About The Artwork
By the 1930’s, when he painted Sailboats on Reeds Lake, Impressionist Mathias Alten enjoyed great success as an artist and teacher. Although the sexagenarian traveled and exhibited in New York and along the East Coast, he continued to paint prolifically in his home studio in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reeds Lake, in neighboring East Grand Rapids, was one of the artist’s favorite locales, and he painted its crystal blue water and curving, forested shores more than 30 times.
Alten began his artistic career as a young boy. Born in 1871, he spent much of his childhood in his native Germany, where from an early age he earned money by creating portraits of his village neighbors. Alten’s family moved to Michigan in 1889, settling on the west side of Grand Rapids with many other German immigrants. In a city renowned for furniture manufacturing, Alten found work as a decorator in local furniture factories. He also produced painted murals for local businesses and worked as a house painter for a Grand Rapids firm.
Like many artists of his generation, Alten pursued formal artistic education in Paris, first at the Académie Julian and later at the Académie Colarossi, while augmenting his studies in private drawing classes conducted by the American expatriate artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He spent much of 1899 painting, drawing, and traveling throughout Europe, honing his aesthetic temperament and viewing art by masters both historical and contemporary. Upon his return to the U.S., Alten established his own studio and conducted evening art classes in Grand Rapids for the next 25 years.
Teaching comprised only part of Alten’s career. His training in the birthplace of impressionism produced a mature style that remained relatively consistent throughout his life and combined great structural control with the loose, lively brushstrokes of his French predecessors. For more than three decades, Alten would enjoy success in individual and group exhibitions throughout the United States, notably at the Detroit Museum of Art (later renamed the Detroit Institute of Art), the Toledo Museum of Art, the National Academy of Design in New York, and the Pennsylvania Academic of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
Alten worked in several different genres: portraiture, still lifes, and landscape paintings. For the latter, the artist's travels greatly influenced his choice of subject matter, from native American vistas in New Mexico and canal settings inspired by his time in the Netherlands to agrarian landscapes painted en plein air (out of doors) at the Old Lyme Artist Colony in Connecticut. The artist continually focused his artistic eye on his longtime home, however, and thus the land and waterways of Michigan figure prominently in his oeuvre.
Typical of the genre, Sailboats on Reeds Lake portrays an idyllic scene with several boats occupying a bay of this picturesque area. The intimate scale of the work makes it a perfect candidate for having been painted en plein air on the lakeshore during a summer afternoon. Alten suggests the light of the season through the application of paint and his palette. Applied so thinly in some areas that patches of primed canvas show through but dabbed on in robust impasto brushstrokes in others, the paint physically catches light and creates shadows across the surface of the canvas. The sails and their almost unnaturally bright reflections, particularly of the foremost boat, rush the picture plane, demanding attention. Pale, mid-summer colors predominate, which Alten achieved by mixing almost every hue with varying amounts of pure white paint; even the darkest shadows belie not a hint of black. With sensitivity and a deft touch that reflects its impressionist lineage, Alten’s painting captures the warmth and languor of an afternoon by the lake.
Assistant Professor, Frederik Meijer Honors College, Grand Valley State University