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Renowned portrait artist draws a crowd to La Crosse
A group of artists quietly paints as the downtown traffic buzzes by two stories below.
Among the group is Talbot Cox, an established portrait artist, who traveled from his home in South Africa to learn from Peggy Baumgaertner in her La Crosse studio.On his last day in La Crosse, Cox said he sought out Baumgaertner because her work stood out from the hundreds of other portrait artists he has seen at the best galleries around the world.

“If you look at any of her portraits she gets a sort of a glow, which I think has been lost with many of the top portrait artists in the world,” Cox said. “I came here because I wanted to learn how she got that glow, that translucent effect I found very intriguing.”

Baumgaertner, who works under the professional name of Margaret Carter Baumgaertner, has worked her way to become one of the top portrait artists in the world, developed a video teaching series, has written for a long list of international art magazines and now teaches students from around the world.

Baumgaertner said she is proud to have accomplished this not from going to the right school, or being mentored by the right artist but by her own work.

As a teen in Pomona, Calif., Baumgaertner painted portraits, but after getting a degree in medical illustrations and then microbiology, she spent the next 10 years as a medical illustrator.

In 1980, she moved to La Crosse with her husband, James, a physician at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center, and the couple’s three children. And she was finally able to return to painting portraits. She bought her first oil paints in 1982 and later went to Washington, D.C., to a seminar with John Howard Sanden, which helped jump start her work as a portrait artist.

By 1990, Baumgaertner was admitted into two of the top portrait agencies in the United States and her work was starting to be noticed throughout the world.

One of her paintings landed on the front cover of the book “Best of Portrait Painting.” She had articles published in trade magazines like International Artist Magazine, Artist Magazine, and Signature and Portfolio, and she began entering international competitions.

After being a finalist for several years, Baumgaertner reached the pinnacle in 2000, when one of her paintings stood out from nearly 1,000 entries as Best of Show at the Portrait Society of America’s portrait competition.

That milestone paved the way for Baumgaertner to be selected as a faculty member at Portrait Society of America, requests to have her teach studios around the world and made her sought after by established artists from around the world.

About six years ago, Baumgaertner established a permanent studio in a downtown building at Fifth Avenue and Main Street and started teaching short courses. But in recent years, her class offerings expanded to include summer portrait classes, and she now mentors artists from Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Venezuela, Tanzania and other countries.

Through her career, Baumgaertner has painted portraits of everything from children and pets to some of the world’s business, religious and political leaders.

Because of her teaching commitment, Baumgaertner has trimmed back to doing about six to eight commissions a year and devotes the rest of her time to developing her DVD series on painting portraits, teaching during the summer and a few mentoring classes, and continuing to write for various magazines.

“I used to do teaching all over the United States, but now that I have my own (studio) I don’t need to teach anywhere else,” Baumgaertner said. “I do still teach at Brighton University in Brighton, England, because it’s easier for European students to come to me there. And also because it’s so much fun.”

While Baumgaertner is what brings international students to La Crosse, she says it’s the city that keeps them coming back.

“They love La Crosse,” Baumgaertner said of her students. “While they’re here, they live downtown, they walk around and find their own haunts. For the summer they really make La Crosse their own.”

Now that she is solidly established, Baumgaertner said she could venture into other types of art, but said portrait work still holds her interest because each work brings with it something different and poses a challenge.

At the same time, she said, doing just portrait work would not provide the variety that comes with doing other things.

“As it is now, I also get to teach classes, do DVDs and write. It’s nice for me to get up and say, ‘What do I want to do today?’” Baumgaertner said.

At a Glance

Family: husband, James, three grown children, one lives in Minneapolis, two in Los Angeles.

Occupation: Internationally known portrait artist and teacher who has developed video teaching series.

Education: Medical illustration degree from City of Hope College, microbiology degree from Cal-Poly Pomona.

Accomplishments: 2000 Best of Show at Portrait Artists of America portrait arts competition; written hundreds of articles for various international art museums, named to faculty of Portrait Artists of America, teaches summer classes at her La Crosse studio, which attracts students from around the world; former art teacher at Blessed Sacrament, Aquinas and Western Wisconsin Technical College.

Image and text by Lacrosse Tribune, USA

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