Convent painter Sister Elisabeth Fitchner
Until April 14, treat yourself to viewing portraits by Sister Elisabeth Fitchner. Among the many offerings at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers 414 East Mason St., directly north of the Pfister Hotel, are three for you to wonder over: Minerva 1921, John No. 2, 1921, and the mysteriously named Amerida, 1922.
Each portrait is far more than the beautiful application of oil paint on canvas, signed in the lower right hand corner. They’re being offered at auction.
Minerva, depicts Minerva Winkler, an Austrian lady who came to our shores almost a century ago. The portrait was birthed when she joined the School Sisters of St. Francis. Sister Barbaralie Stiefermann, the Director of Alfons Gallery on the Layton complex, and my informative contact wrote that Minerva became a primary school teacher, and was, in fact her third grade teacher. “The painting has sentimental value to me,” she says.
Amerida, was born a Rettenmaier in 1895, in Germany. She was received into St. Francis community the same year as Minerva, and so perhaps the 1922 portrait is a fond record of a special day in the religious lives of two subjects. Amerida was the cook for five hundred sisters and candidates in the Motherhouse, and Sister Stiefermann attests to the meals surpassing any five-star restaurants today, perhaps because many of the recipes were Sister Amerida’s own.
But what about the Sister who painted the portraits after arriving in America in 1895 (from Germany) and joining the SSSF in 1905? She returned to Munich to study at the Alte Pinakothek for three years, a year for each of the three sticks of color paint (red, blue, and yellow) she was given along with instructions to find a painting she liked and copy it. After returning to the U.S., she attended classes at the Chicago Institute of Art, and Milwaukee Art Schools. One of her instructors was Carl von Marr, whose work is permanently installed at the Wisconsin Museum of Art in West Bend.
She copied old masters, including the painting of Michael the Archangel, by Guido Reni, but most surprising to me was the information that she also copied the Wood Gatherer, Jules Bastien Lepage’s grand work, which is said to be the most popular painting at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Several of her paintings on canvas are glued to the walls in St. Joseph Center Chapel on Layton Blvd.
In the three portraits, all of the subjects are portrayed in profile, and for the women at least, I like to think they are looking to the future and the challenging life ahead. Their young faces glow with serenity.