Editor's note: The following essay written in connection with the exhibition Returning to the Heartland: Rediscovering George Van Millett, on view at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art September 10, 2011 through November 6, 2011, was published in Resource Library on September 16, 2011 with permission of the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text please contact the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Return to the Heartland: Rediscovering George Van Millett

by Lynn Mackle


The paintings of George Van Millett (1864-1953) capture America at a pivotal time in its history, seen from the artist's personal vantage point. "Van" Millett, as he was known, became one of the most influential artists in Missouri between the eras of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) and Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), yet his art has been largely forgotten.

A true native son, George Van Millett was a proud descendent of Missouri settlers. His father, printer Henry Shirley Millett (1834-1910) was born in Nottingham, England, and moved to Kansas City in the early 1850s. His mother's family had immigrated to Missouri by wagon train from Kentucky in 1813.

George Van Millett aspired to be an artist since early childhood. By the age of four, he was relentlessly drawing likenesses of Native Americans as they passed by his family home on their way to trade their wares. Among Millett's childhood highlights was a visit to the studio of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), arranged by Henry Millett. Millett's youthful encounter with this acclaimed artist must have made an indelible impression upon his young visitor.

Hoping to make a printer of his son, Henry Millett created a niche for him in the family firm of Ramsey, Millett & Hudson. George Van Millett was unchallenged by that confining career and ventured to St. Louis, where he worked as an engraver. He later tried his luck in Cincinnati, studying at that city's School of Fine Arts. In Cincinnati, with its large population of German immigrants, Millett learned of the thriving artistic community in Munich, and he determined to make his way there.

From 1886-1890, Millett studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. He became a member of the American Artists' Club of Munich, exhibiting his work at the club's monthly exhibitions and garnering several medals in the process. After nearly five years in Munich, Millett spent some months in Paris, where he reputedly studied at the Académie Julien. He later traveled to Holland, studying among artists of The Hague School, who painted peasants at home in peaceful interiors and at work in idyllic landscapes.

Millett returned to Kansas City late in 1893, determined to make others aware of the beauty of American Heartland. He opened a studio in downtown Kansas City, and established an excellent reputation as a portraitist, as well as a painter of serene landscapes and evocative genre scenes. Millett served as president of the Art Club, and he was a member of the city's first arts commission. For a time, Millett was an instructor at the School of Fine Arts, a forerunner of the Kansas City Art Institute, where he taught plein-air painting of local scenery.

William Rockhill Nelson (1841-1915), a philanthropic real estate developer and editor of the Kansas City Star, appointed Millett as curator of his Western Gallery of Art, a position he would hold for almost thirty years. Nelson's works would later form the nucleus of the collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

By 1902, Millett had achieved the distinction of exhibiting with the prestigious Society of Western Artists, a group of established painters who circulated their work throughout the Midwest. In 1904, Millett's portrait of Adela Van Horn earned an honorable mention at the World's Fair in St. Louis.

Known as the "dean of Kansas City artists," George Van Millett was a vocal and well-respected promoter of the development of art in his community. He was also a widely respected authority on the value and authenticity of art.

Above all else, Millett wished to share his perceptions of life as he knew it. Viewers are invited to insert themselves into Millett's sparkling landscapes as they sense his visceral connection to the terrain and people he loved. Onlookers may feel the artist's affection for a lake he painted at every time of day and in every season, a body of water that has now largely evaporated.

George Van Millett's viewers are given privileged glimpses of the artist's family life. In the paintings, the artist's children develop to maturity. His portraits of fellow Kansas Citians are rendered more formally, as they were intended to occupy distinguished spaces on the walls of banks and city offices, and, it was hoped, to later adorn the homes of generations of proud descendants. The photographic precision and technical mastery of these portraits are obvious, but the inner lives of the sitters are also revealed.

Viewers of the artist's work may feel that they are well-acquainted with George Van Millett. Despite many opportunities abroad as well as in New York, Millett returned to the Midwest to paint what he knew and experienced, aspiring to make others aware of the subtle beauty of the American Heartland. While remaining true to his lifelong principles, Millett's work helped to promote an appreciation of American art and advance its movement toward a more modern freedom.

About the author

Lynn Mackle is a freelance writer and art historian. She is the curator of the exhibit Returning to the Heartland: Rediscovering George Van Millett. For more information on Ms. Mackle, plus further information about George Van Millett, please see her website.


About the exhibition

The exhibition Returning to the Heartland: Rediscovering George Van Millett is on view at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art from September 10, 2011 through November 6, 2011.



(above: George Van Millett, Self Portrait, 1888, oil on canvas, 14-1/4 x11 inches. Collection of Barbara Larkin)


(above: George Van Millett, Evening, 1925, oil on canvas, 29 x 36-1/2 inches. Collection of Dr. Roland and Marcia Sabates)


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on September 16, 2011 with permission of the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on September 15, 2011.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Jane Graves of the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art for her help concerning permission for publishing the above text

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