Milwaukee Meatpacker's gift of art from 1800s impacts cultural scene still today at Milwaukee Art Museum

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by Nate Kuester

MILWAUKEE -- He had no children, yet his name and his legacy continue to live on today as Milwaukee art historians pay tribute to Frederick Layton with a new book highlighting his contributions. The Book, "Layton's Legacy - A Historic American Arts Collection 1888 - 2013" pays tribute to the life's work of Layton.

Layton, an English immigrant, emerged as a cultural ambassador for Milwaukee furing the late 1800s. The foundation he built for the local art community still resonates today thanks the original gallery he built as well as the art school that was named in his honor.

The success of his business in which he exported hams to Great Britain, enabled him to amass a private collection of paintings. Eventually he came to the realization that his artistic treasures needed a far greater audience.

"He gave it all to the people of Milwaukee," said Layton Board of Trustees president Eric Vogel.

Frederick Layton has been dubbed the "father of art in Milwaukee." And many of us had no idea just how much the British immigrant, who came from meager beginnings, gave to our community some 125 years ago. The gift of culture from a man who made his personal fortune from the rough industry the state of Wisconsin is well known for.

"Frederick Layton was a meat packer," said Vogel. "And his slaughterhouses were difficult environments. I think he was particularly sensitive to his workers and so he wanted to give them something that they wouldn't be overwhelmed by."

"He wanted to take on a civic project, and this was it," said Milwaukee historian John Eastberg. "And he did it with amazing results. That really I think inspired the community and continue to do so 125 years later."

Layton's gift took shape in the art gallery that shared his name. The finest paintings from artists near and far hung on the walls of a museum that was unlike the peer institutions of the day. Instead of the huge structures of the time. Layton tasked himself with creating a venue that he felt made art more acessible to all.

"It was a smaller more intimate single-story museum that was integrated into the urban fabric and different from the big museums in Boston and New York," said Vogel.

Layton's gallery was also very different from those in the major cities of the Midwest, taking its inspiriation from his 99 trips across the Atlantic to spend time at the National Gallery in London, England.

"Detroit had a museum, Chicago had a museum, St. Louis had a museum but they were really piles of stone," said Vogel. "They were big heavily rusticated structures and very much in Romanesque fashion with big turrets and even crenellated so they look like castles. Layton has an entirely different idea for what the museum would be."

"You really think of this art gallery appearing in Milwaukee in 1888, completely created in England and then dropped in the middle of the American Midwest. I think that's extraordinary," said Eastberg.

Layton's gallery no longer stands. However his gift to all of us still remains, and the works of art he selected are displayed at a different location today.

"They're still the core collection of The Milwaukee Art Museum; both European and American art," Said Vogel. "And you know I would argue that some of the paintings in this room are the most important representations by the artists of that period."

"When we think about his contribution it's a little bit invisible because unfortunately in the 1950s the original Layton Gallery was torn down," said Vogel. "What's remarkable is that the paintings that are in this room are those founding paintings which hung in 1888 at the Layton Art Gallery."

The 400,000 annual visitors to the Milwaukee Art Museum are no doubt grateful for the grand idea of the meat packer... Making Milwaukee great.

The two authors will sign copies of the book, which retails for $75, at an upcoming event on Sunday, Sept. 29 at Boswell Book Company at 3 p.m. The store is located at 2559 N Downer Ave. in Milwaukee.

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