The Milwaukee Theatre is home to nine murals by the WPA artist Thorsten Lindberg. He was an accomplished artistic craftsman, nationally recognized for his technical skill in watercolor. Much of Lindberg’s work dating from the 1930s and early ‘40s features historical subjects of national, statewide, and local significance.
Thorsten Lindberg’s life
Lindberg was born January 13, 1878 in Stockholm, Sweden. Although he studied art at the Royal Academy in Stockholm and studied architectural drafting and design at the Stockholm School of Applied Arts, he was mostly a self-taught artist. He immigrated to the United States in 1900 and worked several years as an advertising art director at a commercial art and sign company in Chicago. In 1905 Lindberg met, courted, and married Alma Esser.
Lindberg then resided in Minneapolis for two years before coming to Milwaukee in 1911. From 1911 to 1915 Lindberg was employed as an artist for the Meyer-Rotier Company, a local printing and binding firm.
Lindberg then returned to Minnesota, where he was an instructor in the Fine Arts Department of the University of Minnesota. He left teaching and moved to Omaha, Nebraska to work for a large printing company, the Acorn Press. In 1933 Lindberg moved again to Milwaukee, where he stayed until his death from cancer on September 22, 1949. His wife, who was ill at the time of Lindberg’s death, died 10 weeks later, also from cancer.
Lindberg and the Works Project Administration
While in Milwaukee Lindberg was employed as a commercial artist and as a staff artist for many of the Works Project Administration’s (WPA) historical art projects for the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Milwaukee Public Museum, and the County Park system. The WPA was one of many programs established in the 1930s under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” initiative to help America recover from the Great Depression, and was the federal government’s most ambitious undertaking ever to provide employment for the jobless. Though disparaged by critics as a wasteful “make work” program, the WPA eventually provided wage-earning work to about a third of the nation’s 10 million Depression-era unemployed, and enriched the nation with a valuable legacy of art, literature, cultural documentation, public works and architecture.
In the early 1940’s, the nation’s involvement in World War II overwhelmed the need for, and commitment to, the WPA and its successors, but some grants continued to be authorized and funded, and the then-Milwaukee Auditorium was among those to secure funding for artistic enhancements.
The Milwaukee Auditorium murals
Lindberg was selected to design and paint a series of historical murals which immortalize some of the city’s “Founding Fathers.” At the head of a grand staircase in The Milwaukee Theatre’s east rotunda is one of Lindberg’s largest murals, entitled Solomon Juneau. The mural features Juneau – Milwaukee’s first permanent white settler in 1818 – trading with area Indian tribes at the cabin he built east of the confluence of the Milwaukee and Menomonee Rivers, an area soon known as Juneautown. In an adjoining grand staircase is Solomon Juneau and Josette Vieau, depicting the wedding between Juneau and the daughter of a French-Indian trader and tribal chief, in 1820.
Three of Lindberg’s murals are found in Kilbourn Hall, where he painted Byron Kilbourn, depicting the founder of the West Side village then called Kilbourntown,Enoch Chase and E.S. Estes, who together founded an 1835 lakefront settlement in Bay View, and George H. Walker, the 1834 founder of Walker’s Point, now a South Side neighborhood.
Lindberg also used his talents to depict Wisconsin’s growing industries in what is now The Milwaukee Theatre’s box office lobby. These include Milwaukee Industries, featuring the city’s foundries, tanneries, dairies and steel and paper mills, and Wisconsin Agriculture, painted in 1944, showing a transition, with the State Capitol as a backdrop, from Wisconsin farming with hand labor and horse-drawn plow to the use of motorized tractors and other modern farm machinery. Also in the room is a portrait of Christopher Latham Sholes (1819 – 1890), the inventor of the typewriter, showing Sholes, inspired by a Muse, imagining an office full of women using his new invention.
The Wisconsin Center houses two pieces by Lindberg depicting industries that were crucial to Wisconsin’s growth and development – America’s Dairy Land, painted in 1942, and Wisconsin Loggers, done in 1943.
Other Lindberg works
Although he dedicated his life to painting, Lindberg’s interests were wide. He was self-taught in many areas from economics to political philosophy. During his lifetime he was a member of the St. Paul Art Workers Association, Omaha Art Guild, Eight Omaha Artists, Scandinavian American Artists, the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors, and American Artists Professional League. For several years he was a member of the Art Commission of the City of Milwaukee and was serving in that capacity just prior to his death.
His work has been exhibited at the American Swedish Historical museum in Philadelphia, the Brooklyn Museum, Kansas City Art Institute, Minneapolis Art Institute, Omaha Art Institute, St. Paul Art Institute, the City Club of Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee Art Institute. A number of Thorsten Linberg murals are on permanent view at the recently-renovated Federal Courthouse in Milwaukee, and some of his paintings can be seen at the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Grohmann Museum.