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Heisser, Margareth E. (a.k.a. Margarethe)
b. March 31, 1871; d. June 24, 1908
Discipline: Drawing/Illustration, Painting

Margareth Heisser was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1897, she exhibited her drawing “Thunder Cloud” at the annual exhibition of the Minneapolis Art League. Thunder Cloud was a Sioux and by drawing him, Heisser was displaying early a talent in American Indian portraiture that would one day be her best known contribution to painting. 

Classically trained, Heisser’s art education began at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts (where she studied under Bart Harwood, a renowned painter of American Indians) and the Art Students League in New York City. In 1896, she returned to her hometown to teach art at her alma mater, Central High School. She opened a studio with her colleague Elizabeth Chant, which they maintained until 1901, when Heisser took a teaching position at Moorhead Normal School (now Minnesota State University Moorhead). She held that position until 1903, when she continued her studies at various schools and studios in Rome, Madrid, and Paris. In 1906, she returned to Minneapolis, where she lived while making frequent trips to Fargo and Grand Forks.

She maintained a studio in Fargo and made portraits of some the region’s most notable people including North Dakota Governor John Burke and North Dakota State University President Webster Merrifield.

Although a resident of Minnesota, she was eager to contribute to North Dakota’s artistic history. She decided to produce a series of fifteen portraits of notable American Indians in the state. (She was inspired, in part, by the plans for the Sakakawea statue on the State Capitol grounds in Bismarck.) She had finished work on only three, however, when she died suddenly on June 24, 1908. (The three subjects were all Gros Ventes Indians from the Fort Berthold Reservation: Bear’s Necklace, Bad Brave, and Mink Woman, who was the said to be a granddaughter of Sakakawea and served as the model for the Bismarck statue.)

Heisser had never paid much attention to her physical health. Instead, she focused on developing her artistic abilities and her mental state through the study of Theosophy, a type of mysticism from the Far East that believes in reincarnation. (She always wore a scarab – a symbol of eternity and resurrection – and signed her paintings with a painted scarab.) To what degree this affected her health is unknown, but it in all likelihood contributed to her early death.

Whether or not she was resurrected is, of course, unknowable. What is known is that her three portraits lived on in the form of limited edition prints that were sold to raise completion funds for the Sakakawea statue.

In 1911, the North Dakota State Legislature appropriated $700 to purchase the Heisser portraits. The State Federation of Women’s Clubs, who had managed the statue project, raised an additional $300. The portraits were sold to the state on April 14, 1911 for the purchase price of $1,000. Today, they are housed in the permanent collection of the State Historical Society.

- Ben Nemenoff


Barr, Paul E. North Dakota Artists. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Library, 1954.

Palmer, Bertha Rachael. Beauty Spots in North Dakota. Boston: Bruce Humphries, Inc., 1939.

Obituary. The Sterling Star, July 10, 1908.

Other Sources:

State Historical Society of North Dakota

*Image courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (#E0064).

Painting by Heisser

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