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Mathias J. Alten papers

Identifier: RHC-28

Collection Description

The Mathias J. Alten papers document the personal life and career of the West Michigan painter. The collection includes biographical information, business records, exhibit catalogs, and newspaper clippings collected by family members.


  • 1893-2008


Access to Materials

Collection is open for research use. Materials may be accessed by request at Special Collections and University Archives in Seidman House. Materials do not circulate.

Publication Rights

For information on copyright or permissions for this collection, contact Grand Valley State University Special Collections.

Biographical Note

Mathias Alten, was an American impressionist painter and German native who came to Grand Rapids as a youth. Alten is a celebrated American regionalist often referred to as the Dean of Michigan Painters. Building from a traditional Barbizon and Tonalist landscape background, Alten began as a naturalistic scene painter and later transitioned into painting in an impressionistic style, and painted over 2,500 works in his lifetime.


Born on Feb. 13 in Gusenburg, Rhine Province, Germany
Alten family lives in Marpingen, Germany. Mathias earns money painting pictures of soldiers stationed there who control crowds making a pilgrimage to the area of a reported apparition of the Virgin Mary. He sells a portrait of the Crown Prince Frederick to the Countess de Wendel.
Apprentice to Joseph Klein as a painter and paperhanger. He works in Roman Catholic churches and in theaters, and receives an apprentice certificate signed by Klein.
Employed by Joseph Klein.
Immigrates to the United States with his parents, brother, and sister. The family lives for a short time with relatives in Ferrysburg, Michigan, moving to the west side of Grand Rapids in the spring. This area is heavily populated by German immigrants at this time. Alten works as a decorator for local furniture factories.
Marries Bertha L. Schwind. Together they operate Schwind and Alten, a paint and wallpaper store formerly owned by Bertha's father, who had died the previous year.
Daughter Eleanore (Ella) is born Dec. 1.
Daughter Camelia is born Nov. 13. Alten becomes a U.S. citizen Nov. 1, and applies for a passport that same day. He leaves in late December for study in Europe when she is 6 weeks old.
Enrolls at Academie Julian in Paris. Later enrolls at Academie Colorossi, where he wins a gold medal in figure drawing. He also attends afternoon sketch classes at J. A. McN. Whistler's academy. In the summer he travels, paints, and visits galleries in the Vatican, Rome, Florence, Naples, Genoa, Turin, Herculaneum, Siena, and Alexandria. Returning to Paris, he paints landscapes and peasants, especially along the coast at Etaples. He visits and paints in Holland and Belgium before returning home in September. In October he and another artist, Constant L. Flierman, open a studio and art school in the same room where his former teacher, E. A. Turner, had maintained a studio. Alten continues to teach evening classes in Grand Rapids for 25 years.
In the fall he paints at Old Lyme, Connecticut.
Daughter Viola is born Oct. 19.
Alten goes to Portland, OR to fulfill a commission for a portrait of former Michigan lumberman John H. Haak with his wife, daughter, and son.
Alten leaves for Europe with Bertha, his three daughters, and a student, Norman S. Chamberlain on August 24. He goes to Holland first and paints people, homes, canals, seascapes, and landscapes.
In the spring he travels with his wife and daughters to Scheveningen, a fishing village/resort on the North Sea. He paints huge work horses pulling herring boats to the seashore. While he is overseas, the two large murals, The Sources of Wealth and The Uses of Wealth, painted in 1910, are installed in the Grand Haven State Bank. A grand opening is held June 3. Alten and family visit Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Germany before returning to America in late summer. While in New York, Alten sees paintings by Spanish Impressionist Joaquin Sorolla and is much impressed with the colorful rendering of many of the same subjects that he had painted in Holland. Bertha and the children return to Michigan, and Alten travels to Old Lyme again, where he stays for three months before returning to Grand Rapids in November.
In March Alten sails to Spain, establishing his base in Cabanal, near Valencia, where Sorolla had done many of his beach paintings. He travels to Italy, Austria, Germany, and Tangier, also visiting other Spanish cities such as Madrid and Granada. He tries to visit Sorolla but discovers that he is not at home. Alten's love of animals causes him to describe the single bullfight that he attends as "revolting". He paints many scenes of oxen pulling fishing boats in the brilliant sunlight, and on his return to Grand Rapids in October, his palette remains much brighter than before this trip.
Alten purchases a home at 1593 E. Fulton in July, which will be his residence for the rest of his life. In the fall he returns to Old Lyme.
Several of Alten's paintings are reproduced as color lithographs for a 1915 calendar printed by Dickinson Bros. of Grand Rapids at Michigan Lithograph on the corner of Fulton & Carlton.
Commissioned to paint a posthumous portrait of a young Grand Rapids man killed in action in France, Alten hires a sitter who was about the same size and requests numerous photographs showing the subject's hands and facial features. He uses this same procedure in later years when he was asked to do posthumous portraits, including those of the Michigan judiciary and the portrait of the woman who was killed on the Titanic.
In December, Alten wins the gold medal at the Scarab Club in Detroit for a group of three of his paintings.
Returns to Spain with Bertha and a student, Grand Rapids born Foster Jewell. He paints for a while in Valencia, and then travels inland to Sagunto, where he paints peasants and village scenes. They return after spending several months in Europe.
Exhibits several of his Spanish scenes in April in a one-artist show at the Southby Salon in Los Angeles. This show was arranged by his daughter Eleanore, who had traveled to the West Coast to promote and sell his work. Other paintings from this year include a portrait of the Bishop of the Grand Rapids Diocese, Edward Kelly, with dimensions to the precise protocol for a seated bishop, and an illustration of a newsboy for the 1926 Grand Rapids Press calendar.
One of Alten's former students, Norman Chamberlain, comes to Grand Rapids in June for a month-long exhibit of his work at the Grand Rapids Art Gallery. Alten travels with him to Taos in July, where he paints more than 40 canvases depicting Native Americans, landscapes, and adobe buildings in the Taos area.
Travels again to Spain with student, Kreigh Collins.
Travels with Bertha to New York, where he exhibits at a one-man show in the Holt Galleries from February to March. They go to Hollywood, Florida, where Alten paints colorful pictures of sunbathers and beach umbrellas. He purchases a home in Florida and, before the family could move, in loses it during the crash of 1929. Later that year he travels to southern California, where he paints scenes at Laguna Beach.
Travels to New England in the fall, where he concentrated on scenes of beaches and small fishing boats.
Travels to Los Angeles to paint a portrait of Fred Webber, formerly of the Webber Showcase Co. in Grand Rapids. While there he also paints several views of Spanish missions that are later featured in the May/June issue of the Grand Rapids Mirror.
Travels to Tarpon Springs, Florida, in the summer, where he paints a series of pictures of the Greek sponge fishermen and their colorful boats.
Alten paints autumn and early winter landscapes in rural areas around Grand Rapids.
On March 8 Alten dies of a heart attack at his home at 1593 E. Fulton in Grand Rapids.


6 Linear feet (10 boxes, 1 object)

Language of Materials



Arranged in 3 series: 1) Personal and professional files, 2) Photographs, 3) Reference files and publications

Source of Acquisition

Acquired from Gloria Gregory, granddaughter of Mathias J. Alten, in 2008 and 2016.

Alternative Format Available

A selection of of photographs and diary transcription are available electronically in our Digital Collection. at

Related Material

The largest single collection of Alten paintings is owned by Grand Valley State University:

  • Artists Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
  • Grand Rapids (Mich.) Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
  • Michigan Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
  • Painters Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
  • Photographs Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
Mathias J. Alten papers, RHC-28
Special Collections & University Archives
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Revision Statements

  • 2019: Revised arrangement and box numbers

Repository Details

Part of the Grand Valley State University Special Collections and University Archives Repository

Seidman House
1 Campus Drive
Allendale MI 49401 United States