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Wisconsin Exhibit Salutes German-American Heritage

More than 40 million Americans trace their ancestry to Germany. In the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Art Museum is celebrating the richness of the United States' German American heritage with an exhibition called, "Biedermeier: the Invention of Simplicity."

Wisconsin actively recruited German immigrants in the mid-1900's and the state's biggest city, Milwaukee, became known as the German Athens. Every year, Milwaukee holds the largest German festival in the United States.

Now the Milwaukee Art Museum is calling attention to that heritage with a major exhibition of Biedermeier art. The term is used to describe a style of art and architecture, especially furniture and decorative art, that was popular in 19th century Central Europe.

Curator Laurie Winters says the German-American population of Milwaukee grew as a consequence of political turmoil in Europe.

"A very large number of German immigrants [were] here by 1848, really as a consequence of the revolutions in 1848," said Laurie Winters. "By 1880, I think something like 80 percent of the population in Milwaukee was of German ancestry. By roughly 1890, not only were 80 percent of the population in Milwaukee of German ancestry, but something like 60 percent of the population spoke German. And even until as late as 1945 something like 20 percent of the population in Milwaukee still spoke German as their first language."

The Milwaukee Museum has a substantial collection of German and Austrian art and its Biedermeier collection is among the best in the United States.

Early Biedermeier emphasized simple, curving lines in opposition to neoclassical and baroque elements. But it became more elaborate as a growing European middle class sought to copy the nobility.

The term takes its name from a cartoon character, a middle-class everyman. But Winters says the name is really a misnomer. She says it was priced beyond the reach of many people.

"I think we have been able to show in this exhibition that its art was certainly not made cheaply or inexpensively for a middle class," she said. "It was made with great care and thought for the royal houses. Most of the works in the exhibition are actually from the royal houses in Vienna and Berlin and Munich and Copenhagen."

The exhibition shows off 400 Biedermeier works, including paintings, silver, porcelain, textiles and, most importantly, furnishings from more than 90 lenders. On display is the first piece of Biedermeier the museum purchased, a gilded writing cabinet made of richly veneered mahogany.

"It is typical of the early Biedermeier, still showing the lingering influence of the French empire, encrusted with ornamentation and detail," noted Laurie Winters. "In a very short period of time, we begin to see this new strain of Biedermeier appearing which is a rejection of the French empire. This allows for an invention of the imagination. A simplicity of form prevails. So this cabinet is extraordinarily beautiful, most people look to it and think it is art deco, 1920, not 1820. The shape is similar, the lyre-shaped cabinet. The form itself becomes important, the curving forms. The cabinet maker emphasizes it by using black ebony to create this geometric pattern across the face of the entire cabinet."

Early American collectors included midwestern beer barons who immigrated to the United States, established breweries and settled in cities like Milwaukee. Winters say many of these immigrants brought assets with them.

"It is interesting," she said. "Historians of German culture in 19th century Milwaukee, they have helped clarify who these first settlers in Milwaukee were. Actually, it was divided. Most people, I think, would assume that it was the middle class people or the lower class people who came from Germany, who left their homeland to settle in America. But in fact, it is actually about 50-50. We find that there were some very wealthy settlers, including Fred Miller, who founded the Miller Brewing. Fred Miller in the 1840s was actually from a very wealthy family and he came with a fair bit of money, which helped him start, enough money for the start up cost to found Miller Brewing."

Biedermeier furniture and decorative arts eventually lost favor to more modern trends. But the fluid lines and simplicity of Biedermeier influenced and anticipated 20th century styles like art deco and the arts and craft movement.

Interest in Biedermeier is now soaring, putting much of the best work beyond the reach of many museums. The Milwaukee Art Museum's exhibition is the first of its kind in North America. After Milwaukee, it will travel to Berlin, the Albertina in Vienna, and the Louvre in Paris.