later years when he was asked to do posthumous portraits, including those of the Michigan judiciary and the portrait of the woman who was killed on the Titanic.
1920In December, Alten wins the gold medal at the Scarab Club in Detroit for a group of three of his paintings.
1922Returns to Spain with Bertha and a student, Grand Rapids born Foster Jewell. He paints for a while in Valencia, and then travels inland to Sagunto, where he paints peasants and village scenes. They return after spending several months in Europe.
1925Exhibits several of his Spanish scenes in April in a one-artist show at the Southby Salon in Los Angeles. This show was arranged by his daughter Eleanore, who had traveled to the West Coast to promote and sell his work. Other paintings from this year include a portrait of the Bishop of the Grand Rapids Diocese, Edward Kelly, with dimensions to the precise protocol for a seated bishop, and an illustration of a newsboy for the 1926 Grand Rapids Press calendar.
1927One of Alten's former students, Norman Chamberlain, comes to Grand Rapids in June for a month-long exhibit of his work at the Grand Rapids Art Gallery. Alten travels with him to Taos in July, where he paints more than 40 canvases depicting Native Americans, landscapes, and adobe buildings in the Taos area.
1928Travels again to Spain with student, Kreigh Collins.
1929Travels with Bertha to New York, where he exhibits at a one-man show in the Holt Galleries from February to March. They go to Hollywood, Florida, where Alten paints colorful pictures of sunbathers and beach umbrellas. He purchases a home in Florida and, before the family could move, in loses it during the crash of 1929. Later that year he travels to southern California, where he paints scenes at Laguna Beach.
1931Travels to New England in the fall, where he concentrated on scenes of beaches and small fishing boats.
1934Travels to Los Angeles to paint a portrait of Fred Webber, formerly of the Webber Showcase Co. in Grand Rapids. While there he also paints several views of Spanish missions that are later featured in the May/June issue of the Grand Rapids Mirror.
1935Travels to Tarpon Springs, Florida, in the summer, where he paints a series of pictures of the Greek sponge fishermen and their colorful boats.
1937Alten paints autumn and early winter landscapes in rural areas around Grand Rapids.
1938On March 8 Alten dies of a heart attack at his home at 1593 E. Fulton in Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids (Mich.)
United States. Army. Corps of Engineers.


Restrictions on Access

Collection is open for research use.

Publication Rights

For information on copyright or permissions for this collection, contact Grand Valley State University Special Collections.

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

[Identification of item], Mathias J. Alten papers (RHC-28). Special Collections & University Archives, Grand Valley State University Libraries.

Source of Acquisition

Acquired from Gloria Gregory, Dianne Boozer, and Anita Gilleo, grandchildren of Mathias J. Alten in 2008.

Related Material

The largest single collection of Alten paintings is owned by Grand Valley State University.

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