Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sentimental Sunday: Aunt Gret the Artist

Gretchen Anna Reis and Lee John Pape with godson Jack Bleidt, May 17, 1936
I first wrote about my Great Aunt Gret (Margaret Anna "Gretchen" Reis Pape, 1886-1947) about two years ago, sharing one of my dad's childhood memories of her. 

About a year ago, my (new friend) "Awin" commented on another post on this blog, saying Aunt Gret "was a friend of my Grandmother, Amy Zender Windler of Ridgeville, Chicago. I have a painting Gretchen did in 1908 and gave to my grandmother. It is beautiful. I have always been looking for another of her paintings."

Then, about two weeks ago, I received an e-mail (via this blog) from someone who said Aunt Gret "was a wonderful water color artist. I have a painting of hers signed Gretchen Reis-Pape 1/11/40.  I think we also may have another painting. We bought them at an auction in Holly, Michigan, a few years ago. I have searched for years to get info on the artist."

Gretchen was born April 4, 1886, in Evanston, Illinois, the oldest of the seven children of Joseph A. Reis and Margaret Muno (who were both born in Illinois of German parents).  She's listed as an artist in various Evanston city directories from 1909 through 1933 (although she obviously continued painting after that).  She married my uncle Lee John Pape between 1925 and 1927, and they lived in Wilmette after that.  They had no children.  She died on April 20, 1947, and is buried at St Henry's Cemetery in Chicago.

When nephew Jack Bleidt was born on February 13, 1929, Gretchen and Lee became his godparents.  Gretchen made the clever card at right (noting that J.C.B., John Carl Bleidt, was born between Abe Lincoln and St. Valentine), which Jack's mother, Lee's sister Martha Elisabeth Pape Bleidt, saved in Jack's baby book.

Great Aunt Martha also saved the little watercolor drawing below, from the Easter greeting Aunt Gret sent her godson on March 29, 1929.

I asked my family if they had any of Aunt Gret's paintings.  My Aunt Betty said, "I had a painting of Aunt Gret's hanging in my bedroom on Lunt Ave.  I don't know what happened to it after they sold [2093 W.] Lunt Ave.  Now  wish I did.  As I recall it was of a girl holding a straw hat with the wind blowing her hair."

Recently, Awin was kind enough to send an image, at right, of the 1908 painting she has by Aunt Gret, back when she was Gretchen Reis.  You can see her signature in the lower right corner of the drawing.

In 2005, Awin noticed a note in her father's handwriting on the back of the painting that says, Your grandmother, Amy Windler, was a close friend of Gretchen Reis, who drew this picture. Gretchen was engaged to Mr. Sontag but he left her at the altar.”

Wow!  That could be a yet another story (two Sontags, Henry and Arby, were of the right age and were members, like Gretchen and her family, of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Evanston).   This does help explain why Gretchen married Lee Pape so late in life (she was around 40) for that era.

Awin also sent me a link to a painting by Gretchen that she found on about a year ago.  Here is what the seller wrote:

"Recently we were contacted by an upper end Antique & Asian Gallery in Chicago's Magnificent Mile. They asked if we would take some consignments, of course we jumped at the chance...Up for auction is a wonderful winter landscape painting, signed G. Pape  1904 [sic]. Attributed to Gretchen Anna Pape (1866 [sic]-1947) of Evanston, Illinois. She was an easel painter from the turn of the century. It depicts a winter forest landscape with the light of the full moon. It has a cabin barn with an open door and what looks like a blacksmith working at his anvil. This was restretched somewhere shortly after it was done. It measures approx. 42" x 28". We couldn't find a bio on Gretchen Pape."

Their (mis-)information appears to have come from page 2525 of the 1999 edition of Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975 : 400 Years of Artists in America, which has an entry for:

Gretchen Anna Pape (Mrs.), painter, b. 1866/ d. 1947, Evanston, IL.  Addresses : Wilmette, IL

Additionally, it's unlikely the painting below was done in 1904, as Gretchen was not Mrs. Pape at that point - unless she signed the painting after her marriage.

Awin and I are hoping to find more examples of Aunt Gret's work in the future.

© Amanda Pape - 2012 - click here to e-mail me.


  1. What a lovely post recognizing a delightful gal from our past. I must make one thing very clear on the Sontag portion. It is definitely not Arby because he married and had 6 children, and most of those families are in the area. They are 2nd cousin's of mine and the extended family's are also known to me from those 6 children. Upstanding people at every angle you look at them. The artist in Gretchen is what we are looking to further. Thank you Amanda for bringing it to the surface.

    1. From what I found on, both Sontag brothers married. It's not necessarily bad to be left (or to leave someone) at the altar; better that than to be married and not have the marriage work out. But it may explain why Gretchen didn't marry my Uncle Lee until she was around 40. She may have wanted to be very careful when she finally took that big step.

      Thank you for sharing Gretchen's pictures - the one you own and the one you found, Amy - that's what made the post!

  2. Do you want to see a scary thought...A Book by Rachel Sontag, an Evanston native, memoirs about life with her difficult father. There are dozens with that name in the area, and this is documented by his very brave and talented daughter. So you see why research has so many folds in the fabric...and we need people like you to unravel it all. Thank you. Did your great Aunt Gret travel? I always wondered where she got her inspiration for the Dutch couple.

  3. A very cool find! I bet you will be a regular on eBay now. I hope you are able to find more examples of her work!