Special Collections & University Archives, Grand Valley State
University Libraries Seidman House 1 Campus Drive Allendale, Michigan 49401
Special Collections & University Archives, Grand Valley State
University Libraries, Allendale, Michigan 49401
Alten, M. (Mathias), 1871-1938
Mathias J. Alten papers
2.5 linear feet (7 boxes)
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.
Scope and Content of Collection
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.
Arranged in 3 series: 1) Personal and professional files, 2) Photographs, 3)
Reference files and publications
Born on Feb. 13 in Gusenburg, Rhine Province, Germany
Alten 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.
Apprentice 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.
Employed by Joseph Klein.
Immigrates 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.
Marries 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.
Daughter Eleanore (Ella) is born Dec. 1.
Daughter 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.
Enrolls 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.
In the fall he paints at Old Lyme, Connecticut.
Daughter Viola is born Oct. 19.
Alten goes to Portland, OR to fulfill a commission for a portrait of
former Michigan lumberman John H. Haak with his wife, daughter, and
Alten 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.
In 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
In 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
Alten 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
Several 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.
Commissioned 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.
In December, Alten wins the gold medal at the Scarab Club in Detroit for
a group of three of his paintings.
Returns 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.
Exhibits 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
One 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.
Travels again to Spain with student, Kreigh Collins.
Travels 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.
Travels to New England in the fall, where he concentrated on scenes of
beaches and small fishing boats.
Travels 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.
Travels to Tarpon Springs, Florida, in the summer, where he paints a
series of pictures of the Greek sponge fishermen and their colorful
Alten paints autumn and early winter landscapes in rural areas around
On March 8 Alten dies of a heart attack at his home at 1593 E. Fulton in
The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection.
Restrictions on Access
Collection is open for research use.
For information on copyright or permissions for this collection, contact Grand Valley
State University Special Collections.
[Identification of item], Mathias J. Alten papers (RHC-28). Special Collections &
University Archives, Grand Valley State University Libraries.
The papers were donated by Gloria Gregory, Dianne Boozer, and Anita Gilleo,
grandchildren of Mathias J. Alten in 2008.
The largest single collection of Alten paintings is owned by Grand Valley State
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.