Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Midwestern Master: Paul Seifert

When one looks at idyllic farm scenes like this piece, one almost always thinks of an artist peacefully whiling away his time in the countryside making these images for interested people found along the way. That’s only partly true. Paul Seifert, the artist of this beautiful watercolor of the farm of Mr. E. R. Jones, had a fascinating life that led him from the chaos of mid-19th-century Germany to the American frontier.

According to his granddaughter, Seifert was born in Germany in 1846, and probably saw a lot of upheaval in his early years, including the revolutions of 1848. He studied engineering at the University of Leipzig but fled Germany in 1866 to avoid being conscripted into military service during the Austro-Prussian war. He came to New York and took the Erie Canal westward, arriving in Milwaukee in 1867. From there the journey got really interesting.

Seifert wanted to continue westward, so he jumped on a lumber raft (see my previous post on Linton Park and the lumber rafts of Pennsylvania) for a 100-mile ride down the Wisconsin River. No pleasure cruise, I’m sure. As the raft approached Richland City (later named Portage), near the confluence of the Wisconsin and Pine Rivers, he must have seen something he liked. He dove off the raft into the river and swam ashore. Sitting on the shore was a group of young girls (maybe the reason for the dive?) that included a 16-year-old Elizabeth Craft. She later recalled Seifert struggling onto the bank looking like “a drowned rat.” They were married the following year.

Paul and Elizabeth built a log cabin on the banks of the river and worked very hard to create an 80-acre truck garden, from which they sold vegetables to people in Gotham, two miles away. Seifert “trucked” the produce there by wheelbarrow. He earned extra money as a taxidermist and craftsman to help support their growing family of four daughters.

In 1875, Seifert decided to try his hand at painting. He packed his bags with paper and paints and went on the road in search of farmers who would be willing to pay $2.50 for a view of their farm. The paper was large, often 21 x 27 inches, so the resulting image made quite an impression. Over the course of the next decade he made about 100 of these drawings, mostly in Richland, Grant, Sauk, and Iowa Counties in southwestern Wisconsin.  Seifert died at the age of 80 in 1925, and his artwork didn’t receive any accolades until it was discovered by Jean Lipman in the 1940s. It was from Lipman that the Fenimore Art Museum acquired this piece.

Seifert painted the farm of E. R. Jones of Dodgeville (seen today in the photo above) in 1881. It is different from many of his works in that it shows the farm in late autumn or early winter, just after a snowfall. The blanket of freshly fallen snow contrasts nicely with the autumn colors still visible of the trees. The beauty of the work lies not only in the palette, but also in the impeccably clean, smooth lines of paint used to distinguish the buildings, figures, and landscape.

One tidbit of information makes me wonder whether Seifert’s painting was meant to be represented in the Fenimore Art museum. Just over twenty miles to the west of Dodgeville is a town the artist must have known in his travels: Fennimore, Wisconsin.


  1. So nice to read the history of such paintings. A real treasure of cultural meaning is attached -- barbara

  2. Thanks, Barbara! Love your blog, by the way.

  3. Can you help me establish the value of a family heirloom, painting on glass of Heidleburg Castle, painted by my 4th Great Grandfather, Paul Seifert of Gotham Wisconsin.

    1. You must be related to my wife (Dye), she is a descendant of Paul Seifert as well. We also have castle paintings handed down, although not signed.

  4. Hi, and thanks for contacting me. Please send me an email at p.dambrosio@nysha.org and I'll try to help you. Thanks again!

  5. hi.have 2 orginal pic fram seifert.
    and want to sell it.any body can help me plz

  6. her is my email.plz contact me on mail.
    (about 2 orginal pic fram paul seifert.)

  7. I am a great great grandson of paul a seifert and would be very interested in the paintingsm My name is Brian Henry. Feel free to contact me at my e mail Bugs020272@aol.com

  8. Hi,
    Actually Richland City was never renamed Portage. Portage, WI is located on the area between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. Richland City now does not exist except for a few houses because the railroad was moved north of the town before the end of the 19th century.

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