Sven Birger Sandzen holds a high place in American art, at one point he was affectionately nicknamed the “American Van Gogh”. He was born in Bildsberg, Sweden in 1871, and he enjoyed a long and distinguished career as an art professor at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. Throughout his career he was recognized as an innovative and accomplished impressionist landscape painter, his work seemingly evolved from Pointillism to a very personal style of bold color and with masses of paint, akin to that of Vincent Van Gogh and Fauve painters Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse.
His early work was Tonalist in style in the manner of Scandinavian Romanticism, but after he began taking trips to Colorado, where he created many paintings of the Rocky Mountains, his work became much more Expressionist and Fauve or brightly colored.
He was the son of a Lutheran minister and received his art education in Europe, graduating in 1890 from the College of Skara in Sweden and then taking further study at the University of Lund. He was the pupil of Anders Zorn and studied painting at the Artists’ League of Stockholm and then with Aman-Jean in Paris.
In 1894, he emigrated to Kansas where until 1945 he was professor at Bethany College and from then until his death, professor emeritus. Not only did he paint in the West including Yellowstone National Park in 1930, he amassed a personal collection of over 500 western paintings and drawings.
At Bethany College, he organized the first exhibition of Swedish-American art held at that Swedish institution. The exhibit included paintings by himself and his colleagues. He was also active in the Swedish-American Society in Chicago.
In 1916, he first went to Colorado and in the mid 1920s, taught some classes at the Broadmore Hotel. He also taught at Denver College and at Utah State College. From 1918, he became a regular visitor to Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, and in 1922, exhibited with the Taos Society of Artists in New York.
During the Depression, he was a W.P.A. artist and was the author of a book titled With Brush and Pencil. “He was also a founding member of the Prairie Printmakers Society. In the 1930s, a handful of intaglio and block print artists from Wichita, Lawrence and El Dorado, Kansas met with Sandzen in his studio and under his direction created one of America’s most successful print societies”. Sven Birger Sandzen passed away in 1954.
Peggy and Harold Samuels, Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, 1985
Fred McCraw, Art Writer of Kansas City and Researcher
Emory Lindquist, Birger Sandzen An Illustrated Biography, 1993
From the time he was ten, Sven Birger Sandzen knew he wanted to be an artist. Born in Bildsberg, Sweden in 1871, he was the son of a Lutheran minister. He began his art studies in Europe at the College of Skara in Sweden and graduated from there in 1890 to continue his studies at the University of Lund.
Having set his sites on the Royal Academy in Stockholm, Sandzen was disappointed to find no vacancies and a long waiting list of applicants. He then took classes at a new school which later became the Artists League of Stockholm. He studied there with one of Sweden’s greatest painters and etchers, Anders Zorn. In 1894 he was accepted into a class in Paris taught by Aman-Jean, who shared a studio with Georges Seurat. There Sandzen was introduced to pointillism and impressionism which he used in his work from then until about 1910.
Also while he was in Paris, another student told him about an opening at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas which he immediately applied for. Thus began a professorship of 52 years teaching at the college and educating the local villagers in the small towns nearby about art appreciation. He was appointed principal art teacher and head of the Art Department in 1899, a position he held until his retirement in 1946, after which time he was professor emeritus. While at Bethany he organized the first Swedish/American art exhibition.
He loved to travel and paint in one of his favorite places, Yellowstone National Park. By 1930 he had amassed a personal collection of over 500 western paintings and drawings. Sandzen visited New Mexico for the first time in 1918 and went back frequently to Santa Fe and Taos. The Taos Society of Artists made him an associate member in 1922.
He went to Colorado first in 1908 and then in the mid 1920s taught classes at the Broadmore Hotel and Denver College. In 1928 Birger was invited to the Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) and also to teach at Brigham Young University in the same summer. His brilliant color and thick impasto was now considered â€œFauvistâ€ and inspired many Utah artists to successful art careers.
With the onset of the Depression, Sandzen became a W.P.A. artist and wrote a book called, â€œWith Brush and Pencilâ€. In the 1930s he became the founder of the Prairie Printmakers Society which was one of America’s most successful print societies. He was a multi-faceted artist, speaking six languages including Latin and sang solos with the nationally famous Bethany Oratorio Group. Birger Sandzen died at age 83 in 1954 in Lindsborg, Kansas. He was often said to be a painter in the style of Van Gogh. But he would always chuckle and mention that he did not even see a Van Gogh until 1924.
Exhibits and museum collections are too numerous to mention, but include Denver Art Museum; Goteborg Art Gallery, Sweden; Brigham Young University, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Uffizi, Florence; British Museum; Library of Congress and many others.
1. Springville Museum of Art
2. The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, Peggy and Harold Samuels
3. Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975: 400 Years of Artists in America, Peter Hastings Falk
Artist Sven Birger Sandzen (1871 – 1954) is more commonly known as Birger Sandzen. Besides being a well-known Impressionist landscape painter, Birger Sandzen also had a long and prestigious career as an art professor at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. His modernist style of painting has been paralleled with that of Vincent Van Gogh and many of his works are Rocky Mountain Landscape paintings. His earlier paintings were Tonalist in style and after he spent time painting in Colorado he began painting with much brighter colors and his style evolved into Expressionism. His style of combining bold colors and large quantities of paint even spurred critics to align his works with those of the famous Fauve painters Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne.
The son of a minister, Sven Birger Sandzen was born in Blidsberg, Sweden. His father played the violin and wrote poetry and his mother had studied drawing. Before he was ten years old his parents noticed his artistic talent and asked a friend to give him some drawing lessons. By the age of 10 Birger Sandzen was taking courses at the College and Academy of Skara where he studied painting and drawing under Olof Erlandsson. Sven Birger Sandzen graduated from Skara College and then went on to study briefly at Lund University. Birger Sandzen next studied perspective and form drawing in high school at the technical high school at Stockholm. Under Anders Zorn suggestion, Birger Sandzen and a group of young artists rented a studio. There they obtained instruction from Anders Zorn as well as Richard Bergh who was a respected portrait painter and also from a top Swedish sculptor, Per Hasselberg. Birger Sandzen and the group of young artists formed “The Art School of the Artists’ League” which would become an integral part of developing the modern Swedish art movement.
In 1894 Birger Sandzen became aware of Dr. Carl A. Swensson who was a Swedish-American college President in Kansas. He wrote to Dr. Swensson asking if he could utilize his talents as an artist and in teaching French. An offer was tendered and accepted and very soon Birger Sandzen was living in Lindsborg, Kansas where he would make his home for the next 54 years. In the year 1900 Sven Birger Sandzen married Augusta Alfrida Leksell, a pianist, and they in turn had one daughter, Margaret Elizabeth.
Birger Sandzen was a devoted instructor which only left late evenings for his own painting. He would spend his summers in New Mexico, Colorado and Utah and this is where his creative inspiration would be ignited. Starting in about 1918, Birger Sandzen began making regular painting trips to both Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1922 and 1923 The Babcock Galleries in New York sponsored two large exhibitions of Birger Sandzen’s paintings, however due to his commitment as a professor, Birger Sandzen never attended the exhibitions. During the Great Depression, Sven Birger Sandzen was a W.P.A. artist and he also wrote a book titled With Brush and Pencil.
Sven Birger Sandzen taught at Bethany College for 52 years and during that time received honorary doctorates from Kansas State College, Midland College of Fremont, Nebraska and Nebraska University. He was honored as a Knight of the Swedish Order of the North Star in 1940.
In 1954 Sven Birger Sandzen endured several months of failing health before he ultimately died at home on June 19, 1954.
Birger Sandzen Awards
Order of Vasa, Swedish Government
Order of the North Star, Swedish Government Honorary Doctorate, Midland Luthern
College Honorary Doctorate, University of Nebraska Honorary Doctorate, Kansas State University
Birger Sandzen Painting, Oil on Panel 20 X 24 (Interest categories: Oil on Panel, Impressionism, Fruit, Painting, Traditional Paintings, Fine Art, Art Gallery, Birger Sandzen Artist)