Birger Sandzen (1871 – 1954)
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(SVEN BIRGER SANDZÉN)
Swedish-born Birger Sandzén was a painter, printmaker, teacher and arts advocate. Best known for his landscapes—but also a capable portraitist— Sandzén developed a style of painting that featured bold applications of impasto and brilliant impressionistic color harmonies. His use of texture and feeling for striking visual rhythms has often caused him to be compared to Vincent Van Gogh. A prolific artist with a long career, Sandzén completed over 2600 oil paintings, 500 watercolors and more than 300 distinct prints (lithographs, woodcuts and etchings).
Sven Birger Sandzén was born in Blidsberg, Sweden, on February 5, 1871, the son of a Lutheran minister. Sandzén grew up in a culture home where music, art and literature were appreciated: his mother had studied drawing as a young woman and his father played the violin. At the age of nine Sandzén took his first drawing lessons from a young minister. A year later he began attending a boy's school in Skara, Sweden where he studied art with Olof Erlandson, a graduate of the Royal Academy in Stockholm.
After graduation in 1890, Sandzén continued his studies in French and Esthetics at Lund University. Soon after arriving at the University Sandzén made the decision to become a professional painter. He then moved to Stockholm where he joined a group of young art students at the Artists' League and studied with a trio of internationally known artists: Anders Zorn, Richard Bergh and Per Hasselberg. Two years later in Paris Sandzén was exposed to Impressionist principles while studying with Edmond François Aman-Jean, a disciple of the Post-Impressionist Georges Seurat. Through meeting and studying with several young American painters in Paris, Sandzén became interested in the United States where he would eventually settle.
In 1894 Sandzén was offered a teaching position at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. Sandzén was initially a language instructor, but by 1899 he had become the college’s principal art instructor. He would teach at Bethany until 1946—a career of over five decades—retiring as a Professor Emeritus. As a Professor, Sandzén gained a reputation for encouraging his students to pursue individualism in painting and to avoid formulaic approaches.
In 1908 Sandzén made a trip to Colorado Springs—the first of many trips he would take to the West—where he was moved and inspired by the Rocky Mountains. He would later make regular summer trips to the Estes Park area to paint its distinctive mountain formations.
In 1918 Sandzén became connected with the Taos Society of Artists, which had been formed in 1915 by Joseph Henry Sharp, Eanger Irving Couse, Oscar Edmund Berninghaus, William Herbert Dunton, Ernest Leonard Blumenschein, and Bert Geer Phillips. Through this association he became familiar with a number of artists painting in New Mexico—including Victor Higgens, Walter Ufer, John Sloan and Catharine Critcher—and took part in a 1922 exhibition.
The formal qualities of the art produced by Taos painters, including the use of vivid colors that transmitted the brilliant natural tones of the desert, made a strong impression on Sandzén, affecting and transforming his art over time. Landscape had become his greatest fascination, and he wrote in a letter to a friend that “my gift to America is to make one realize how beautiful the simplest landscape is and how alive, vigorous and changing our trees and rocks are.”
A lifetime advocate for art and arts education, Sandzén founded the Mid-West Art Exhibition and the Smoky Hill Art Club. As a visiting artist, he taught at numerous schools including the Broadmoor Art Academy (later the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center), the Chappell Summer School in Estes Park, Stephens College, the Kansas City Art Institute, Utah State College and the University of Michigan.
Today, the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, located in Lindsborg, Kansas, directs the activities of the Birger Sandzén Memorial Foundation. Since 1957 it has exhibited works by Sandzén, as well as maintaining a permanent collection with works by some 720 artists. Along with shows of work by contemporary artists, the gallery hosts special programs, poetry readings and gallery talks. Its mission—to encourage a deeper appreciation of art by the public—is very much in line with the ideals and values that Birger Sandzén held during his long and productive life