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Mathias Joseph Alten

 (1871 - 1938)
Mathias Joseph Alten was active/lived in Michigan, California.  Mathias Alten is known for impressionist sea-landscape, portrait and rural scene painting.

Mathias Joseph Alten

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Mathias Joseph Alten

Work in Permanent Collections:

Everson Museum of Art; University of Michigan Museum of Art; Muskegon Museum of Art; Kalamazoo Institute of Arts; Dennos Museum Center; Michigan Historical Museum; Grand Valley State University Art Collection; Aquinas College Art Collection; Calvin College Art Collection; Grand Rapids Community College; Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society; Spectrum Health Systems, Grand Rapids, Michigan; Ferris State University, Kendall College of Art and Design, Grand Rapids, Cooley Law School, Grand Rapids, Michigan Campus.

The George and Barbara Gordon Gallery on the Grand Valley State University campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is dedicated to the permanent display of paintings by Mathias Alten. (Connell)

The Literary Digest October 12, 1929, color cover "Cabanal Fishermen"


Information provided by James A. Straub, who publishes a catalog raisonne on the artist at

E. Jane Connell, "Mathias J. Alten: Discovery of an American Impressionist", American Art Review, February 2011.

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Mathias Joseph Alten
Born in Gusenburg, Germany on Feb. 13, 1871, Mathias Alten emigrated from Germany in 1888 and settled in Michigan.  After studying in Paris at Académie Julian and with James Whistler, he returned to Grand Rapids and became well known for his figure studies, still lifes, and landscapes.

To escape the harsh winters he made trips to southern California in 1929 and 1933-34. His good friend Norman Chamberlain had settled in Laguna Beach.  While visiting there he was active with the local art colony and painted coastal scenes and a series of missions. He achieved success in Los Angeles due to his daughter's promotion of his works.

He died in Michigan on March 8, 1938.

Collection: Michigan State Capitol; Detroit Museum (Mission Capistrano).

Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
American Art Annual 1933; Who's Who in American Art 1936-38; American Art Review, Dec. 1998.

Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from McGuires Fine Art

Born in Gusenburg, Germany, near Trier, Mathias Alten is hailed as the foremost painter of Grand Rapids, Michigan and a second-generation Impressionist whose primary theme was agrarian labor.  He was apprenticed to Joseph Klein, a decorative painter in Saint Wendel, Germany and worked on ceiling and wall decorations for churches and theaters. 

At age 17, he emigrated with his family to Grand Rapids, Michigan, which was a major manufacturing center and vital art community.  For two years, he worked for a decorator and received attention for decorating rathskellers with his paintings.  He also ran a furniture decorating business and did fresco painting for churches and local businesses.

Meanwhile he studied with Edwin A. Turner, hoping to become a professional artist, and he first exhibited his work at the Michigan State Fair in 1896.  Some of his earliest works are floral stilllife, a theme to which he continued to return; he also did figure and portrait painting, but his landscapes defined the direction of his work.

In 1898, he went to France and settled in Paris after spending time painting fishing scenes in Etaples, an artists' colony on the French coast.  He studied at the Academie Julian with Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens and won a gold metal for the best figure drawing.  Interested in animal drawing, he attended classes at the veterinary school and then traveled extensively throughout France and Italy and other parts of Europe.

Returning to Grand Rapids, he seemed equally productive in oil paintings of landscapes, marines, portraits, florals and animals.  He and Constant Fliermans opened a studio and art school together, and then on his own he pursued an active career as a a portrait and figure painter, and also did numerous murals.  His figure paintings were unusual for that time because they were not elegant subjects but working class people straining their muscles.

From 1902, after spending time at the Old Lyme, Connecticut art colony, he became increasingly devoted to plein air rural landscape painting with sparkling sunlight and colors of Impressionism.  Many of these works were agrarian labor scenes.

In the early 1900s, he had numerous visitors to his studio and had annual studio exhibitions.  One of his foremost Grand Rapids collectors was George C Briggs, who purchased over 60 of his paintings.  In 1910, Alten traveled abroad for a year, doing many rural scenes of Holland, and in New York, he saw paintings by and was much influenced by the Spanish Impressionist Joaquin Sorolla whose work became a lasting influence in subject matter and a palette that was more colorful and sunlit than his previous work.  In 1912, he traveled in Spain, and much of his work from that time reflected Spanish subjects.

In 1921, he did figural illustrations for The Commonwealth magazine, but increasingly his livelihood came from portrait subjects.  He also had a market for his paintings in California because of the skillful promotion of his daughter, who acted as agent for her father.

In 1927, he went to Taos, New Mexico and painted landscape and Indian figures in the established art colony there, and in 1929, he was painting in Laguna Beach, California, but worked primarily in Grand Rapids and Saugatuck as well as in coastal areas of Massachusetts.  However, in 1934, he returned to California and did a series of mission views and then painted on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida.

He died of a heart attack on March 8, 1938, having just had a three-person show with Susan Ricker Knox and Benjamin Kelman at the Chicago Galleries Association.

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About  Mathias Joseph Alten

Born:  1871 - Gusenburg, Germany
Died:   1938 - Grand Rapids, Michigan
Known for:  impressionist sea-landscape, portrait and rural scene painting

Essays referring to
Mathias Joseph Alten

Taos pre-1940