Grand Valley State University owns the largest public collection of Michigan painter Mathias Alten’s work, which is now available to students via digital library. The collection includes paintings, letters and various personal items and photos that students can browse from home.
The George and Barbara Gordon Gallery has been reserved solely for Alten’s work since its opening in 2000. The addition of a digital library intends to expand the gallery’s reach. GVSU said that the library will make the collection “easier to access and learn directly from a collection of primary and secondary resources.”
The website for the Alten gallery includes essays and interviews by GVSU professors and experts about Alten’s legacy. Students can also access an interactive timeline that details Alten’s life, travels and artwork. The digital library provides a complete history to accompany his content.
A traveling exhibit will take place in 2021 during the 150th anniversary of Alten’s birth. The exhibit will visit several museums in Michigan to “share GVSU’s collection and some of what we’ve learned from this collection,” according to Assistant Director of Galleries and Collections Nathan Kemler.
The gallery is devoted to Alten due to his strong connection to west Michigan. Alten immigrated from Germany to Grand Rapids where he stayed until his death in 1938. He taught evening art classes and produced over 3,000 paintings, many of which depict life in Grand Rapids.
“Looking back on Alten’s life and his works tells us a lot about not only what happened in the world during his life, but also significantly helps us to understand our own life experiences,” Kemler said. He also explained that art can change our perspective and help us to “not only grow as individuals but also to learn empathize for those around us.”
In 2015, GVSU President Thomas J. Haas spoke about Alten’s work and its ability to shape perspectives.
“It creates a different mindset, a pathway,” Haas said. “Maybe you see things differently because the art has created in you the opportunity to think differently.”
While he was based in Michigan, Alten regularly traveled abroad to expand his worldview and study. He took formal art classes in Paris and returned to Europe often to explore museums and paintings. His travels also included Florida, California, New Mexico and both coasts of the United States.
Alten’s paintings often feature landscapes and seaside scenes. The Grand River is a common subject, which highlights the differences between the 1900s and today. In his work “View of the Gas Works from Lower Island on the Grand,” a horse cart can be seen with Wealthy Street and gasoline tanks in the distance, a reminder of the quick technological changes that affected Grand Rapids. His Michigan-focused work and love of Grand Rapids earned him the title “Dean of Michigan Painters.”
Grand Rapids’ history can be seen through Alten’s paintings. After a flood in 1904, Alten painted the flood-control efforts put forward by the city; technological advancements and changes to Grand Rapids are also depicted over the years. In 1913, Alten painted a distant view of the city, church spires visible among the skyline. His consistent paintings give a glimpse into Grand Rapids’ past.
The gallery and additional resources can be viewed online or at the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery on GVSU’s Pew campus.