Visitors Guide to the
Visual Arts
in Sainte Genevieve, Missouri

The 1942 mural by Martyl in the Ste. Genevieve Post Office
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The visual arts and Sainte Genevieve have been connected since the early 19th century with the arrival of John James Audubon. Situated about sixty miles south of St. Louis, Sainte Genevieve is the oldest town in Missouri, being established as a trading outpost by the French in the early 1700s. Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the dominant architecture was French Creole and while most of the homes built in this style were gradually replaced by the Federal style brick buildings by the Americans, Sainte Genevieve holds the distinction of the having the largest concentration of French Colonial buildings in the country. The backdrop that these buildings create, the charm of the community, and the advantage of being close enough to the vibrant community that supports the arts in St. Louis is what has made Sainte Genevieve a magnet to artists over the years.

John James Audubon (1785-1851)

John James Audubon was born in Louisiana but grew up in France after his family returned there when he was a child. In 1803, worried that his son would be drafted into Napoleon's army, his father slipped the 18-year-old Audubon out of France and sent him to Mill Grove, an estate owned by the family in Pennsylvania. It was in the Pennsylvania woodlands, and without much formal training (despite the claim to have studied under the famous French court artist Jacques-Louis David,) that Audubon's life long love of birds took hold. At Mill Grove he began developing techniques of mounting birds prior to sketching them, at first suspending freshly shot birds with pieces of string to create the impression of life and later mounting them by skewering the birds with sharp, pliable wires, fastening the ends to a board in the background, and twisting and bending them until he produced dynamic poses. Audubon left Pennsylvania in 1807 and spent three years in Kentucky he and an associate, Ferdinand Rozier, purchased a keelboat, loaded it with provisions and whiskey and set out for Sainte Genevieve. Once in Sainte Genevieve they began a business whose success was based entirely upon the enterprising Rozier, as Audubon spent his time in the woods hunting and painting birds. In 1811 he sold his interest in the business and returned to Kentucky. After trying his hand at business one last time, he finally devoted himself entirely to the study of nature, becoming one of the greatest ornithologists of the world. The Sainte Genevieve Museum has a display of mountings that were made by Audubon.

The Sainte Genevieve Art Colony of the 1930s

Jesse Beard Rickly - 1932
"Lime Works"
Aimee Schweig
- 1936
These paintings can be seen at the Sainte Genevieve Welcome Center
and are shown courtesy of the Sainte Genevieve Women's Club

In the summer of 1932, Bernard Peters, his wife, Ord, and Frank Nuderscher drove down from St. Louis to Sainte Genevieve. Nuiderscher, who directed the Ozark School of Art at Arcadia, Missouri and was known as known as “the painter of the Ozarks,” felt that Sainte Genevieve would provide a certain inspiration to Peters. Nuiderscher was right as Peters had an immediate attraction to the village. At a roadside stand the group’s conversation was overheard by Matthew Ziegler, whose aunts were looking for someone to rent the now famous Mammy Shaw House. Ord managed to get Peters to return to St. Louis without renting the house but he enthusiastically described the place to fellow artist Jesse Beard Rickly and her husband Francis. It was not long before the two families returned to Sainte Genevieve and rented out the house to share studio space and the Sainte Genevieve art colony was born. Peters and Rickly were soon joined by Aimee Schweig, who would become the central figure that held the colony together.

American art colonies were popular at the turn of the 19th and through the early 20th centuries. Many were formed to recreate the experiences at the French colonies such as those at Giverny or Barbizon and were located in scenic locales. Many artists would visit regularly or settle in or near a colony and many of the colonies ran summer art schools. The Sainte Genevieve art colony had its roots in the Provincetown colony run by Charles Hawthorne who wanted his students to "differentiate between color and tone and to re-create the illusion of light without employing the Impressionist’s formula." Both Aimee Schweig, bringing her daughter Martyl, and Jesse Beard Rickly spent summers studying under Hawthorne. After Hawthorne’s death in 1930 and with the country in the midst of the Great Depression, Schweig and Rickly felt that it was time to create a colony of like-minded artists in Missouri.

The artists of the Sainte Genevieve colony wanted to paint the effects of the events of the Great Depression rather than pretty pictures. These artists were regionalists that wanted to develop a new, independent view of the world that was different than those held by the established art centers of the East Coast or Europe. And although the artists had a Midwestern view, they were anything but provincial or unenlightened. Later in its life, the colony would embrace regionalism’s rival, social realism and tackle some of the important social issues of the era. Artists who joined the original nucleus included Thomas Hart Benton, Joe Jones, Joe Vorst, Sister Cassiana, E. Oscar Thalinger, Joseph Meert, and Miriam McKinnie. Matthew Ziegler, besides being an artist himself, served as unofficial host to the colony by providing fresh vegetables from his farm and cooking dinners. Aimee Schweig’s daughter Martyl, who grew up living in the artist’s world of the Provincetown and Sainte Genevieve art colonies, became a noted painter herself.

At first Sainte Genevieve considered the colony a curiosity but it was soon warmly embraced. Locals were “unspeakably flattered” when asked to pose for a painting according an article in the March 5, 1933 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. When the Sainte Genevieve Museum was opened in October of 1933, its grand opening featured a two-person art show by Rickly and Schweig. The colony played a significant role in the emergence of Sainte Genevieve as a tourist destination. Visitors who had come to see the works of the artists were exposed to Sainte Genevieve’s unique charm and appeal. In 1934, Rickly and Schwieg launched the Sainte Genevieve Summer School of Art, which remained active for several years, bringing in area artists for two, four, and six week sessions.

After an ugly and protracted strike at Mississippi Lime in 1938, in which Joe Jones was said to have helped organize, the attitudes of many in town towards the artists seemed to have changed. The colony also began to lose its momentum after the strike and as the decade of the 1930s came to a close. After capturing the moments of the Great Depression in their art the artists began to leave Sainte Genevieve to pursue their careers separately. Matthew Ziegler, however, spent the remainder of his life as Sainte Genevieve’s resident artist in the Mammy Shaw House and briefly tried to revive the art school in the late 1940s. The works of some of the artists can still be seen today in Sainte Genevieve. A number of paintings by Schweig, Rickly, and Martyl grace the walls of the Sainte Genevieve Welcome Center courtesy of the Sainte Genevieve Women's Club. The Sainte Genevieve Museum has a painting each by Schweig and Rickly. A lasting legacy of the colony is the mural in the city's post office, "La Guignolee" painted in 1942 by Martyl. This W.P.A. project depicts a New Year's celebration in colonial Sainte Genevieve. KETC-TV, St. Louis' public station, produced an excellent video on the art colony for its show “Living St. Louis.” The Sainte Genevieve Art Guild holds events in October at the Mammy Shaw House, the spiritual center of the colony.

Roscoe Misselhorn (1902-1997)

Misselhorn Gallery at the Sainte Genevieve Welcome Center

Renowned Southern Illinois sketch artist Roscoe Misselhorn, often called the Norman Rockwell of the Midwest," would become perhaps the most best-loved artist to work in the Sainte Genevieve. "I knew in the third grade that I wanted to be an artist,” said Misselhorn. In high school he provided drawings for the yearbook, posters for events and sketches for friends, but he dropped out of school to work at a local store. After being rejected by the Art Institute of Chicago Misselhorn married a local teacher, Ruth Tritt, who encouraged him to continue to develop his talent. His perseverance paid off and he attended the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, now Washington University, for 3 years where he studied commercial art, advertising, letterhead design, and developed his cartooning skills. After graduating Misselhorn did editorial cartoons for the Meyer-Both Syndicate in Chicago, a job he claimed paid for continuing his art education and for models. Misselhorn published his first book, “Sketching in Pencil”, in 1949 (which is still is in print today.) During his lifetime, Misselhorn published many other books and his works have been exhibited in the Library of Congress, Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Institute, and the St. Louis Art Museum. Misselhorn taught painting and drawing for Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and was an instructor in Ziegler’s brief summer art school. The Sainte Genevieve Welcome Center has a gallery filled with Misselhorn’s sketches of the town and life along the Mississippi River. In the nearby town of Sparta, Illinois the old GM&O train depot has been transformed into the Misselhorn Art Gallery and contains a collection of more than 2,000 of his sketches of steam locomotives, historical buildings, paddle wheelers, Sainte Genevieve, as well as exhibits by contemporary artists.

The Visual Arts in Sainte Genevieve Today

Viewing new work at the 4th Friday Art Walk

The arts never left Sainte Genevieve after the demise of the art colony. In the early 1980s a group of local artists established the Sainte Genevieve Art Guild as a club for area artists. Today the Guild has evolved into a non-profit organization that is a growing, inclusive group of fine artists and arts enthusiasts that encourage creativity and emerging talent through its annual events, educational demonstrations and a scholarship fund.

The number of artists, studios, and galleries that call Sainte Genevieve home has been growing over that past couple of years. A good example of one of the newcomers is Sam Henderson. Like Bernard Peters some seventy years earlier, Henderson couldn’t resist Sainte Genevieve. Henderson, a native of San Francisco, was living in Cape Girardeau at the time and while on a road trip stopped in Sainte Genevieve so her friend could use the telephone. A For Rent sign on one of the shop windows caught her eye and the rustic brick interior of the shop, the inexpensive rent for the shop, its 4 bedroom apartment and backyard, and the charm of Sainte Genevieve had her writing out a check within an hour. She now operates Only Child Originals where she makes jewelry, garden art, and pieces she calls recycled relics: art made from objects destined for the landfill. One of her close friends who Henderson calls “Auntie Lulu,” Lulu Cameron soon joined her from Michigan. Cameron, a highly regarded local artist, operates Lulu’s Studio across the street where she “makes whatever she feels like,” works that explore a variety of different media. When asked to compare the visual arts today in Sainte Genevieve as it compares with the art colony of the 1930s, Mike Devaney, former president of the Art Guild, said that Sainte Genevieve today is more a diverse community of artists rather than a colony of likeminded artists exploring a particular genre.

The studios and galleries of Sainte Genevieve feature a wide variety of art mediums by mostly regional artists, but don’t expect to find just pictures of cows and barns. There are a lot of unique shops with works by artists exploring a number of different mediums and genres from contemporary to traditional. The area is easy to explore with all the shops and galleries within walking distance of each other amid the setting of the historic downtown area. The art community puts on a number of annual events including the Plein Art Event in October and the Fourth Friday Art Walk each month. Being only an hour’s drive from St. Louis, the Sainte Genevieve art scene is worth investigating.
The following books were useful in's research and are recommended reading.
  Ste. Genevieve: A Leisurely Stroll through History
By Bill and Patti Naeger and Mark L. Evans
Presented in over 500 photographs and an engaging text, "Ste. Genevieve: A Leisurely Stroll Through History" is a cross-section of the many facets that make up this most interesting, photogenic and charming town.
  An American Art Colony: The Art and Artists of Ste. Genevieve
By Scott Kerr and R. H. Dick
A historical and pictorial journey through the works of these magnificent painters. Their chosen subjects are not of the traditional bucolic landscape; instead they portray the human condition in terms both of political upheaval and of Depression-era events. Collectively, the authors present, through a series of biographical essays, an analysis of these painters’ lives, their art, and the world in which they lived.

Learn more about the Sainte Genevieve area.

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