“Sunset in the Mountains”, 1922 | 36”x48” - oil on canvas

This painting of a Colorado mountain sunset is an excellent example of Birger Sandzen at his best, with heavily applied paint creating glowing forms that catch the light. The color palette is distinctly, recognizably Sandzen’s with a lush, pink sky, blue mountains, and strong green trees.  His enormous enthusiasm for the Colorado landscape is communicated through the unique, original strokes of his palette knife.


Growing up in his native province of Västergötland in southwest Sweden as the youngest of three sons of a Lutheran pastor, Sandzén developed his love of the landscape and nature that later dominated his creative output as a professional artist. Raised in a home where art, music and literature were appreciated and encouraged, on his eighth birthday his parents gave him his first set of watercolors and he took private drawing lessons. During his secondary education at the Skara Cathedral School, he received his first in-depth instruction in drawing and painting from Olaf Erlandsson, an alumnus of the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm.

Unable to study at the academy due to a long waiting list, Sandzén became part of a small group accepted to study with internationally-recognized Swedish painter, Anders Zorn. It formed the nucleus of the Artists’ League School where Sandzén studied from 1891 to 1893. He greatly expanded his feel for color with his teacher’s simple palette of five basic colors and also developed his brushwork emphasizing light, a hallmark of Zorn’s work. These qualities later appeared in Sandzén’s landscapes in the western United States.

In the spring of 1894 he completed his formal art education in the Paris studio of Edmond François Aman-Jean, a colleague of Richard Bergh, one of Sandzén’steachers at the League School in Sweden. Sandzén’s friendship with several American artists in Aman-Jean’s studio and his acquaintance with Dr. Carl A. Swensson’s book referencing the establishment of Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, in 1881 sparked his interest in visiting the United States. Dr. Swensson invited him to teach for several semesters at the college which soon became a fifty-two year commitment that included extensive painting trips to Colorado and other states in the American West.

In 1899 Sandzén became head of the college’s art department organizing, with colleagues G.M. Malm and Carl Lotave, the first annual exhibition in the United States of Swedish American art, eventually becoming the longest running annual exhibition in Kansas. While maintaining a demanding teaching schedule over five decades as a professor of art and aesthetics and teacher of drawing and painting classes, he created an impressive legacy of paintings, watercolors, lithographs, block prints and dry points.

In addition to his long-standing connection with Bethany College, he was a guest artist-teacher at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri (1927-1930) and at Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) in Logan (1928-1930). He felt that, as a teacher, he should respect and encourage a sound and healthy individualism, while discouraging imitation, repetition and standardization. He wrote, “The Cézanne formula will not lead to goals any more than the old academic recipe.”  

As an arts advocate outside of the classroom he founded and participated in art groups and events. In 1911, for example, he helped establish an annual exhibition for the McPherson City Schools in McPherson, Kansas (1911), and in 1920 organized Delta Phi Delta (1920), a national honorary art fraternity at Bethany College. Seven years earlier at the college he started the Smoky Hill Art Club fostering an interest in art. In 1930 he hosted in his studio the organizational meeting of the Prairie Print Makers, which by its end in 1965 had 100 members from states throughout America and Canada. He also was active in the organization of the Kansas Federation of Art (1932) and the Prairie Watercolor Painters (1933) giving the region’s professional watercolorists exhibition opportunities and providing young members with training and encouragement. 

After a trip to Europe with his wife in 1905 on a one-year leave of absence from Bethany College, his encounter with the contemporary art he saw in Paris and elsewhere produced a more individualized painting style that also entailed his destroying a considerable part of his earlier work. His first Colorado summer trip in1908 to Colorado Springs to visit Carl Lotave (his classmate in the Artists’ League School in Stockholm) resulted in a brighter palette with motifs painted in a pure pointillist technique until about 1913. His landscapes generally employed a low horizon line, minimal foliage, few details and often dramatic sunsets. His 1908 summer trip marked the beginning of subsequent excursions in succeeding decades to Santa Fe and Taos, Yosemite, Yellowstone, as well as the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Bryce and Zion Canyons in Utah, all of which figured in his work. 

The massiveness and color of the western motifs he encountered on these trips and on his subsequent Colorado visits in 1913 and 1917 demonstrated the inadequacy of the Neo-Impressionists’ technique of completely rendering his images on canvas with a relatively broad brushstroke applying small, divisionistic “tiles” of pure pigments. As he noted: “One must then use pure colors which refract each other, but which through distance assimilate for the eye – the so-called ‘optical’ blending – since the usual blending on the palette, the ‘pigmented blending,’ is not intensive enough and does not ‘vibrate’.” 

A good example of his approach is Sunset in the Mountains (aka Peaks at Sunset, c. 1922), exploring the mood he repeatedly encountered in the Colorado mountain landscape preceding sunset and the moonrise. The image is more abstracted with fewer details and with a strong, bold palette. Elongated brushstrokes of unmixed color delineate the terrain on which stand pine trees whose trunks reflect the setting sun. He rendered the sky with quickly-applied daubs and tiles of color reminiscent of the Fauves’ work he saw in Paris in 1905.     

Beginning in 1923, he spent two summers in Colorado Springs teaching at the Broadmoor Art Academy of which he had been made an honorary member after its founding in 1920. He also came with Associate member status as of 1922 in the Taos Society of Artists to which he had been invited by Victor Higgins. In the summers of 1925-1926 he conducted the summer school in Estes Park, Colorado, sponsored by the Chappell School of Art of the Denver Art Museum, allowing him and his students to study and explore plein air the area’s panoramic landscape.

Writing about his work in the American Magazine of Art, Effie Seacrest said: “His big overpowering, structural treatment of rocks and mountains bathed in sunshine or flooded with moonlight, his glorious colors dashed with an impetuosity that reminds one of his master, Zorn, arouse the critic’s wonder and cause him to cry: ‘Here at last is a true interpreter of the majesty and stupendous grandeur of the Rocky Mountains’.”

Beside the Fauves, another influence noted early on in his work is Oriental – especially Chinese – art, which he first saw at his aunt’s home where he lived while attending the Skara Cathedral School. His acquisition of Chinese art in the 1920s and his study of its brushwork, color and perspective are reflected in the design and rhythm of some of his watercolors. It is particularly evident in his paintings and prints of wind-whipped pines in the Colorado Rockies. In Chinese art individual pine trees are an emblem of longevity and immortality and also a symbol of friendship and scholarship.     

By the early 1930s Sandzén started changing his style, departing from his bight, strong palette with lush impasto of the previous two decades in favor of a more muted one with less pronounced brushstrokes and more rounded forms. In part, it resulted from the difficulty he experienced in the late 1920s in selling his work, prompting him to do more watercolors that were smaller and less expensive, making them easier to sell and incorporate into a home living environment. His flatter compositions after 1930 also may have been stylistically influenced to a degree by American Scene painting fostered by the various government-sponsored public art programs during the Depression in the 1930s. Under the Treasury Department’s Section of the Fine Arts he executed murals for three Kansas post offices:  Lindsborg (Smoky River, 1938), Belleville (Kansas Stream, 1939), and Halstead (Where Kit Carson Camped, 1941).

He is equally well known for his facility in the print medium. In 1916, at the suggestion of art dealer Carl Smalley in McPherson, Kansas, he began translating his drawings into prints. He started with two lithographs – Colorado Pines and Dry Creek – produced by the Ketterlinus Lithographic Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia. He worked in the medium throughout his career, ending with In the Foothills, a Colorado image, in 1952. He also did woodcuts, nailcuts, drypoints, linoleum cuts and block prints. With his son-in-law, Charles Pelham Greenough, he completed in 1952 the Graphic Work of Birger Sandzén later reprinted in three editions.

In recognition of his artistic accomplishments, Sandzén belonged to -- besides the aforementioned Prairie Printmakers Society and Taos Society of Artists -- the New York Water Color Club, California Water Color Society, Philadelphia Water Color Society, American Water Color Society, the Senefelder Club, Society of American Etchers, Gravers, Lithographers and Woodcutters, and the Chicago Society of Etchers. In 1940 King Gustav V Oscar of Sweden conferred on Sandzén the Swedish Royal Order of the North Star for his lifetime of artistic achievement, service to the fine arts and the promotion of cultural relations between the United States and Sweden.

Solo Exhibitions: Kansas City Art Institute (1915 - the first of his numerous solo and group shows there); Museum of New Mexico (now, New Mexico Museum of Art), Santa Fe (1917, 1919; the latter show traveled to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver); Washington Arts Club, Washington, DC (1920); Babcock Gallery, New York (1922,1924); Boulder Art Association, University of Colorado at Boulder (1925); Chappell House, Denver Art Museum (1925); Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1927); Detroit Institute of Arts (1931); Art Association of Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois (1938); Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire (1940); Boise Art Association (1941); Wichita Art Museum (1944). 

Group Exhibitions: “Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” San Francisco (1915); National Gallery of Art (1917); “Society of Independent Artists Annual,” New York (1917-18); “Second Biennial Exposition of Fine Arts,” Rome (1923); Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (1933); “Spring Salon” and “Autumn Salon,” Paris (1933); “Western Annuals,” Denver Art Museum Annual (1939); American Pavilion, Venice Biennale (1940); Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1940); “National Exhibition of Prints,” Library of Congress (1946). Sandzén’s work also was shown in a number of exhibitions over the years in his native Sweden.

Museum Collections: National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; Harvard University Art Museums; Brooklyn Museum of Art; John H. Vanderpool Art Association, Chicago; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; Kansas State University Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Manhattan; Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence; Edwin Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita; Hutchinson Art Center, Kansas; Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, Lindsborg, Kansas; Wichita Art Museum; Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa; Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska; Museum of Nebraska Art, Kearney; National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City; Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman, Oklahoma; Dallas Museum of Art; Museum of the Southwest, Midland, Texas; Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas; Brigham Young University Museum of Art and the Springville Museum of Art, Utah; New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe; University of New Mexico Jonson Gallery, Albuquerque; Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; Denver Art Museum; American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver; and in Sweden the Göteborg Art Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm.