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Schley, Mathilde Georgine
(sometimes anglicized to Mathilda Georgina), b.
Painter, chiefly of landscapes, she grew up in Dodge County, Wisconsin, in what was then largely a bilingual community. Thanks to the efforts of her German-born mother, Mathilde Schley learned to read and write German even before attending public schools in Mayville and Juneau, Wisconsin. She later worked as a telegraph operator in Rolling Prairie, Wisconsin, and from 1888 to 1891 was in Kansas, chiefly in Neodeska (Wilson County), where she had relatives. She found employment there as a drawing teacher and also began to exhibit her work.
After returning to Wisconsin she lived for a time at her parents' farm near Oak Grove, but by 1893 had moved to Watertown, where she opened a dressmaking business with her sister Lydia. The two sisters moved to Milwaukee the following year and started a dressmaking business there. This ultimately proved to be so successful that they were able to travel, spend summers in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, and even build a small apartment house, the Schley Apartments, where they lived.
After settling in Milwaukee, Mathilde Schley received instruction from Otto von Ernst and Richard Lorenz, probably at the Milwaukee Art School. She also studied with Alexander Mueller, presumably at the school which he ran in connection with the Milwaukee Art Students League. Her own paintings, however, are little influenced by the German academic style and reflect instead an impressionist technique and an openness toward brightly illuminated outdoor scenes. The pointilistic quality of her paintings is partly a result of her preference for the palette knife rather than a brush to apply paint. Her paintings typically depict buildings in rural Wisconsin, but also include a still life, a floral painting, and several portraits of relatives.
One of her best paintings, showing her sister Lydia in a landscape setting, was painted from a snapshot taken in Germany during their trip in the summer in 1926. But Mathilde Schley's most unusual work is To Valhalla, an allegorical scene showing a procession of robed figures. The picture was probably inspired by "Procession of the Dead," a poem by her sister Clara. Although in many respects practical-minded, her temperament was not without an element of the German Romantic tradition. She was a great admirer of nature and was entranced at the sight of the full moon.
Only one of her paintings is known to be in a public collection. Her painting of the historic Octagon House in Watertown, Wisconsin is preserved at the Octagon House Museum. A number of her other paintings are currently in the possession of family members.
Although Mathilde Schley sold few paintings, she was something more than a talented amateur. She saw to it that her work was widely exhibited and she was active in several professional associations, including the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors. Her paintings were often included in their annual shows at the Milwaukee Art Institute and could also be seen in the Milwaukee Journal's Gallery of Wisconsin Art and at galleries in Chicago, New York, and other cities. She belonged to such out-of-town associations as the Salons of America and the New York Independent Art Society, and her name was regularly listed in such professional directories as the American Art Annual and Who's Who in American Art. Dudley Crafts Watson, director of the Milwaukee Art Institute from 1914 to 1924, recognized her talent and drew attention to the highly individual character of her work.
Like many of the early settlers of Dodge County, Mathilde Schley's family were "Old Lutherans," members of a religious sect which left Germany as the result of a dispute with the state church of Prussia. Mathilde Schley was much interested in the history of this migration, which she thoroughly researched. In 1923 she published the first of what would become dozens of articles written in German and dealing mainly with German settlement in the U.S. These articles initially appeared in German-language newspapers in Wisconsin but were often reprinted in other German-American newspapers. A number of the articles were collected in two privately printed books, Deutschametika, (1935) and Ftitz, Pat, Jules und Hank (1940), books which are illustrated with reproductions of a number of her paintings. She seems to have seen these books as a means by which her memory might be perpetuated and she took great care to see that copies were placed in several libraries, including the library at Harvard University. It is reported that as she lay dying from pneumonia she repeated the phrase "meine Bucher, meine Bucher" ('my books, my books').
Mathilde Schley made three summer trips to Europe. The first trip, in 1889, appears to have been mainly spent in Paris, a fact which she was later able to exploit to her advantage in advertising her millinery shop. In 1926 she traveled to Europe with her sister Lydia, visiting the ancestral home of their maternal grandparents in Silesia and the ancestral home of their paternal grandparents in the village of Hermannsthal near Stettin. In 1928 she traveled alone to Europe and visited an international press exhibition in Cologne, where she was the only American woman invited to attend. She traveled economically and because of a favorable exchange rate was able to get the most for her money on these trips.
People who knew Mathilde Schley describe her as having been high strung and capable of brief emotional outbursts. The overall impression one gets of her is that of an introverted, highly individualistic personality. She had a circle of women friends who gathered at her apartment for coffee. Most were well-to-do and like herself were unmarried. One of her friends, Franziska Tauber, was a music teacher and a daughter of the Milwaukee painter William Tauber. Mathilde played the piano well and liked to attend operatic performances. She was interested in architecture and was an inveterate sightseer, often taking walks around Milwaukee and admiring public buildings, such as churches. Although she received a conventional religious upbringing and was well read in both the German and English Bible, she resisted the idea of becoming a church member.
Extensive research on the life and work of Mathilde Schley has been undertaken by Eugene B. Meier, Jr., a descendant of one of the artist's sisters. Some of his manuscript material as well as copies of the artist's publications may be found in the collection of the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies in Madison Wisconsin.
Merrill, Peter C., German-American Artists in Early Milwaukee: A Biographical Dictionary, Friends of the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, Inc., 1997, pgs 110-112.