A Creative Place:
The History of Wisconsin Art

A Creative Place cover.png

A Stirring New Benchmark in Art History 

After five years of research comes the first book to encompass the 13,000-year history of art in Wisconsin, in all its richness and complexity.


A Creative Place: The History of Wisconsin Art, featuring seven chapters and more than 400 high quality images, elevates art to its rightful place in the proud culture of our state.


From the caves of prehistory near Prairie du Chien, in Wisconsin’s only land untouched by the glaciers, the authors follow a trail of creative endeavor at its most local level, through the periods of French-Canadian exploration, British occupation, American territorial settlement and statehood, to our modern day.

From Superior and Menomonie to Prairie du Chien and Racine, this volume presents a succession of styles and art movements in Wisconsin’s art history and makes connections to our most tumultuous periods including Wisconsin’s participation in our country’s Civil War and two World Wars as well as the struggle for civil rights.

Recognized here are works of art by more than 500 Wisconsin artists,  including many of our most creative and talented stars whose contributions made them influential national figures, like wartime photojournalist Dickey Chapelle from Shorewood, Harvey Littleton, the studio glass innovator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Fond du Lac’s Owen Gromme, the “Dean of American Wildlife Artists”.  


This ambitious project, backed from the start by the Cedarburg Art Museumhas something for art historians, collectors, students of history and celebrants of all things Wisconsin. 


Artist Once Known, Painted statue of human head, Mississippian, 1050–1200 C.E., Sandstone, 10 in. high, Gottschall Site, Iowa County, Photograph courtesy of Beloit College

5.21 Ruth Grotenrath 2010.04.732_Large Bouquet in Orange Vase.tif

Ruth Grotenrath (1912–1988), Untitled, n.d., Casein on Japanese paper, 36 x 24 1/4 in., Collection of the Miller Art Museum, Gift of the Schomer Lichtner Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc., Photo Courtesy of Miller Art Museum


James Reeve Stuart (1834–1915)

The Painting Lesson, 1881

Oil on canvas

11 13/16 x 9 3/8 in.

Wisconsin Historical Society

How Did We Get Here?

A vision of Tom Lidtke, supported by The Cedarburg Art Museum, has been brought to fruition by authors Tom Lidtke and Annemarie Sawkins with scholarly and creative input from talent across the state. The first attempt in eighty-five years to compile a comprehensive history of art in Wisconsin, A Creative Place is the first history of Wisconsin art from the First Nations through the twentieth century.

We begin our artistic journey by reviewing petroglyphs, pictographs, pottery, jewelry, and the effigy mounds created by the first inhabitants of what is now Wisconsin.  Contributing authors Robert Boszardt and Melanie Herzog highlight the functional art that first appears as early as 11000 BCE along with Wisconsin’s first known sculptural representation of a human being, a carved and painted statue created between 1000 and 1250 CE.

Seven chapters and more than 400 vivid art

images tell the story of art in the context of 

Wisconsin's rich and complex history. 

  • Native Presence: The Beginning of Art in Wisconsin

  • Encounters and Settlement: Art in Wisconsin: 1634-1870

  • The Great Cultural Expansion: 1870-1918

  • Transitioning from European Ideals to
     Regional Interests: 1918-1945

  • Wisconsin at Mid-Century: The Post War Period: 1945-1965

  • The Coming of Age of Visual Arts: 1965-1980

  • The Last Decades of the 20th Century: 1980-2000

With the arrival of French explorer of Etienne Brule nearly 400 years ago, followed by Jean Nicolet, Louis Joliet, and Father Jacques Marquette, came an artistic beachhead established by mapmakers and sketch artists. This book chronicles the art made by early voyagers to this region, as well as art produced by the people who populated the earliest non-Indigenous settlements as the colonists moved west across the Wisconsin Territory.


A Creative Place pays particularly close attention to the artistic impact of the second and perhaps most significant wave of German immigration to the state beginning in the final quarter of the nineteenth century. These artists brought a modern European tradition to the state that evolved and grew through the first three decades of the twentieth century.


Milwaukee, for example, was one of very few American cities where artists created circular, five story high panorama canvases of as much as 20,000 square feet, depicting famous historical scenes like American Civil War battle scenes and Jerusalem on the Day of the Crucifixion.


Academic realism gave way to new modern styles of art in the years following World War I. American Regionalism, a style that was popular with Wisconsin audiences, endured until the Second World War before being supplanted by the modernism of the mid-twentieth century and then the post-modernist movement. A Creative Place surveys the variety of modern and contemporary styles of art in Wisconsin, from Regionalism to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism along with the stylistic pluralism of postmodernism. 


The book traces the evolution in the twentieth century of African American art in Wisconsin and tells the story of artistic innovators and advocates like Evelyn Patricia Terry and Gerald Duane Coleman.


And all along the way, the authors place this important work squarely within the context of the social, political, and economic conditions of the artists’ times.

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The Authors

With the valuable assistance of art historian, editor and author Melanie Herzog, archeologist Robert Boszhardt, and art essayist Fred Schwertfeger, Tom Lidtke and Annemarie Sawkins have compiled this survey of art in Wisconsin.