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A brief history of . . .Art in Wisconsin

Wisconsin art during the mid to latter part of the 19th century was characterized by realism. This art was primarily expressed through nature landscapes and panoramas and portraits. The artists of this time sought to give the most realistic representation of the new sights they were experiencing by being a part of the settlement of the Middle West. These artists were truly the first of an American school of painting dedicated to capturing the realism of the new frontier. Art was painted to be literal and historic. Two artists of this time included John O. Lewis and George Catlin. They are known as the painter reporters who documented the landscapes and Native Americans. As Catlin said of his own paintings, "they have been intended as true and facsimile traces of individual life and historical facts." Much of what the East and Europe learned about Native Americans was through his paintings.

America's new Middle West settlers were concerned with daily survival and although art was not shunned, it was not a priority in their lives either. "The ideals of equality, freedom of opporunity, faith in the common man are deep rooted in al the Middle West...Not were these ideals limited to the Native American settlers: Germans and Scandinavians who poured into the Middle West sought the country with like hopes and like faith." (Frederick Jackson Turner) The artists sought to represent the settlers and the indigenous peoples with portraits and landscapes reflecting the Middle West. The Frontier produced a new art of its own by withstanding the importations of European style at that time, namely impressionism and expressionism. The artists became the narrators of community customs and daily life. For many immigrants their own cultural folk arts played a more important role by representing their culture in a creative way and very often to be used in a utilitarian way. The frontier was still an omnipresent force until the 1880's and the population and social forces were in flux. It takes a stable economic and political environment for cultural arts to flourish and take root. As the new frontier artists were shaking off their European influences and asserting the new indigenous frontier art, some of these gains were put aside by the prominence of the emerging Industrial Revolution and quite importantly, the use of the camera for recording physical nature. With the advent of photography there was no longer a necessity for creating an exact reproduction in art. A distinctly American art could not develop in the face of general unsettlement.
While artists were documenting the new frontier in a realistic way, many new immigrants were settling the new Middle West. Most of these immigrants were of European ancestry coming from many diverse, ethnic cultures. With them they brought their traditional works of art and craftsmanship representing their native cultures. Along with the many adjustments the immigrants were making in their lives, their traditional folk arts provided the continuity and familiarity they trusted. In addition, the folk art provided a means of perpetuating their individual communities' spiritual and cultural perspectives. Many times the folk arts were decorative; yet many times the arts were used in practical applications.
In addition, the Native Americans already living here continued their tribal art traditions.
Folk arts provided a consistency and continuity to immigrants' lives. By passing these folk arts on generation to the next, immigrants used their folk arts to express their unique ethnic, regional, and occupational identities. Folk arts may change due to individual artist expression. Some changes result from use of different materials, use of different technologies, and new markets for their arts. Folk arts continue the traditions and celebrate ethnic variation and pride of culture

Butts, Porter. Art in Wisconsin. Madison, Wis. : Madison Art Association in conjunction with the Wisconsin Centennial Committee and the University of Wisconsin Division of Social Education, 1936.

Teske, Robert T., ed. Wisconsin Folk Art: a Sesquicentennial Celebration. Cedarburg, Wis. : Cedarburg Cultural Center, c1997.

Further resources

Created on: April 17, 2000