Swedish-American Works from the Hillstrom Collection

November 23, 2009 - January 29, 2010


Images of paintings in the exhibition


(above: Birger Sandzén (Swedish-American, 1871-1954), Early Fall, Smoky River, Kansas, c.1941, Oil on board. Gift to the College from one hundred students of school year 1941-1942)


The Smoky Hill River, sometimes called the Smoky River, flows adjacent to Lindsborg, Kansas, where Sandzén lived from 1894 onward, and it was a frequent motif in his art. This painting depicts the onset of autumn colors in the trees and shrubs along the riverbank. The blazing oranges and reds of the foreground bushes are more intense in color than what Sandzén often painted. He tended to prefer cooler colors, and was very particular about the hues he chose. Purple was a favorite, and he preferred not to tone down his hues much. In applying his paint, he often juxtaposed colors without mixing them, achieving the more vibrant mix that is accomplished by the eye.

From early in his time in Lindsborg, the artist developed a strong affection for the Smoky River and Valley, and he made long walks in the countryside with Olof Grafström, Bethany College's art instructor during the first years of Sandzén's time in Lindsborg (when he himself was teaching Swedish and French, before he became the College's art instructor in 1899). In 1913, Sandzén formed an organization dedicated to supporting and increasing interest in art at Bethany and in Lindsborg in general, which he named the Smoky Hill Art Club.

This painting was purchased for $100 as a gift to Gustavus by one hundred students of the class of 1941 to 1942, each of which contributed one dollar. Sandzén indicated that his normal charge for a painting of this sort was $100, but he agreed to also give the College as part of the deal a second painting, Mountain Stream, Eldora, Colorado, which is on view to the right.

(above: Birger Sandzén (Swedish-American, 1871-1954), Mountain Stream, Eldora, Colorado, 1941, Oil on board. Gift to the College by the artist in 1942)


Sandzén, who spent a great deal of time out doors as a youth, believed his love of nature and interest in understanding its scenery was related to his Swedish background, according to recollections of his daughter Margaret Sandzén Greenough. The artist thought that worship of nature was a part of his Nordic heritage, and when he left Sweden for the United States, his interest in the natural setting was transferred to his adopted country.

Sandzén first began visiting Colorado regularly in 1913, spending much time there, especially in the summers when he was not teaching in Kansas. He was fascinated by the mountains, and by their structure and colors, and he became friends with Fritioff Fryxell, a noted geologist who was an expert on mountains. This painting is one of many images Sandzén made of the mountainous areas in the state and, as was the case with most of the artist's works, there is nothing in it to indicate the presence of man. Eldora, in Colorado's Jackson County, one of the state's least populous areas, is located within the Roosevelt National Forest.

Using his typical high-keyed colors, Sandzén captures the pristine quality of the clear mountain air, the rush of the stream, and the smooth areas of water where the current is more still and reflects the bright features of the landscape while also suggesting the cold of the water. The artist, who was sometimes compared to Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) for his handling, has carved his forms out of thick, impasto paint, revealing the structure of the mountains, rocks and trees, and demonstrating his love for the act of painting.

Mountain Stream, Eldora, Colorado was given by the artist to the College as a bonus with the painting Early Fall, Smoky River, Kansas when it was purchased by a group of College students as a gift to Gustavus following Sandzén's 1941 campus visit. Sandzén wanted his work to be accessible and appreciated, and this led him frequently to sell his works at low prices or give additional works without extra charge, a practice that exasperated his more business-minded wife and daughter.


(above: Birger Sandzén (Swedish-American 1871-1954), The Grove, 1912, Oil on canvas. Lent by and promised gift of Reverend Richard L. Hillstrom)


Sandzén was born in Blidsberg, in Västergötland, a province in southwestern Sweden. His earliest art instruction was at the age of nine, with an artist who worked as an assistant to Sandzén's minister father. He attended a residential school in Skara, where he studied first drawing then painting under Olof Erlandsson (1845-1916). After graduating, Sandzén studied at Lund University, but he quit after a single semester and moved to Stockholm with the goal of studying at the Royal Academy of Art. Unable to gain admission there because of the long waiting list, he instead joined, in 1891, an alternative art school formed around that time by famous Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1862-1920). This was soon followed by a period of study in Paris, with Edmond-François Aman-Jean (1860-1935), a painter connected with Impressionism who had shared a studio with Pointillist painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891).

The association with Aman-Jean had a lasting impact on Sandzén's style and handling of color, especially during a period in the first decade or so of the twentieth century when he worked in a distinctly Pointillist manner, applying his paint in small points that the viewer's eyes blend together to form a vibrant image. This painting is from that early period of the artist's maturity, when his handling of paint was tighter that it would later become. The paint in The Grove was applied here in controlled blobs, especially in the foreground.

The scene depicted is from the area around Lindsborg, Kansas, to which Sandzén had emigrated in 1894. Sandzén spent a great deal of time wandering the surrounding countryside when he could find spare time from his teaching duties at Bethany College in Lindsborg. Many of his thousands of landscapes -- his most typical genre -- were from Kansas, although he also frequently depicted the generally more dramatic landscape of neighboring Colorado, which he often visited.

(above: Birger Sandzén (Swedish-American, 1871-1954), River Solitude, 1941, Linocut on paper. Gift to the College by the artist in 1941)


This view of a river landscape is typical of the linoleum block prints by Sandzén, who was prolific both as a painter and a printmaker. He was particularly active as a lithographer, creating over 200 works in that medium, and he also made nearly 100 block prints. His first lithograph and block print both date from 1916, and he soon gained a high critical reputation for his prints. For the block prints, he first worked in woodcut, where the design is carved or gouged into the surface of a prepared wooden block. The carving process removes from the block all the parts of the design that will be left blank, and the remaining areas, when the block is inked and pressed against a sheet of paper, form the image. Linoleum printing is essentially similar to the woodcut process except that a linoleum block is used instead of wood. Because the linoleum is easier to carve than wood, linocuts tend to have more fluidity in the lines than woodcuts. Sandzén's first linocut was made in 1921, and for a few years, he alternated between wood and linoleum, but by around 1930, he worked almost exclusively with linoleum for his block prints.

Prints appealed to Sandzén's democratic spirit. He was an enthusiastic supporter of art who felt that original art ought to be available to all, and he appreciated the multiple examples of a print that could be made from a single design. He often gave away his prints, to purchasers of his paintings and sometimes to those who simply asked for one, and he also tended not to limit the editions of a particular print.

In 1901, Sandzén seriously considered leaving Bethany College for a teaching position at Gustavus Adolphus College, which he had visited at the invitation of his friend Karl A. Kilander, professor of Swedish and Christianity at the College. In 1941, he made another visit to Gustavus, invited by his former pupil Lorena Daeschner Hall, instructor of art at the College. He gave a lecture and his prints and paintings were offered for sale. A number of works were purchased from him around this time, including the painting Early Fall, Smoky River, Kansas, to the right, which was bought by a group of students as a gift to the College. The generous artist also gave another painting on view in this exhibit, Mountain Stream, Eldora, Colorado, as part of the bargain, and in gratitude for his visit, he gave several prints to the College, including this one. It is inscribed along the lower edge in Sandzén's hand, "with best wishes to G. A. College 1941."

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