Swedish-American Works from the Hillstrom Collection

November 23, 2009 - January 29, 2010


Images of paintings in the exhibition


(above: Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt (Swedish-American, 1878-1955), Two Pigeons, 1952. Oil on canvas. Gift of Reverend Richard L. Hillstrom)


This simplified image is a work from Nordfeldt's late career, when his approach had matured into a concentration on what the artist termed "the structure of the idea-bones." These were the most basic structural elements, which he described as "the absolute shapes that would give the feeling of the emotional impact." Nordfeldt was praised by critics for his Modernist flattening of forms and distortion of space, a tendency seen in this painting, and for his habit of eliminating any detail, however attractive it might be, that might distract from the overall impression he wanted to make. He at times would remove specific passages in paintings in progress if visitors to his studio commented favorably on them.

Nordfeldt often depicted birds, both in flight and at rest, in this late period. This painting of Two Pigeons, done in stark colors that also typify the artist's late work, has an inscription on its back noting that while the artist did not sign it, his widow, Emily Abbot Nordfeldt, verified its authenticity. The frame is the original one, made by the artist.


(above: Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt (Swedish-American, 1878-1955), Women On The Shore-Provincetown, 1916. Watercolor and graphite on paper. Gift of Reverend Richard L. Hillstrom)


This watercolor depicts the beach at Provincetown, Massachusetts, a frequent subject of Nordfeldt during the summers of 1914 to 1918 that he spent there. It is dated in the artist's hand on the reverse to 1916, a year after the founding of the Provincetown Printers, the group of printmakers of which Nordfeldt was an original member. Nordfeldt, in fact, developed the "white line" type of woodcut print that became characteristic of Provincetown. The white lines in such prints separate different fields of color in the image and result from grooves left between the different areas in the woodblock. In this watercolor, the artist uses a similar outlining technique of broad, black lines around the individual colored areas. It may be that he was transferring his method in the white line prints to this new medium.

The light tones of the painting and the relaxed attitudes of the figures depicted convey the easy quality of life in Provincetown. The women are shown enjoying the temperate weather and the proximity to the ocean that made Provincetown so appealing.



(above: Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt (Swedish-American, 1878-1955), The Tree, Spring (or Grey Tree), 1906, Color woodblock print on paper. Purchased with funds committed by Dawn and Edward Michael)


B. J. O. Nordfeldt was born in Tulstorg, Sweden, coming with his family to the United States in 1891, when he was thirteen years old. They settled in Chicago, where Nordfeldt studied at the Art Institute School from 1898 to 1900. In 1900, he enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris. He was exposed in France to Modernism, which was a formative influence, as was his viewing of the famed Armory Show in New York in 1913, which introduced modern art to America.

Nordfeldt worked extensively in printmaking, and studied Japanese methods, including color woodblock printing, in Oxford, England with Frank Morley Fletcher (1866-1950), who is credited with promoting the woodblock medium in Western art. Nordfeldt then spent time in 1903 in the village of Jonstorp, Sweden, where his grandmother lived, working on his woodblock prints. The artist moved around a great deal, later living again in Chicago, but also living for periods in New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

This print has an aesthetic quality that relates to the subtlety of Japanese woodblocks. The suggestiveness of the image is similar to the approach taken by the American expatriate painter and printmaker James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who was also much influenced by Japanese art. Whistler's work was often compared to Nordfeldt's paintings and prints in the early part of Nordfeldt's career.

Known for his modernist philosophy of art, Nordfeldt was more interested in the aesthetics of his artworks than in their narrative content. He was quoted in 1933, in an article in the Minneapolis Journal announcing his position as instructor of painting and etching at the Minneapolis School of Art (now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design), as saying, "Stories may be told much better with words. Pictures are for beauty; the feeling that they impart, not the story they tell. Pictures are like poems. A good poem doesn't tell a story; it contains beauty of rhythm."


(above: Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt (Swedish-American, 1878-1955), Red Earth, 1935, Oil on canvas. Gift to the College by bequest from Emily Abbott Nordfeldt)


This painting dates from shortly after Nordfeldt's first residency in Minnesota, in the early 1930s, had ended. The artist returned in 1944 for a year as visiting artist, again at the Minneapolis School of Art. During his first period in the state, Nordfeldt had made a number of paintings of the countryside, his formal interest in each scene taking precedence over any implied narrative. Frequently in such works, he included a house or barn in the middle ground, as in this painting. His works captured the quality of the Minnesota landscape in this period, especially in the changing seasons or weather. Here, a spring storm is rolling in from the east, and it is already raining in the far distance. The city indicated in blue is apparently Minneapolis, and the location of the farm is in Hopkins, according to a note written by Emily Abbott Nordfeldt, the artist's widow.

Nordfeldt met artist Emily Abbott when he was first in Minnesota and she was an art student, and they began corresponding after he left. Some years later, they married. This painting came to the College as a bequest from Mrs. Nordfeldt's estate, the result of her desire that the works her husband had done while in this state be distributed to various museums and galleries in Minnesota. The painting is dated on the reverse in the artist's hand.

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