Judith Ann Moriarty
Lives Lived

Convent painter Sister Elisabeth Fitchner

By - Mar 21st, 2012 04:00 am
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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.

Of John No. 2, little history remains of the dark haired, mustachioed man in the portrait, other than he helped maintain the convent property.

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.

0 thoughts on “Lives Lived: Convent painter Sister Elisabeth Fitchner”

  1. Anonymous says:

    We were happy to see this article about the portraits by Sister Elisabeth Fitchner. Very interesting to read about the link to Carl von Marr.

    Thanks for sharing.

    CJ O’Reilly
    Development and Marketing
    Museum of Wisconsin Art

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this article about our great aunt and the images of three of the portaits she painted. Please note the correct spelling of our last name. Thanks!!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I just now googled Sr Elisabeth Fichtner’s name and came to this story. I’m glad to know more about her. Just this past Sunday I returned one of her paintings to her convent. It is of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and had been a gift to my grandparents in 1940 from my great-uncle, Fr Leo Wedl, who was a chaplain at Sacred Heart Sanitarium. My mother had the painting for about 25 years. She recently moved to assisted living and no longer had room for it. The School Sisters of St Francis are happy to have it back. I expect it will be displayed in their gallery. To Bob Fichtner: I think my great-uncle commissioned this work from your great-aunt. (And I understand how your name often gets misspelled!)

  4. Anonymous says:

    I left a reply above but I think this one will be directed mainly(or only?)to you. I would like to know more about you and your family now that we have this connection. I can share with you the more complete story of the Sr Elisabeth painting that had been in my family. For a start, you can email me at Mary.T.Koehler@facebook.com.

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