Interesting lives and the art of collecting

Perhaps you’ve been to the Charles Allis Art Museum and seen one of its many rotating exhibitions. Often it is a mix that juxtaposes the very new with the aged patina of the stately mansion’s permanent collection, amassed by former residents Charles and Sarah Allis. The current exhibition, The Art of Collecting, showcases both familiar and rarely seen pieces. In its thoughtful presentation, the exhibition offers new perspective to the architecture, the collectors and the art they lived with.

The first thing that drew my attention in the first-floor parlor was the black-and-white photograph of Sarah Allis. Taken at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York by Falk Studio, it was placed casually on an end table, much as it would be in any contemporary home.

Sarah Allis stands alertly in profile, her head turned to the viewer and framed as though she’s about to walk out of the picture. It is an intriguing image, but what is most pertinent is that it puts a face on the house and its contents. She and Charles Allis were avid art collectors, and their lives thread through the exhibition in stories and ephemera, as well as their acquisitions.

That photograph lends a sense of familiarity, as though this was still an inhabited space. Only the braided ropes strung over the chairs and settee mark this as a museum rather than a well-appointed home.

Paintings such as Ernest Meissonier’s “The Philosopher” invite lingering and contemplation. In this piece, a man sits at a table covered with large books. He is examining a large document held up in one hand, while with the other he writes notes. The books, the process of handwriting and the aura of quiet tell the story of an analog time, a less harried life and pace than the present.

This relaxed pace and the pleasures of looking are encouraged throughout. In the foyer, glass cases are filled with small objects. A heavy magnifying glass with a substantial handle in the shape a giant brass key sits on a sill, an offer to explore the details. This is especially useful for viewing a selection of vases, some decorated with seemingly hundreds of individualized, tiny faces. Charles and Sarah collected from around the world, and there are some fine examples of three-dimensional pieces from Asia. A Chinese water cup made of star sapphire agate dates to the 18th century. It’s remarkable for its complex, sculptural decoration and diminutive size.

Art Elkon
Art Elkon’s photos appear throughout ‘A Social Forever.’

The grand marble staircase is not merely a passage to the second floor, but also a dramatic part of the exhibition. A monumental Persian rug is displayed as a wall hanging. The textile, more than three centuries old, shimmers like soft gold. Paintings line the walls, punctuated by a fiercely elegant painting of two reclining tigers by Henri Regnault.

More details about the collection and the story of Sarah and Charles Allis are found upstairs. Family photographs, collection inventories and letters are interspersed with paintings, prints, furniture and vessels from many eras, including ancient Greece.

In Sarah’s bedroom, prints by Rembrandt and Whistler are shown, along with letters from gallerists excitedly gauging the collectors’ interests in obtaining rare pieces.

A great deal of attention was lavished on the collection, as noted by the inventory books and ephemera. The news clippings and condolence letters that came after the sudden passing of Charles Allis in 1918, shortly after a routine operation, strike a somber note. Sarah continued living in the home for 27 years, until her death in 1945. Her will decreed that the home and much of the couple’s art collection be left to the city of Milwaukee. In 1947, it opened to the public as the Charles Allis Art Library.

The home has many stories, as many as there are works of art and artifacts. This exhibition brings new light and freshness to familiar pieces and the architecture offers new surprises. Look for the door underneath the marble staircase and walk down into the game room and bowling alley. The Allises, it seems, had a taste for enjoyment in many ways, but especially through their commitment to art.

The Art of Collecting continues through Sept. 18 at the Charles Allis Art Museum, 1801 N. Prospect Ave.

Upcoming Events

Once and Again: Still Lifes by Beth Lipman

Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave. Exhibition opens Sept. 14.

Nationally noted glass artist Beth Lipman will show her luminous sculptures, which are often inspired by 17th-century Dutch still life paintings. Her compositions, carefully orchestrated for visual impact, mediate between themes of abundance, materiality and the transience of life in its aspects of growth and decay.

Into the Garden

Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, 2220 N. Terrace Ave., Sept. 20, 5:30 p.m., performance at 7:15 p.m. Tickets available at

The exhibition Roy Staab: Nature in Three Parts is reaching its closing weekend, but is not going out lightly. Staab and Wild Space director Deb Lowen will speak at this closing soirée, a celebration that will also include wine tasting, hors d’oeuvre, live music, a dance performance by Wild Space and more.

‘A Social Forever’

Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St., 5th Floor. Exhibition reception Sept. 9, 6–9 p.m.

This exhibition includes hree photographic bodies of work. Collectively, they document daily life, captured with sensitivity and preserving fleeting moments that may usually go unnoticed. The photographs of Art Elkon reveal people and events from Milwaukee’s art and music scene, of which he was an avid documentarian. His untimely passing last year leaves these pictures as a lasting legacy. Blyth Meier, who is also host of WMSE’s Tiny Film Invasion program, shows black-and-white photographs of Milwaukee’s architecture, the results of her daily practice, which has been ongoing for several years. Photographs by Tom Kutchera honor employees at his Empire Fish Company, yielding a behind-the-scenes look at a long-running Milwaukee family business.