Artist Birger Sandzen, the “American Van Gogh,”was born in Bildsberg, Sweden in 1871. From an early age his parents encouraged his artistic talent. He began his formal studies at the College of Skara under Olof Erlandsson and continued his art education at the University of Lund, where he studied with Anders Zorn, one of Sweden’s greatest painters and etchers. After the wait list at the Royal Academy in Stockhold proved too long, he joined a group of artists at a new school that later became the Artist’s League of Stockholm. However, the time he spent in Paris studying under Aman-Jean, who shared a studio with Georges Seurat, proved most influential for Sandzén, particularly with regard to his use of color. These two artists introduced Sandzén to pointillism, a technique of painting in which small, distinct dots of pure color are applied in patterns to form an image, and impressionism, both of which contributed to Sandzén’s unique style.
While in Paris, Birger Sandzen, who had just recently read a book by the founder of Bethany College, Swedish immigrant Dr. Carl Aaron Swensson, applied for a teaching position at the school. In 1894 Sandzén was hired, and he moved to Lindsborg, Kansas, to join the Bethany College faculty, teaching both languages (German, French, Spansih and Swedish) and art. Though he intended to only stay a few years, Sandzén taught at the school for 52 years, with occasional guest professorships. At Bethany, he was named principal art teacher but continued to instruct in art history, ethics, and language. He organized the first exhibition of Swedish-American art at the school, and was named head of the Art Department in 1899. After his retirement in 1946, he was honored as professor emeritus.
Despite his newfound ties to Kansas, Birger Sandzen frequently traveled throughout the United States. One of his favorite locales was Yellow Stone National Park, which he often painted. In 1918 he visited New Mexico and fell in love with the charm of Santa Fe and Taos, using both as frequent subjects; he was elected an associate member of the Taos Society of Artists in 1922. Sandzen also traveled to Colorado, where he taught at the Broadmoor Art Academy (now Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center) and at the Denver Chappell House School of Art (now Denver College), and Utah, teaching at the Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) and Brigham Young University.
Throughout his career, Sandzen was celebrated as an innovative painter of landscapes, depicting the brilliant imagery of the American Southwest as well as the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone, though more likely his reflection of these places than specific scenes. Working in oils, watercolors, lithographs and woodcuts, his style evolved from his early involvement with Seurat and Pointillism to a more personally unique style often associated with Fauvism. His bold use of color, thick impasto, and favor of the representational over the realistic was peppered with hints of Impressionistic painterly qualities. He was often compared to Van Gogh, whose work he maintains he never saw until well after developing his own style, as well as Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne. His work was frequently exhibited across the country as well as in Europe.
With the onset of the Depression, Birger Sandzen became a W.P.A. artist and wrote a book called With Brush and Pencil. He was also a founding member of the Prairie Printmakers Society, one of America’s most successful print societies. Clearly multitalented and successful, Sandzen enjoyed a long and rewarding career. He was highly prolific, creating an astonishing number of artworks—oil paintings, etchings, watercolors, and prints—which have become parts of collections both private and public, including at the American Swedish Historical Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris, the British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Corcoran Gallery, the Library of Congress, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among many, many others. He was also honored by Bethany College with the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery which was dedicated on the campus in 1957. Further awards include recognition from the King of Sweden for promoting cultural relations with the United States and honorary doctorates from various institutions. Birger Sandzen died in Lindsborg in 1954.