Detroit history at the DIA

I miss history field trips. After spending most of the summer cooped up to write a book (and most of the fall re-assembling my life), I have been eager to start making excursions again — to cemeteries, parks, historic markers, battlefields, the woods.

But it seems my time has started to free up just as the weather turns icky. And that will hamper my adventure-taking plans — at least until I invest in a warmer winter coat and some snow boots.

But before I condemn myself to the library for the next four months, I want to explore another repository of Detroit history treasures: the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The DIA was founded as the Detroit Museum of Arts in 1885 by a gang of wealthy donors and art collectors — who wanted to make Detroit into the artistic hub of the Midwest — and many of their contributions remain central to the DIA’s collection. (More on the history of the DIA at

As one of the top six art collections in the U.S., the DIA is a pretty worldly place. But throughout the museum there are little peeks into the history of its city, including local artists, local artifacts, and local moments in history. Here are just a few of my favorites.

Helping Angels — from the Unitarian Church, Woodward Avenue

This luminous work of stained glass, which takes up an entire gallery wall, is so compelling; I’d seen it a dozen times before I noticed the names of famous Detroiters lettered upon it. Surprise! This beauty is from Detroit — it once adorned the First Unitarian Church of Detroit on Woodward Avenue, now abandoned (more info here). You can see from the street where the windows used to be.

Charles Merrill, whose name appears in the medallion at the top, was a lumber baron who came to Detroit in 1848. He was a founding member of Detroit’s Unitarian Society. His daughter, Lizzie Merrill Palmer, named a fountain after him, which is now in Palmer Park.

John Judson Bagley, bearded wonder, tobacco magnate and Governor of Michigan 1873-1877, was raised Episcopalian; I do not know when he joined the Unitarian Church but several writers of the day indicate that Gov. Bagley was ”not confined to that denomination … Wherever good men and women met and worshiped the living God there was church,” as George Hopkins said in a memorial address.

The windows were designed by New York stained glass artist John La Farge in 1890.

First State Election in Detroit, Michigan, 1837

I rarely visit the DIA without stopping for a visit with this painting. I have discussed it on the blog before and dedicated a whole chapter to it in my book, in which I call it Detroit’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, except everyone in it is drunk.

Many contemporary writers vouch that this painting is a faithful depiction of that rowdy election day in 1837 when Democrat Stevens T. Mason defended his governorship against Whig challenger C.C. Trowbridge. But during my research, I read a persuasive analysis that the painting may have in fact been an artifact of Whig propaganda, showing a clammy, crooked-faced boy Governor (normally so handsome!) buying votes from drunken rabble while a parade of Democrat fops rides into the Capitol square, led by a silly gilded pony.

I buy it. And I still love this painting. Maybe even moreso, now.

Julius Rolshoven

My first acquaintance with Julius Rolshoven was through tales of his nude ”Brunette Venus,” which hung at Detroit society bar Churchill’s until Prohibition. Then it moved to the Detroit Athletic Club; as Malcolm Bingay wrote in Detroit is My Own Hometown:

Now the lovely lady,who seems always just to be awakening from a deep and peaceful sleep, with an odd kink in her knee, looks down again through the blue haze of a smoke-charged room where men alone forgather — except on such gala occasions as New Year’s night — as they did in the long ago at Charlie Churchill’s, a mystic tie between the Detroit that was and the Detroit that is, between the roaring decades of our youth and the forties of our maturity.

(I love that, by the way. Mystic ties.)

Rolshoven was born a Detroiter, but left the city when he was 18 to study art in Europe. Later he settled in Taos, New Mexico, and joined the Taos Society of Artists.

This painting of his at the DIA strikes me as a hilariously far cry from the scandalous brown-haired naked lady that made him so notorious in social circles. Also, does anyone know if the brunette Venus is still at the D.A.C.?

John Mix Stanley

[John Mix Stanley, Indian Telegraph, 1860. More here.]

Consider this goal for 2012 hereby set: I have to know more about John Mix Stanley. First of all, what kind of a name is Mix? The kind of name I love, that’s what. Then there’s the fact that Mr. Stanley’s life includes so much dramatic American history: chief artist for the Pacific railroad survey, portrait painter of Hawaiian King Kamehameha III, and dreamer-upper of  a never-completed illustrated atlas of the American Indian. For an extra dimension of tragedy/mystery/loss, most of his work was destroyed in a massive 1865 fire at the Smithsonian.

Born in Canandaigua in 1814, Stanley first came to Detroit in 1834 and started painting here (though he evidently had no formal art education) the following year. He spent most of the next 30 years on expeditions and exhibiting, but returned to Detroit permanently in 1864, and died here in 1872. The DIA has a number of his works in their collection.

Gari Melchers

Perhaps the most famous painter ever to come from Detroit, naturalist Gari Melchers is responsible for these murals at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (among many other works). Gari Melchers was the son of cigar-store Indian sculptor Julius Melchers.

Take your pick from any of his paintings at the DIA! This is not one of them, but it is a Gari Melchers portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. NICE!


#charles merrill#detroit institute of arts#detroit museum of art#first state election in detroit#first unitarian church#gari melchers#john judson bagley#john mix stanley#julius rolshoven