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Pioneer Painters

By Chrissa Gerard | HUMANITIES, July/August 2001 | Volume 22, Number 4

“In the Fox River Settlement all was chaos and confusion during the early years of the colony,” writes R.B. Anderson in 1895 in First Chapter. “Some of the Norwegians there were Quakers, others Baptists, others Presbyterians, others Lutherans, others Mormons, and some were free-thinkers, all in inextricable disorder.”

Works by three of the Lutheran artists who shaped the early religious environment in the upper Midwest are on display in Iowa at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah. A founder of Decorah’s Luther College, Ulrich Vilhelm Koren, played a major role in the fostering of church art.

In 1853, Koren became the first Norwegian minister to settle west of the Mississippi. He would become a unifying voice for Lutheran communities in Iowa and Minnesota as a founder of Luther College and president of the Norwegian Synod. He also became a supporter of art in an area known more for its agriculture. Koren’s intention was to make art part of the religious experience, and under his leadership he encouraged hundreds of small rural churches to commission traditional altar paintings.

The exhibition, funded by the Iowa Humanities Council, shows altar paintings by Herbjørn Gausta, a Koren protégé, Sara Kirkeberg Raugland, and Arne Berger. Their work date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and was gathered for “Faith Odyssey 2001,” a celebration of the life of Koren. “Norwegian-American Church Art with Roots in Northeast Iowa” will be on display through September 3.

Gausta lived from 1854 to 1924 and worked closely with Koren, who raised money to help Gausta study in Europe. During his lifetime, Gausta painted hundreds of portraits, landscapes, and country scenes, and taught at Luther College. Raugland lived from 1862 to 1960. She produced about three hundred altar paintings before she stopped painting in 1918. Berger, who lived from 1872 to 1951, was best known for portraits and landscapes. He moved around the Midwest and Pacific Northwest for three decades, creating artwork for a variety of churches before settling in Minneapolis.

The artists painted in oils, working from small, black-and- white prints of European paintings of biblical scenes. Their work was “typical of the Romantic period, with a lot of detail, shadow, and depth,” according to project direc-tor Carol Hasvold.

Although Gausta, Raugland, and Berger would never have considered altar paintings to be their artistic legacy, in the view of guest curator Kristin Anderson, the sheer volume of paintings produced gives a sense of how val-ued art was in these communities. She adds, “The fact that they were artists at all in a rural environment, in commu-nities that were just getting started—that in itself was their major contribution.”

About the Author

Chrissa Gerard is a writer in Silver Spring, Maryland.