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 Franz (Frank) Biberstein  (1850 - 1930)

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Lived/Active: Wisconsin / Switzerland      Known for: landscape, moving panorama-history

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Ad Code: 3
Franz Biberstein
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Franz Biberstein was born in St. Niklaus, Solothurn Canton, Switzerland. HIs father was a skilled marble craftsman and carved cemetery monuments and also laid floors in marble for churches.

He took his early training from Johann Sutterlin, a Swiss landscape painter, and at age 19 went to Munich where he enrolled in 1869 at the Royal Academy and spent two years. One of his teachers was Wilhelm vonDiez, a leader in Munich realism. The young Biberstein was much more interested in landscape painting than the traditional academic training of sketching and then painting from live models, and he spent much time painting mountain scenery when he should have been attending classes.

In 1880, he took advantage of the opportunity of joining Ludwig Braun, a professor of painting in Munich, to assist in creating a huge panorama of the Battle of Sedan for the owners of a panorama building. This battle had occurred ten years earlier, and the theme was perfect for this time in France when battle scenes were popular subjects for panoramas. Working on this project brought Biberstein some financial security, and he used the money to enroll in the Karlsruhe Art Academy for the next three years.

Then he answered the invitation of Austrian painter August Lohr, who also had worked on the Sedan panorama and who had subsequently gone to Milwaukee to help a businessman establish the American Panorama Company. Lohr began recruiting European artists he thought qualified and sent Biberstein the money for the ocean voyage.

Based in MIlwaukee, Wisconsin, the company was the first large-scale panorama producers in the United States. It was formed in 1885 by Chicago businessman William Wehner who had seen "The Battle of Sedan" at the 1884 Cotton Exposition in New Orleans. From that, Wehner got the idea to bring experienced panoramists to the United States from Germany to create panoramas of Civil War themes. August Lohr was the first German artist to sign on, and shortly after Biberstien, at the urging of Lohr, emigrated from Germany to join the company.

The company went out of business in 1887, but several successor firms kept the industry alive. Many of the German artists returned to their homeland, but Biberstein remained in America and soon was involved in panoramic painting for the fair grounds of the Chicago 1893 Exposition. After that Expo, he and an artist friend, George Peter, went to work as scenery painters in Milwaukee. Then more employment opened up when William Wehner determined to produce a Spanish-American War panorama titled "The Battle of Manila Bay". It was created in San Francisco in 1900, but was a financial failure, and it became obvious that the public fascination with panoramas had declined.

Biberstein returned to Milwaukee and became part of the group that organized the Society of Milwaukee Artists, composed almost entirely of German immigrant artists. His landscapes became a regular part of the exhibitions. He also experimented with photography.

One of his collectors was Thomas George Shaughnessy, who became President of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was marketing travel to the many Americans who wanted to see the West. And the way to attract tourists was to show them enticing paintings of the scenery. At Shaughnessy's invitation and the railroad's sponsorship, Biberstein spent two summers in the Canadian Rockies and painted many scenes, especially of the Selkirk Range in British Columbia. One of the larger paintings, five by seven and a half feet, is in the collection of the Milwaukee Public Library, a gift from philanthropist Frederick Layton.

In 1910, having just returned from the last of the painting trips for the railroad, Biberstein established a studio in the Cawker Building in Milwaukee and was there until 1920. He did a mural for the County Courthouse and made his living from portrait commissions including James Davidson, the governor of Wisconsin. But his great love continued to be landscape painting.

His last years were spent in "dignified poverty" as he had lost his savings in the collapse of a local trust company. For his remaining 18 years, he occasionally painted religious backgrounds for an immigrant woodcarver and grew ginseng in a vacant lot.

On July 26, 1930, Biberstein died in his sleep in a rented room, his home for the last ten years, at 919 Second Street in Milwaukee. He had never married and had no relatives in the United States. In Solothurn, Germany, his birth place, two of his paintings are in the local museum.

Peter Merrill, "German-American Artists in Early Milwaukee: A Biographical Dictionary"
Following is a note, submitted August 2004, from Don Ritchie, PhD:

We purchased a Franz Biberstein painting, along with his easel and other
painting materials at an estate sale in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On the back of the painting is a newspaper clipping that includes a picture of the artist and the following information:

"Born in Solothurn, Switzerland, Feb. 12, 1850. Studied at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts under Professors Pilotti and Dietz. Since 1886, he lived in Milwaukee and died July 26, 1930. A master of color and was engaged to paint many panorama in the U.S."

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