News Column

Farmscapes a beautiful mystery

June 12, 2014

By Gayle Worland, The Wisconsin State Journal

June 12--If you have any 19th-century mail from Paul Seifert, give Joe Kapler a call.

Kapler is curator of "Wisconsin in Watercolor: The Farmscapes of Paul Seifert," a multidimensional exhibit about a fascinating Wisconsin folk painter. Over the last decades of the 1800s, Seifert (pronounced SY-furt) roamed the Driftless Area and painted prosperous, diversified family farms, helping to chronicle an age before dairy farms took hold.

"Wisconsin in Watercolor," on display through Aug. 30 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, is the most complete show ever done of Seifert's work. And yet many mysteries remain. Seifert left behind no known journals, diaries or other documentation of his artistic endeavors; his 1921 obituary does not even mention his paintings.

Today, a Seifert watercolor can sell for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and is coveted by American folk art collectors "from coast to coast," Kapler said.

Six of Seifert's paintings in the museum show belong to the Wisconsin Historical Society; 11 are from private collections. Even more paintings -- along with other written correspondence about how or why Seifert painted -- may be hiding in rural attics and closets, Kapler said.

"We know of about 43 that existed at one time. If he painted from 1879 to 1910 or so, it stands to reason that there would be more than these 40," said Kapler, curator of cultural history for the Wisconsin Historical Society.

"Watercolor on paper is not durable. How many of these just got cooked by the sun because they were in the living room? Tossed? How many are still behind some other work, waiting to be discovered?"

Kapler learned of three undocumented Seifert paintings after the exhibit opened. One was noted by a visitor in a gallery guest book. Another was reported to be owned by a Seifert descendant in California.

Done in a folk style similar to the work of Grandma Moses, Seifert's paintings use mostly vivid watercolors and sometimes touches of lead or metallic paints on brown paper.

Their delicate nature has required some to be restored; others bear small natural acid stains from the wood planks the watercolor paintings were mounted on inside a picture frame.

The exhibit "Wisconsin in Watercolor" strikes a balance between Seifert's artistry and its historical value. His paintings are believed to be idealized composites, perhaps painted to please a landowning farmer. Yet they portray details unique to the time in Richland, Sauk and Iowa counties: horses pulling hay wagons; women in long skirts harvesting hops; children playing outside a farmhouse; pumps, wells, outhouses and smokehouses. Some also contain recognizable natural landmarks, such as Sauk County's Tower Rock.

Born in Germany in 1846, Seifert was the only child of a pair of teachers. He likely received instruction in drawing and painting as a boy at school in Dresden, and later graduated from a forest academy in Saxony.

A few months later he was in the U.S., where he married Elizabeth Kraft, the daughter of German immigrants.

Seifert's descendants relayed stories they heard as children about Seifert earning $2.50 each for his farmscapes. He and his wife lived modestly, gardened and sold their produce in town.

Seifert was also an amateur archaeologist who was in touch with the state historical society about his finds of Indian relics and other artifacts. He also made and sold paintings of European scenes on glass, and eventually established a taxidermy practice.

But how he came to depict farmscapes is still unknown. Seifert painted from an elevated perspective, as if perched on an invisible hill overlooking a farm. He likely sketched in the field and did the painting later, Kapler said.

For "Wisconsin in Watercolor," the Wisconsin Historical Museum revamped a gallery with LED lighting that's gentle to the fragile artworks, yet more economical to operate, he said.

The multifaceted exhibit includes many materials about Seifert's time and place, including a giant touchscreen loaded with old photos and videos depicting practices on family farms of the times.

Though Seifert may have taken artistic license with some details in his paintings, "These are real scenes," Kapler said, "where people lived and worked."


(c)2014 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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Source: Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)

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