The Life and Art of Birger Sandzén
We’ve written before about the unexpected sign at Exit 222 on Interstate 80 in Nebraska announcing the Robert Henri Museum on The Artist’s Road. It turns out that the Robert Henri who learned how to paint in France, taught in New York and wrote the classic book The Art Spirit, was originally from the small town of Cozad, Nebraska.
There is another surprising sign that has become familiar to travelers crossing Kansas on Interstate 70 which announces, “We buy Birger Sandzén Paintings.” This is truly a sign of the increasing appreciation and interest in the Swedish artist’s work by knowledgeable art collectors.
Paintings by Birger Sandzén have broken records at auction (a sale of a 60 x 80″ canvas in 2011 topped $600,000). Sandzén (1871 – 1954) studied art and how to paint in Stockholm under Anders Zorn and in Paris under Edmond François Aman-Jean. It was Aman-Jean who introduced him to pointillism and the work of Aman-Jean’s friend Georges Seurat.
In 1894, he was hired by Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, initially to teach Swedish, German, French, art and vocal music. By 1911, he was working solidly in the pointillist manner; and by 1913, he had developed methods of how to paint in his own expressionist style. He eventually became the chairman of the Department of Art at Bethany and his tenure extended until his retirement in 1946 at age 75. He lived in Kansas for the rest of his life.
Although Sandzén was granted honorary doctorates from several universities and was in demand as a guest artist across the country, he remained loyal to Bethany College.
Today his works are included in collections at the National Museum of Stockholm, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Chicago Art Institute, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Library of Congress and many other national museums.
Bethany College honors the legacy of this prolific and talented artist with the preservation of his studio and the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery. During his lifetime Sandzén completed in excess of 2,600 oil paintings and 500 watercolors. He created 207 lithographs, 94 block prints and 27 drypoints. When the editions are totaled, they amount to over 33,000 prints.
His Colorful Technique
Dubbed the “American van Gogh”, Sandzén’s painting techniques involved a vigorous brushstroke with pure, broken colors intended to blend together when seen from a distance. He developed his own form of the impressionist’s techniques to suit his personal expression.
He wrote, “I feel that one should be guided in both composition and use of color by the character of the landscape . . . One should . . . first of all, emphasize the rhythm and then sum up the color impression in a few large strokes. In other words: A severe decorative treatment is best adapted for this purpose.
“However, it should not be understood that color is less significant. No, not at all. The color arrangement, however simple it may be, should support and enforce the lines. A false arrangement of color may completely destroy the rhythm. . . . One must then use pure colors which refract each other, but which through distance assimilate for the eye—the so-called ‘optical’ blending—since the usual blending on the palette, the ‘pigmented blending,’ is not intensive enough and does not ‘vibrate.'”
For more on Birger Sandzén, visit the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery website, or better yet, take a trip across the magnificent Flint Hills of Kansas on I-70 and visit the actual gallery.
Join us on The Artist’s Road for more enlightening articles, interviews with artists, step-by-step painting demonstrations and discounts in the Artist’s Road Store.
–John and Ann