Bror J.O. Nordfeldt

(1878 - 1955)


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A Swedish immigrant Bror Julius Nordfeldt became one of the better known of the early 20th-century American modernist artists. He was an etcher and engraver as well as oil painter. He gained early attention for his abstract, non-academic depiction of everyday subject matter such as still lifes, portraits and figures. His treatment of Indians was startling to many as he showed them with stylistic distortion and abstraction, which conveyed an air of mystery that invited viewers to regard them as human beings of psychological depth and not just curiousity-arousing ethnic figures.

Bror Julius Nordfeldt came to the United States in 1891 at age fourteen and went to Chicago, where he took a job as a typesetter in a printing firm with a Swedish-language newspaper. His employer saw his artist talent and encouraged Nordfeldt to get formal training. Beginning 1899, he enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute and returned for several extended periods of time, living at one point in the outbuildings of the 1893 Columbian Exposition as part of the 57th Street Artists Colony.

While a student at the Institute, Nordfeldt became a mural assistant to Albert Herter who was filling a commission for the McCormick Harvester Company’s entry in the Paris Exhibition of 1900. Nordfeldt went to Paris for the unveiling and remained in Europe for three years, spending most of his time in France where he studied at the Academie Julian with Jean Paul Laurens. Nordfeldt was much influenced by the painting styles of Manet, Gauguin and Cezanne and was especially taken with the strong, bold coloration of the newly introduced Fauves style. He also went to England and learned etching and woodblock cutting in London from Frank M. Fletcher. He exhibited work at the Royal Academy of London.

Returning to Chicago in 1903, Bror Nordfeldt worked as a portrait artist, a set designer for the Little Theatre, and teacher, whose students included Raymond Jonson, modernist painter whom he later joined in New Mexico.

Although he moved East in 1907, Bror Nordfeldt had two successful, attention-getting solo exhibitions in Chicago in 1911 and 1912. The first show had paintings of Chicago subjects and was held at Albert Roullier’s Gallery, and the second at Thurber’s Gallery featured abstract, impressionist city genre scenes and portraits. Many persons found his French-influenced modernism stylistically shocking, but others such as reviewer Harriet Monroe had a positive reaction. In the “Chicago Tribune”, May 12, 1912, she wrote that the paintings were “the most ambitious and successful pictorial interpretation of Chicago which has been achieved as yet.”

During World War I, Nordfeldt was in California where he worked as a camouflage painter for the Navy and was also in Europe on military duty. Previous to that, he had an exhibition entry in the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, winning a silver medal for an etching. Throughout his career, especially when he was living in New Mexico, Nordfeldt made many trips to California. In 1937, he exhibited work with the San Francisco Art Association.

From 1917 to 1940, he lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico and initially painted sympathetic Indian figures and used Indian motifs as design elements in his canvases. He was one of the founding members of the Indian Artists Fund, an organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of the Pueblo tribes. Encouraged by his artist friend, Russell Cowles, Nordfeldt added landscapes to his subject matter beginning 1929, but destroyed many of these paintings before leaving New Mexico.

Bror Julius Nordfeldt lived his last years in Lambertsville, New Jersey, and in 1955, died of a heart attack in Henderson, Texas. [from the archives of AskART]