The Milwaukee Art Museum’s current feature exhibition, Milwaukee Collects, includes more than 100 objects from nearly 50 private collections in the Greater Milwaukee area. It offers an opportunity to see treasures that are typically not on public view. At the same time, it reminds us that the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection is part of a long tradition of collecting in the community. This is the third in a series of blog posts that will explore the provenance of selected artworks in the collection and how they came to be here.
As we’ve explored in the past, in many ways the collection of any museum is the result of the interests of its donors. Here at the Milwaukee Art Museum, we have outstanding European decorative arts from the Renaissance and Baroque periods due to Richard and Erna Flagg. We can boast of one of the deepest collections of nineteenth century German art in the country because of the generosity of René von Schleinitz. And with the gift from Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley, we have a world-class collection of twentieth century art.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at a few of the local collectors of earlier generations that you probably don’t know. Their story is the story of Milwaukee.
And this is just the whirwind tour—some of these historical donors warrant a longer post in the future!
We will start with Samuel O. Buckner (1862–1945), who was instrumental to the art community of early twentieth century Milwaukee. Buckner is sometimes called “the father of the Milwaukee Art Institute,” since he was president of this predecessor institution of the Milwaukee Art Museum from 1910–1926. He even gave the Institute its first painting!
Buckner also served as a trustee for the Layton Art Gallery and the Layton School of Art. Buckner’s day job was Agency Director of the Wisconsin Branch of the New York Life Insurance Company, located in Milwaukee.
What did Samuel O. Buckner collect? He mainly collected paintings by contemporary (of the time) American and Dutch artists. We still have more than 30 objects from Buckner in the collection, including a seaside painting by Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch of The Hague School (above), a painting by the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, and American Robert Henri’s Dutch Joe.
Many visitors to the Milwaukee Art Museum would probably say that Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect, our painting by French Impressionst Claude Monet, is their favorite. This important cornerstone of our Impressionist collection was left to the Museum by Mrs. Albert T. Friedmann upon her death in 1950. Although the Monet is the best known piece associated with her name, Mrs. Friedmann left more than 40 objects to us, including prints and portrait miniatures.
But just who is Mrs. Albert T. Friedmann? She was born Johanna Schuster in 1870, the daughter of Edward Schuster, the founder of the famous Milwaukee department store known as Schuster’s. The department stores were fixtures in Milwaukee from 1884 until the company was bought out by Gimbels in 1962.
In 1888, Johanna married Albert T. Friedmann [1865–1933], who had joined her father’s business after coming to Milwaukee from Vienna, Austria, in 1883. Friedmann went on to be the president of Schuster’s until he died in 1933. After her husband’s death, Johanna Friedmann lived in their Door County home in Fish Creek.
Mrs. Arthur J. Riebs was another Milwaukee collector who liked French art—in her case, it was French Rococo! Mrs. Riebs not only bought high-quality Sevres that had come from important collections—just one example is the Chestnut Bowl below—but she also was known for her collection of lady’s fans.
Alas, we only have a few of her fans, which were on view at the museum at a number of times during her lifetime. What we do have from the bequest of Mrs. Riebs is a small but choice collection of French porcelain to enjoy.
Mrs. Riebs was born in 1889 in Oshkosh as Noryne Everhart, the daughter of Lillian and C. W. George Everhart. Until 1919, her family ran the Challoner Company, which manufactured “Giant Grip” horseshoes. Her husband, Arthur Riebs, was president of Riebs Co., which dealt with grain. Noryne Riebs died in their home on Layfayette Place in 1958.
Another collector interested in the decorative arts was Dr. Warren E. Gilson (1917–2000). Between 1978 and 1998, Dr. Gilson gave nearly 200 works of European and American silver to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Just a few of the highlights from his collection that are currently on view are a tankard made into a pitcher by Paul Revere (above), a cup in the form of an apple by the Baroque German metalworker Marx Merzenbach, and a three-handled cup with stand by the important American silversmith Gorham Manufacturing Company.
Dr. Gilson was a UW-Madison doctor who began making his own medical instruments before founding a self-named company to distribute them to labs. The company, located in Middleton, Wisconsin, still sells its products around the world.
Our final collector is Mrs. Edward R. Wehr (1885–1961). Between 1957 and 1960, she gave almost 40 objects to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Her collection focused on American paintings, drawings, and prints. The two most important paintings from Mrs. Wehr are Georgia O’Keeffe’s Patio with Cloud and Arthur Garfield Dove’s Sunrise (right).
Mrs. Edward R. Wehr was married to one of the sons of Henry Wehr, who founded the Wehr Steel Company of West Allis in 1910. The company was extremely successful, casting steel parts for machines.
Edward Wehr was the brother of C. Frederick “Todd” Wehr, who left his estate to found the Todd Wehr Foundation. You’ll find his name on many Milwaukee-area projects, such as the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts; the Wehr Nature Center in Whitnall Park; and the Todd Wehr Memorial Library at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.