Schomer Lichtner and Ruth Grotenrath: Wisconsin's Artist Couple

David Barnett Gallery
May 2, 2019 8:08PM

According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article from 2011, Wisconsin artists Schomer Lichtner (1905-2006) and Ruth Grotenrath (1912-1988) were together “the power couple of brush and easel.”

Unlike many other famous artist couples, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, or Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, Lichtner and Grotenrath were truly non-competitive and incredibly supportive of each other. Terri Yoho of Wisconsin’s Kohler Foundation called them a “magical couple,” and they created remarkable careers without ever one falling into the shadow of the other.

Ruth Grotenrath, born in 1912, attended the Milwaukee State Teachers College, which later became the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her artistic talents and leanings were noticed at an early age, and she cultivated these talents under Gustave Moeller, Robert Von Neumann, and Elsa Ulbricht. Early on, Grotenrath was interested in and painted in a “social realist” style, preferring to depict scenes of real life without embellishment. This often included “domestic” scenes in thick paint on paper.

During the Great Depression, she was employed by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project. She painted three public post office murals: one in Hart, Michigan, one in Hudson, Wisconsin, and another in Wayzata, Minnesota. During this time, her work was quite serious, some say “somber,” heavily influenced by her teachers. It was this serious work and her tenacity in a male-dominated field (inspired by her main mentor, Elsa Ulbricht) that allowed her to attain success in hard times.

While at the Milwaukee State Teachers College, Grotenrath met Schomer Lichtner, who was born in 1905. Lichtner also studied under Gustave Moeller, and later traveled to study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Milwaukee Art Student’s League. Like Grotenrath, he was also employed by the Federal Arts Project, and produced a five-panel mural for a post office in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, as well as murals for post offices in Detroit, Michigan, and Hodgenville, Kentucky.

Cows, specifically the Holsteins he saw from his summers at Holy Hill, and ballerinas, inspired by the Milwaukee Ballet, frolic through his brightly-colored paintings and whimsical, expressionist drawings. He favored a rural and middle-class aesthetic as a direct rejection to the elite art world that he found in New York. Lichtner was also frequently inspired by the garden and home that he and Grotenrath created. Both Grotenrath and Lichtner were inspired by Japanese art, much like famous post-impressionist Vincent Van Gogh, and they decorated their living spaces and studio to reflect this.

According to James Auer, former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel art critic, "As art and economic trends evolved, the couple’s palettes brightened and warmed. Both fell under the spell of the Mexican social realists, notably Diego Rivera, and modernists such as Matisse and Dufy.The couple’s perspective changed further after they became friends with philosopher Alan Watts and visited Japan with him."Grotenrath began to create light and colorful paintings with Lichtner’s influence, and is now sometimes compared to Matisse with her flattened sense of space and bright colors. By 1967, her work was described as a “celebration of sensuous loveliness in life and the world” by Wisconsin Architect Magazine, and Lichtner’s work continued to exude optimism.

Lichtner left a large body of his work to the Kohler Foundation, which was then distributed to non-profits and educational institutions across the state of Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Racine Art Museum, Edgewood College, Alverno College, Lawrence University, and St. Norbert College. His paintings are also in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the National Gallery, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. According to the Kohler Foundation, “Over five thousand individual pieces of Schomer Lichtner and Ruth Grotenrath's can be found at forty-nine institutions, including the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Milwaukee Art Museum, Racine Art Museum, Chazen Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Ballet Company.”

Both artists received the Wisconsin Visual Art Achievement Award, Lichtner in 2006 and Grotenrath in 2007. The Racine Art Museum held a joint retrospective exhibition of their work in 2011, and their influence continues to be felt throughout the state and the country today. Their artistic and personal relationship left a lasting legacy that will continue through time.

A large collection of Lichtner’s and Grotenrath’s work is on view at the David Barnett Gallery from April 26-July 13, 2019. David Barnett, the director of the gallery, was particularly influenced by Lichtner, as he was one of his drawing professors while studying at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The exhibition is open during the gallery’s regular hours: Tuesday-Friday 11-5:30 and Saturday 11-5. To view the exhibition, visit the following link:

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David Barnett Gallery