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Art of Charles Porteus

January 26 to April 16, 2023
Opening Reception: Thursday, January 26 from 5 to 7 PM 
From Wax to Paint: Charles Porteus’ Emergence as a Painter
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Charles Porteus (1867-1943) was most notably recognized for his diligent work as a talented wax figure modeler and scene painter for true-to-life historical group displays at the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM) from 1919 to 1940. However, it is in his fluid, loosely brushed renderings with oil and tempera paint that his true artistry can become fully realized. 


Born in New York City to Irish and English immigrants,  Charles Porteus followed a rather traditional educational trajectory, receiving a degree from New York FreeHand and Mechanical School. Still, he pivoted from a career in the technical industry to establish one in the arts. Early on, Porteus became a stage technician at Palmer’s Madison-Square Theater Stock Company before touring the country as a scene painter with American actors Frederick A. Wade and Louis James’ drama company. By the late 1890s, Porteus was employed by Eden Musée of New York City, a famous amusement center that featured a large waxworks collection, and was an early exhibitor of motion pictures. He eventually became the chief artist there until the museum closed in 1915.

By 1919, Porteus’ reputation as a gifted wax modeler made its way to the Milwaukee Public Museum where he was offered a role as an assistant to chief artist George Peter. He remained there until his retirement in 1940, modeling life-size wax figures for historical group displays and ethnological miniature groups. He also created costumes and painted scenes that remain on display at MPM.


Beyond his long professional career as a scene painter and diorama modeler, Porteus painted a variety of oil landscapes from the 1920s through the 1940s while he was working for MPM. There is often a blurred line between his occupation and self-declared hobby. Scenes he created in wax and photographs of those he met during research trips with MPM became muses for his two dimensional brushwork. Featured in this exhibition are paintings depicting a Blackfoot tribesman and a diorama called “Crow Indians - Setting up Camp". These images are juxtaposed with those inspired by his personal life.


Pondering over the local landscapes and surrounding countryside, Charles was also inspired to paint these parts of his life. He often featured Milwaukee’s industrial and residential cityscapes and marina alongside the contrasting bucolic landscapes he experienced while making short trips to local towns and Cedarburg. In Cedarburg, Porteus was captivated by the serene waters of Cedar Creek and idyllic Hilgen Spring Park featured in many of the paintings on display.

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Porteus was a member of the Seven Arts Society, listed in the Sketch Book of Milwaukee, and included as an artist exhibiting in the Milwaukee Journal Gallery of Wisconsin Art (1924-1931). He exhibited his artwork locally and sold a few of his paintings to admirers, but was more interested in painting in his pastime and gifted paintings to his friends and family. 


This exhibition is made possible by the generosity of Porteus’ descendants, especially his granddaughter-in-law, Bonnie Porteus, and her devotion to the establishment of his legacy as a true artist.


“Charles Porteus.” Museum of Wisconsin Art. July 16, 2021.


“History.” The General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York. 2021.


Porteus, Bonnie (granddaughter-in-law of Charles Porteus) in discussion with curator, Samantha Michalski. July 2022.


“Sketch Book of Milwaukee.” 183.

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Charles R. Porteus, Untitled (Edith Porteus in Canoe, Hilgen Park), Oil on canvas, n.d. Bonnie Porteus, Cedarburg. 

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