A true pioneer in the state's visual arts, Lydia Docenia Ely came to the Wisconsin territory as a child in 1840.
In 1865, Ely led a group of women in organizing the Soldier’s Home Fair. The fair exhibition included a collection of important paintings and sculptures from American collections and was the first of its kind in the state. The fair succeeded in raising $100,000 for the construction of a home for Civil War veterans.
She visited England in 1882, and subsequently made several extended tours through England, France, and Italy, studying and visiting the principal galleries. Ely returned to Milwaukee to open a studio and school of her own, located in Milwaukee’s Iron Block. At that time, the Iron Block was home to many of Milwaukee’s best artists.
The first great Milwaukee Industrial Exposition was held in 1881; Ely was the director for the Fine Arts Division and was responsible for amassing 452 oil and watercolor paintings and 869 original prints and drawings from collections in Milwaukee, Chicago and New York. Ely continued in this capacity for the next five annual expositions. After this effort, she focused her attention on administering the completion of the Milwaukee Soldiers’ Monument. In 1899 Ely raised a total of $30,000.00 to fund this monument.
Among her many innovative fund raising efforts was the compilation of an autograph album with signatures of prominent Americans. This album was sold to Frederick Pabst for $5,000.00 and is now part of Milwaukee Public Library’s rare book collection.
Despite the fact that after 1879 Ely’s principal residence was Kilbourn City in the Wisconsin Dells area, she remained an active matriarch of Milwaukee’s art scene until her death in 1914.