Swedish Arts in North America
Exhibit on view July 6–September 15, 2018
Exhibit curated by Shelby Jensen, student intern
Immigration from Sweden to America increased largely from 1840 to 1930 due to a number of factors such as lack of good resources and overpopulation in Scandinavian countries. Scandinavian immigration transformed the culture of America, bringing new ideas and ways of life. One prime example of this influence being the multiple forms of art that still persist today.
Swedish-American artists were the first to depict mythological and religious compositions as well as the first to exhibit a nude subject in young America. Many objected to these new forms of art, but nonetheless, “the fact that people were willing to pay to be scandalized did not escape the attention of other artists.”
A popular subject matter for immigrant Swedes was painting landscapes, in a time where interest in landscapes was in decline. Birger Sandzén (1871-1954) wanted to capture on canvas “the great power of light” that he saw so abundantly in the American southwest and insisted that nature was his “Great Teacher.” Sandzén’s mature style of art included bright, sunlit colors, reflecting his commitment to “truth in color, and color vitality.” His use of colors became more unrestrained as his style evolved with time. He is also known for organizing the first exhibition of Swedish-American art which took place at Bethany College in Kansas.
Carl Milles’ (1875-1955) most popular sculptures are his very large scale and expressive water fountains. By the time Milles immigrated to America in 1930, he had already produced work which had been commissioned for public settings in Sweden. Unlike many sculptors in this time, Milles had a wide array of connections which helped to enable his success in America, as well as a proficiency in sculpting with different materials. Because some in America were offended by the nudity in a number of his figures, Milles “had a ‘fig leaf’ maker on retainer.”
Swedish-American singers have undertaken many different genres including but not limited to opera, choral, folk songs, and religious songs. Beginning in the late 19th century, Swedish music and dance became popular in America through performances at festivals such as midsummer and Saint Lucia. Many of the immigrants to America formed choral societies, leading eventually to the formation of the American Union of Swedish Singers established in 1892, and this organization is still going strong today. Today, Sweden is one of the most popular and successful countries when it comes to exporting music, and reigns as the number one bubblegum dance capital of the world.
Jenny Lind (1820-1887) was a world renowned Swedish opera singer, known as the Swedish Nightingale. Jenny Lind was persuaded by American showman P.T. Barnum to tour the United States beginning in 1850 to 1852, and this tour raised them large sums of money. Her first concerts in the United States were so popular that the tickets were sold by Barnum at auction. Much of her income from her concerts was donated to her favorite charities. One famous donation being $1,500 for the construction of a Swedish Lutheran Church built in Andover, Illinois, aptly named the Jenny Lind Chapel.
Swedish-American film and theater was particularly popular in Chicago, which was known as the world’s second largest “Swedish” city. Swedish-American Theater grew quite large as Chicago became the center of entertainment. One particular play, Vermländingarne (The people of Värmland), held an incredible 79 performances because of its popularity. No other play of that time has come close to this many performances. Today, organizations such as the Scandinavian American Theater Company work to promote creative and artistic exchange between Scandinavia and the United States.
Vilhelm Moberg (1898-1973) was a Swedish writer whose book series The Emigrants was turned into a movie series, following the story of one families hardships on moving from Sweden to America. The first film, The Emigrants was nominated for best picture as well as nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film. The second film, The New Land, was unfortunately not quite as popular, receiving no nominations. Nonetheless, these films helped to portray the difficulties and loss that Swedish immigrants faced when leaving behind their homes in hopes of a better life.
Many Swedish-American authors in the 19th century shared a common theme of trying to describe life in America in fictional form. Much of the focus of this theme took place in Chicago, but this had faded in the 20th century. Many major settlement areas had book stores, where not only books written by Swedish-American’s were sold, but also imported books written in Swedish which covered a variety of subjects including history, geography, religion, music, and much more. The Augustana Book Concern, founded in 1889, was a notable publishing house that served to supply the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Synod with religious texts. They were also responsible for publishing a multitude of Swedish-American literature that included poetry, historical works, and reprints of Swedish national literature.
Fredrika Bremer (1801-1865) was a Swedish author who devoted her time to literature. Fredrika’s works drew in many women readers, because she actively depicted women’s lives unlike anyone before her. Fredrika traveled to America in 1849, where she traveled, observed, and spoke to all manner of people. She had also been particularly interested in women’s rights in America. Upon her return to Sweden she published several volumes on her visit to America, receiving a mixed reaction to her outspoken writing. Fredrika was a world renowned author, and her books were translated into many different languages. In her honor, the American Swedish Historical Museum in Pennsylvania has a room dedicated to her, and she is the namesake of a town named Fredrika in Bremer County, Iowa.
Swedish-American poetry was a very popular form of literature, although it is unfortunately hard to come by due to lack of preservation. Swedish-American poetry written by immigrants to America was published in newspapers or printed privately. Their poetry largely reflected their own circumstances, as well as their thoughts and feelings on trying to assimilate into American society.
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) was a Swedish-American poet, and winner of three Pulitzer prizes, two of which were for his poetry. Much of Sandburg’s poetry focused on Chicago where he lived and worked. His free verse poetry received mixed reactions, but those who saw his unique poetry in a positive light referred to him as the man whom “put America on paper.” One of his most famous poems ‘Chicago’ referred to this city as “The City of the Big Shoulders,” suggesting Chicago’s importance and hard working contribution to the nation.
“Härute—Out Here: Swedish Immigrant Artists in Midwest America” by Mary Kirn and Sherry Maurer,1984, pages 12 and 56
“Swedish American Life in Chicago: Cultural and Urban Aspects of an Immigrant People, 1850-1930” by Philip J. Anderson and Dag Blanck, 1992, pages 139-140