GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Just in time for ArtPrize, a new statue was installed in downtown Grand Rapids to honor one of West Michigan’s most prolific painters.
A new sculpture of Mathias Alten was installed earlier this month on Grand Valley State University’s Pew Campus. It sits to the east of Winter Hall on a walking path between Secchia Hall and the L. William Seidman Center.
Grand Valley’s campuses are littered with art installations and busts to commemorate local legends, but Nathan Kemler, the director of galleries and collections at GVSU, said Alten is just the third to get the full-bronze statue treatment.
“He is often referred to as the ‘dean of Michigan painters.’ He is Grand Rapids’ most well-known artist to date,” Kemler told News 8. “(The other two statues are of) Bill Seidman, who worked for Gerald Ford, had federal connections and ties here, of course. And then we also have Chief Noonday down by the Blue Bridge.”
The idea for the sculpture comes from the late James Straub, a local art historian, and was commissioned by the university through one of Alten’s granddaughters, Anita Gilleo, who died earlier this summer, weeks before the statue was installed.
“(Straub) really wanted there to be a bigger public presence of Alten. He thought a sculpture would be a good idea to help bring that visibility to other people who may not be familiar with that history,” Kemler said. “And Gilleo had spent her life helping to build the legacy and the history of her grandfather. She gave the funding to the project.”
The bronze statue shows the German-born immigrant carrying his paints and an easel, ready to capture one of his favorite sights: West Michigan. Local artist J. Brett Grill was selected for the project and used the opportunity to enter the piece into the 2023 ArtPrize competition. It weighs approximately 500 pounds and stands a little taller than Alten did in real life.
Alten was born in 1871 in Germany, and while his art career started there — working as an apprentice and a paperhanger — it took off after his family migrated to the United States. Alongside his parents, brother and sister, Alten made the move in January 1889, settling with fellow German immigrants on Grand Rapids’ West Side.
“He got married after he got over here and was part-owner of a paint and wallpaper company here in Grand Rapids,” Kemler explained. “Then he transitioned out of that into being a furniture decorator for the Phoenix Furniture Company and got noticed for his work there and started getting commissions for other paintings. That’s really what set him off. (From there) he taught art classes and had a studio in downtown Grand Rapids. And (the rest of his life), he was a professional artist.”
Once dedicated to art full time, Alten made several trips overseas to find new inspirations and learn more from the world’s most renowned artists. He worked in France, Spain and spent time at the Hague School in the Netherlands, not to mention art colonies across the United States.
“You can see these work transitions in his life, where things started out really kind of more dense color, more realistic renderings, and then brighter palettes, his brush stokes loosen up,” Kemler said. “He is considered an American impressionist painter. That’s after the European impressionists, it came later, but you can see that in his later works, it’s a very impressionistic feel, very expressive.”
Despite the allure to live and work amongst the most popular artists in the world, he always returned to West Michigan.
“There’s a great quote by him in the Grand Rapids Press, where he was asked ‘Why do you stay in Grand Rapids when you can go anywhere and paint?’” Kemler paraphrased. “His response was basically, ‘I want to stay in Grand Rapids because I don’t want to be influenced by other work, other artists in other areas. I want to paint what I like. I want to paint what I know.’”
Alten’s legacy can also be seen in other parts of the city. During the Great Depression, Alten gave up his downtown studio and started to work out of his home on the northeast side of the city. His former home is now saved as a historic site. It sits at the corner of East Fulton and Alten Avenue, across from the Aquinas College campus.
GVSU has the largest public collection of Alten’s work — more than 150 pieces in all — showing his wide range of work. He painted everything from land- and seascapes to portraits and still lifes.
The university also helps manage the Mathias J. Alten Catalogue Raisonne, which was also funded by Gilleo and curated by Straub, documenting all of Alten’s known works. To date, the catalog has approximately 2,000 entries, but Alten is estimated to have created close to 3,800 paintings.
The statue will also be part of a new interactive app that the university is preparing to launch. It is called “Art at GVSU.” When it is ready, it will provide access to more than 25,000 pieces of art in the university’s collection, on top of some unique tools to expand the experience.
“Integrated into that app is an augmented reality feature. Our students and our faculty here can create a digital layer that sits on top of the sculpture or the artwork and does something, so it could be adding additional information. It can show up like text and images and maps or whatever,” Kemler explained.
But for the new sculpture, the developers wanted to take it to the next level and make the statue come to life.
“You can hold it up, your phone or tablet, and you can see everything. The landscape will be there, it’s just like looking through your camera lens, but instead of seeing a static sculpture, Mathias will come to life,” Kemler said. “You’ll hear him talk in the first person to you, explain who he is, what he did, and direct you to other things at Grand Valley, such as the Alten Collection across the street.”
The app is expected to be released in the coming weeks. It will be free and available to the public.
“Mathias J. Alten: An Evolving Legacy” is on display at the Richard M. DeVos Center on the Pew Campus. It is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.