Eastman Johnson (American, 1824–1906), Portrait of Frederick Layton, 1893. Oil on canvas, 78 1/4 x 48 1/4 in. (198.76 x 122.56 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection, Gift of Marshall and Ilsley Bank L1888.30. Photo credit Dedra Walls.
Layton Art Collection
Frederick Layton (1827–1919) built his fortune developing national and international markets for Milwaukee’s meatpacking industry. Born and raised in England, Layton immigrated to Milwaukee as a young man. He returned often to Europe, and his exposure to its art and culture inspired him to give Milwaukee an art gallery with one of the first major collections of fine art in the Midwest—a gift that amounted to nearly half of Layton’s net worth. Layton explained that his gallery would “be of benefit to our working people, as well as the more wealthy, since all may come and find pleasure and recreation in paying a visit to the gallery.”
The Layton Art Gallery, among the first single-patron art galleries in the United States, was a resounding success and became a defining Milwaukee landmark of its generation. As with other great collections being formed in America at this time, Layton’s Collection highlighted the tastes of the cosmopolitan elite and was comprised mostly of contemporary European art, with a smattering of pictures by acclaimed American artists.
Layton’s gift inspired other prominent Milwaukee families to gift their collections to the gallery, thus sparking a tradition of generosity that continues to this day. Layton died in 1919, but his gallery lived on and continued to prosper.
In 1920 Charlotte Partridge founded the Layton School of Art in the basement of the Layton Art Gallery. This school, administered by Partridge’s business and life partner, Miriam Frink, transformed art education in Milwaukee. The primary aim was to train young men and women to earn a living as artists. In line with Partridge’s ideology, the school was particularly progressive for its time. Co-educational life study classes were held with live models, and studies in drama, music, poetry, literature, and even psychology were required. Partridge and Frink believed that broad curricula encouraged students to better understand art in all its forms.
In 1922 Partridge introduced a bold, Modernist vision to the Layton Art Gallery. Her appointment as curator of the gallery was notable for its time, when few women occupied senior positions at American art museums. By the 1940s, she was one of the most respected art educators in the country.
Modernism emerged as the dominant philosophy in the arts after 1930. Its embrace of visual abstraction and psychological expression displaced the nineteenth-century emphasis on history, classical learning, realistic portrayal, and narrative. Partridge had a strong commitment to Modernism and, during a top-to-bottom makeover of the Layton Gallery, she removed dozens of Victorian paintings, covered the dark maroon walls in a light tan, and replaced the salon-style hang with works displayed at eye height in a line around the room. These radical changes, which predated the Modernist “white cube” made famous by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, transformed the way visitors experienced art in the gallery.
Partridge developed a passion for regional artists and she brought their work into the Layton Art Gallery. She further championed artists of the day by serving as Director of the Federal Art Project in Wisconsin, a Depression-era initiative to help employ the nation’s artists.
Starting in the 1940s, Partridge advocated for the creation of the War Memorial Center, the Eero Saarinen–designed building hailed as a masterpiece of Modernism (built in 1957). In 1951 a new home for the Layton School of Art was to be constructed, and Partridge oversaw the design of what would be one of Milwaukee’s first major Modernist buildings (demolished in 1970).
Milwaukee Art Museum
In 1957 the collections of the Layton Trust joined those of the Milwaukee Art Institute (renamed the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1980) in the new War Memorial Center.
Since then, new acquisitions and partnerships with the Chipstone Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art reflect a dynamic Layton Collection that remains relevant today. Along with the Milwaukee Art Museum, it continues to advance Frederick Layton’s original commitment to art as a way to educate and inspire all of Milwaukee’s citizens.