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Folk artist captured 19th-century Wisconsin rural life

The color palette is bright or muted, depending on the type of paper used. The perspective isn’t always accurate. The bird’s-eye landscape views are better imagined than observed.

But the watercolors of German-born Wisconsin artist Paul Seifert chronicle a place and time long past in the state’s history, including Wisconsin’s “lost city” in Richland County. Seifert’s folk art is cherished for its historical value.

“Wisconsin in Watercolor: The Farmscapes of Paul Seifert,” on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum on Madison’s Capitol Square through Aug. 30, chronicles a time when few artists and fewer photographers roamed rural Wisconsin. Seifert’s approach, simple yet thorough, provides a comprehensive view of farm life in Wisconsin’s Driftless Region at the end of the 19th century. The style is reminiscent of that of Grandma Moses.

“Call it folk art, outsider art, naïve art — all those terms have their limitations,” says Joe Kapler, the museum’s curator of cultural history and curator of the Seifert exhibit. “These are real places where real people lived and still live, not abstract bowls of fruit.”

The exhibit gathers 17 watercolors together for the first time. They’re all that remains of Seifert’s estimated output of some 40 paintings. The Wisconsin Historical Society, which is affiliated with the museum, owns six of them. The rest are on loan from private collectors, including descendants of the families for whom Seifert originally painted the farmscapes.

The exhibit also includes historical artifacts from the region during Seifert’s time. There’s also a Seifert-rendered map of Richland City.

That Richland County community, originally located just south of the town of Gotham on the banks of the Wisconsin River, was built on a foundation of sand. Over a period of about 40 years, the river eroded the underlying land. By the 1920s, there was virtually nothing left of Wisconsin’s “lost city.”

That’s not the case with many of the farms painted by Seifert, a native of Germany’s Saxony region and the son of art instructors who emigrated to the United States in 1867 and settled in Richland City. He married Elizabeth Kraft, the daughter of German immigrants. He became a gentlemen farmer and a trained taxidermist. 

Seifert painted commercially, producing images on glass for sale. It wasn’t until 1879 that he painted his first farmscape — Residence of Lemuel Cooper. That painting is currently on loan to the exhibit from New York’s American Folk Art Museum. The subject is a Plain, Wisconsin, farm. Dominated by earth tones that age has muted, the painting is considered Seifert’s “alpha work,” because it clearly bears the artist’s signature.

The watercolor’s orderly arrangement of detail is characteristic of Seifert’s farmscapes. It’s his bird’s-eye view of the landscape, a characteristic Kapler says the artist could never seen from ground level.

“The perspectives of these paintings are not ones that could be seen with the eye, because there was nothing in the area tall enough to stand on to get such views,” Kapler says. “This is really Seifert’s envisioning of the farm, but there is nothing in writing that explains the artist’s process.”

Paintings that followed Residence of Lemuel Cooper embraced a brighter color palette but contained many of the same details. Those details became more abundant during his farmscape period. That period ended in 1915, and he died six years later. 

Hay harvesting was a popular element in Seifert’s works, as were symmetrically arranged gardens and orchards. People and livestock of all sizes populated he landscape and unique details — from croquet games to hops harvesting — further enhanced the paintings’ historical accuracy.

Many of the works have been restored. But even those that haven’t represent a quality and durability unexpected from watercolors painted on paper more than 100 years ago, Kapler says.

“The reds are still quite vivid, and that’s often the first color to fade,” the curator explains.

The exhibition includes a large touch-screen display, which allows visitors to explore the artist’s life and work in greater depth. It also provides access to close-up views of many of the paintings’ details. Corresponding photos from the period are paired with artistic details, such as the horse-drawn lawnmower that appears in one of Seifert’s works.

It’s the details of Seifert’s work that add so much to our understanding of Wisconsin’s past, Kapler says.

On Exhibit

“Wisconsin in Watercolor: The Farmscapes of Paul Seifert” is on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, 30 N. Carroll St., Madison, through Aug. 30. For more information, visit historicalmuseum.wisconsinhistory.org.

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