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Interpreting the Promise of America

Book CoverPainting by Minnesotans of Norwegian Background 1870-1970
Marion John Nelson

ISBN 0-87732-090-X
94 pp. Copyright © 2000, The Norwegian-American Historical Association

Historical evidence must as a matter of simple logic encompass not only the traditional documents and manuscripts of scholarly inquiry but also the standard props of a material culture, from buildings to implements, clothing, ornaments, and monuments. In order to approach anything like historical reality, the concept of culture must consequently integrate the physical and intellectual worlds in a given period; a cultural refinement of thought, emotion, manners, taste, and belief gives expression to the fine arts, literary form, scholarly pursuits, and religious faith. These artifacts of the past—material and spiritual—provide cogent historical records.

A staff member of the Minnesota Historical Society said when he heard I was doing an exhibition Painting by Minnesotans of Norwegian Background, "Have you found any?" Although he said it facetiously, his remark was revealing. Minnesota painters of Norwegian background do not have a strong presence in the art of the state...

The visual and physical remains of civilization naturally possess a greater public appeal than do musty documents, scrolls, and voluminous written works. Artistic portrayal, as well as literary art, responds to the sociocultural dynamics and vogues of its own time. In the Norwegian-American community authors of diverting literature and painters with esthetic sensitivity arrived relatively late on the scene. Works of fiction written in Norwegian appeared only in the mid-1870s, fifty years after the arrival of the first immigrants, but flourished for nearly seventy years thereafter. In their narratives the authors treated a wide range of subjects, focusing on the many aspects of ethnic life; the immigrant authors were amateurs who wrote about, and in general for, the immigrants themselves.

The gifted landscape painter John Olsen Hammerstad, who came to Chicago from Norway in 1869, is generally recognized as the first professional artist of Norwegian birth in the Midwest. The fine arts among Norwegian Americans developed from the following decade in metropolitan centers such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Brooklyn, and Seattle, as the Norwegian colonies there matured and developed urban cultures. Many painters were, like their literary contemporaries, amateurs, or at least did not make a living through their art; but a core of professional artists did emerge. Even these supplemented incomes in related professions, as illustrators and commerical artists, or even as housepainters. Their influence had a cultural impact far beyond the city. As an artistic elite in an ethnic urban world—a subject only relatively recently given systematic scholarly attention—they have rarely been properly recognized in general studies of Norwegian-American life. Most Norwegian Americans continued to reside outside large metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, an increase in the urban exodus from Norway, and a youth migration from Norwegian-American farming communities, made the urban colonies grow.

Back cover. Orabel Thortvedt. Ola G. Thortvedt. Oil. 1938. Eva and Carl Hedstrom.

In the 1920s artists in Chicago and Broolyn held juried commercial shows; these exhibitions made visible an urbane taste and revealed the artistic activity stimulated by the ethnic community. Norwegian practitioners of the fine arts in Minneapolis, with its Norwegian dominance, did not, as for instance in Chicago where Norwegians constituted a minority, form a closely knit group. Instead the artists interacted individually with the urban environment rather than separated as an organized artistic elite. Motifs from Norway occurred early and found a limited market among upwardly mobile Norwegian Americans. The immigrants themselves were seldom portrayed, although the landscapes in which they lived and worked were. Art was a commodity that appealed to middle-class consumer tastes in the Norwegian-American community; the relative prosperity of the 1920s encouraged artistic endeavor; markets, unlike those for literature in Norwegian, could be found both within and outside the Norwegian-American population. Artistic choices and genres pursued by artists of Norwegian extraction consequently reveal much about the dynamics of immigrant life and adjustment in the city.



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