Few local painters are as widely recognized and appreciated as Marion Biehn, prolific recorder of life in the La Crosse region. She recreated scenes and buildings that local residents remembered from their childhood, recording the “way things used to be.”
Her paintings have a strong pull of nostalgia, tempered by careful observation and faithful rendering. She painted Grandad Bluff, the Mississippi from Riverside Park, the old public library and many other local landmarks. Biehn had a special fondness for old buildings, and her renderings of them are reminiscent of portraits in the way they capture the character of each building.
Biehn started out as a portrait painter, using oils, and she was quoted as saying that it was fellow La Crosse painter Art Hebberd who first encouraged her to try her hand at watercolors. At first, she was afraid of the unforgiving medium but discovered that once she began to master it, she thoroughly enjoyed its immediacy.
This watercolor is of the old La Crosse County Courthouse, that stood on Vine Street from 1904 to 1965. Biehn painted it in 1964, and it marked the beginning of her career recording historic buildings. Tom Holstein, then president of the La Crosse Title Co., commissioned Biehn to paint many of the city’s historic buildings that were subsequently torn down.
Click here for a link to see 43 buildings in the La Crosse area that no longer exist.
The popularity of her subject matter meant that there was a market for prints of Biehn’s paintings, and some were produced in enormous numbers. The Bank of Galena, for more than 26 years, commissioned annual paintings that were reproduced and distributed as gifts on its annual calendar. State Bank of La Crosse also used prints of Biehn’s work as premiums for customers. Many of these still are mounted and exhibited in homes and other buildings in the region.
The La Crosse County Historical Society has set a goal to increase its small collection of artwork done by local artists or of local scenes. No other public trust has this as its mission, and local artists are a part of our heritage.
Biehn’s work fits these criteria perfectly, and we were grateful for this recent donation from the estate of Nancy Higbee Pollock. Although we have a collection of Biehn prints, this is our first original work by this artist, and we were excited to receive it.
Marion Biehn was born in 1911 in Racine, Wis. She moved to La Crosse with her husband in 1955, raising their children here, and living in La Crosse until their deaths. She was one of seven children, and was a dedicated visual artist from a very young age. She died in 1992 at the age of 81.