GVSU showcases famous Grand Rapids artist’s collection

GVL / Sara Carte 
The paintings of Mathias J. Alten are being featured in the Richard M. DeVos Center, building E, room 103 and 203 on Jan. 12, 2018.

GVL / Sara Carte The paintings of Mathias J. Alten are being featured in the Richard M. DeVos Center, building E, room 103 and 203 on Jan. 12, 2018.

Arie Nienhuis

Mathias Alten, often referred to as the “dean of Michigan painters,” was a German impressionist painter who did the vast majority of his work in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Grand Valley State University is known for holding the largest public collection of his work.  

From now until Saturday, May 5, “Mathias J. Alten: An Evolving Legacy” will be exhibited in the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery, located in the DeVos Center, Rooms 103E and 202E. The collection spans decades of Alten’s work, highlighting his various naturalist landscapes among other pieces. 

Henry Matthews, director of galleries and collections at the GVSU Art Gallery, said that most of the university’s collection of Alten’s work will be on display and that he was one of the most significant artists to have lived in Grand Rapids.

“We have 130 works by Mathias Alten in the permanent collection, (and) there are about 90 on view in the gallery,” Matthews said. “We’re able to tell the story of Mathias Alten, … who became probably the most important artist in Grand Rapids.”

Through his artwork, Alten left a substantial cultural impact on the Grand Rapids area. His involvement in the community is visible through both his art and where his art resides. 

“If you go to many of the homes and churches in Grand Rapids that have been around for generations, many of them will have works by him in their lobbies and their parlors because he was clearly the artist whose work you had to have, whether it was your grandfather’s portrait or a view of Lake Michigan,” Matthews said.

Beyond Alten’s importance in the world of art, his activity in the community at large has cemented his importance in the Grand Rapids area and Michigan as a whole. 

“That connection to Grand Rapids is important when it comes to his work,” said Leigh Rupinski, archivist for public services and community engagement at the University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives. “But he (was) also a community member. … He was commissioned to paint a posthumous portrait of a Grand Rapids man that was killed in France in World War I.”  

Rupinski believes that the documentation of Michigan creatives is incredibly important to both the education and the preservation of Michigan’s history and culture. 

“I think the importance of documenting Michigan artists lies in that connection to local history,” Rupinski said. “These people came out of places that we are familiar with (and) that we can identify with, and that lends them this personal aspect to how we look at their work and how we understand them.”

Matthews shares a similar sentiment in regard to the importance of documenting Michigan creatives, especially in the art world.

“What makes (the exhibit) extraordinary for learning and teaching purposes is that it spans his whole career, from his very beginnings; we literally have this last painting,” Matthews said. “So, if you’re an artist or if you’re someone who wants to get to know one artist in depth, this is a really, really good example.”

The “Mathias J. Alten: An Evolving Legacy” exhibit is available to view in the George and Barbara Gordon Gallery, open on Fridays and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.