It’s hard to visit a prominent building in downtown Grand Rapids and not find a painting by Mathias Alten. Aside from the obvious locations in art galleries and museums, the American post-Impressionist’s work decorates walls throughout the city – in the Grand Rapids Public Library, St. Cecilia Music Center, and various local churches, universities and colleges.
To honor her late grandfather’s legacy, Anita Gilleo has permanently funded an annual award for students at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University in Grand Rapids. The Mathias Alten Memorial Award is available to a senior at KCAD who is in good academic standing and who demonstrates the qualities and characteristic of its namesake.
A native of Germany, Alten immigrated to Grand Rapids as a teenager and grew to maturity in the city. He spent his career painting in Europe and across the U.S. in California, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico and Oregon.
Alten’s artistic style evolved throughout his career. He began in the Barbizon, Naturalist tradition and transitioned into a second-generation Impressionistic style. Painting en plein air and working in natural light were particularly important to the artist. While best known for painting agrarian landscape and seascape scenes, Alten also painted still lifes and was known as a leading portrait artist during his time. Unique to his artistic oeuvre was his attraction to themes of agrarian labor, particularly draft animals.
Often referred to as the “Dean of Michigan Painters,” Alten travelled extensively seeking inspiration for his paintings, but always returned to Grand Rapids, his professional base of operation and his home until his death in 1938. It was where he received consistent patronage, exposure and acclaim for his art.
In a 1905 article in the Grand Rapids Post, Alten was quoted as saying:
There are many reasons why I like Grand Rapids. Many people say: “Why don’t you go to New York to live?” I prefer to stay here. I have a beautiful country to work from this locality… I feel that I am enabled to be a better artist by staying here and working out my own ideas… I paint as I like, no matter what people say. And so far the critics have been kind to me, while the public has also shown that it cares for what I do.
Alten historian James Straub estimates that there are about 1,500 Alten paintings in the immediate Grand Rapids area. Preservation of Alten’s artistic legacy has in recent years been the preoccupation of his granddaughter Anita Gilleo. She has donated many of her grandfather’s paintings to churches and universities in west Michigan.
“He wanted his paintings to be seen,” Gilleo said. “It always breaks my heart when they have been stuffed away in closets.”
Kim Smith, owner of Grand Rapids’ Perception Gallery, has known Gilleo since 1977 and said she donates her grandfather’s art after much consideration. For example, she donated a painting of her father, Capt. Avery Gilleo, to Grand Rapids Community College, where her father was enrolled in the college’s 1914 inaugural class, before leaving to serve in France during World War I.
“Anita is dedicated to promoting her grandfather’s legacy, so that he is not forgotten,” Smith said.
Gilleo has produced a DVD about his art and succeeded in having his former home at 1593 East Fulton Street placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Permanently funding the memorial award is the latest contribution to honor her grandfather’s legacy.
The award is presented annually to a senior at KCAD whose qualities and characteristics include: solid drawing and draftsmanship, discipline and industriousness, respect for traditional standards of craftsmanship, versatility as to medium and subject matter, and ‘painterly’ technique as opposed to mechanically assisted, highly abstract subject matter or extreme photo-realism.
The artistic qualities being considered are a reflection of the artist’s life working in Grand Rapids, a conservative artistic environment around the turn of the century, when modernism and abstract styles were transforming the art world, Gilleo said. During this time Alten remained committed to traditional standards of academic-impressionism and solid craftsmanship, yet still managed to create a prolific and unique oeuvre, she noted.
Gilleo wants to see the traditional “painterly” techniques that her grandfather mastered remain and hopes the award will encourage students to pursue them.
“For many students, once they finish school it can difficult to follow their creative pursuits without taking on additional debt,” said Carla Miller, executive director of The Ferris Foundation. “Scholarships help lessen the financial burden for KCAD graduates, so they can use their creative talents.”
Gilleo intends for the award to give an aspiring artist recognition and encouragement. It was patronage that sustained her grandfather in his early career and allowed him to create fine art, she explained.
She recalled stories about how her grandfather would become so absorbed in his art that he would paint for hours and sometimes forget appointments, leave items on the trolley or stop to paint a scene and never make it to his original destination.
“My grandfather really lived to draw and paint. He was always sketching. He always had to have something to paint and often family members were his models,” said Gilleo, who was the subject of two of her grandfather’s paintings. Given the challenges that young artists face trying to make a living with their art, one hope this might help, she said.
Alten and David Kendall, the college’s namesake, were good friends, Gilleo said, noting that her grandfather provided the designs for a furniture line created by Kendall.
The friendship was mentioned in a 1912 article in the Daily Artisan-Record, a now-defunct Grand Rapids publication: “Kendall soon discovered that Alten, although not well schooled, possessed natural ability and the pair became warm friends.”
“What better way to memorialize a local artist, who was a good friend and early collaborator of the founder of the local art school,” Gilleo said of the award.
Alten painted three pieces with connections to KCAD: one features the entrance of Kendall’s estate, which was donated to KCAD by Gilleo and hangs in the president’s office. He also painted a vignette portrait of Kendall, which has not been located, and a portrait of Kendall’s bulldog.
“Anita is someone deeply committed to her grandfather's memory, his value as an artist and his approach to painting,” said Oliver Evans, KCAD’s interim president. “With this award she is honoring her grandfather’s memory and helping to keep his painterly style alive.”
Like her grandfather, Gilleo lived a peripatetic life and career. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she did editorial work for the American Chemical Society in Washington DC and worked overseas for the Corps of Army Engineers in Morocco and Spain, and for the former United States Armed Forces Institute in Germany and Vietnam. She earned her master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at the American University of Beirut, among other post-graduate studies. She enjoys traveling, never seeking to visit a place twice. She eventually returned home to Grand Rapids, where she resides.
For more information about the Mathias Alten Memorial Award or to make a contribution, contact The Ferris Foundation at (231) 591-2365.