Birger Sandzén (1871-1954)

Birger Sandzen Photos Courtesy Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery

Birger Sandzen Photos Courtesy Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery

Sven Birger Sandzén, known more commonly as Birger Sandzén, was an American painter best known for his landscapes. He produced most of his work while working as an art professor at Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kansas.

It was fortunate for American art and Kansas when this young Swedish artist decided to emigrate to Lindsborg in 1894. Sandzén became one of Kansas’ best known artists.

Born in 1871 in Sweden, Sandzén developed a love for art at a young age. Educated in Swedish universities, Sandzén went to Paris to study with masters where he was introduced to pointillism and Impressionism.

Bethany’s founder, the Reverend C. A Swensson, encouraged the 23-year-old Sandzén to come to Bethany College to head the school’s art department. He claimed he never had to get in the mood to work and no matter how busy his schedule he always found time to paint. Sandzén’s most important fundamentals of art were “order” and “a quality of life.” Each piece of his work was planned; colleagues said he had an interest in two pieces of art—the one he was working on and the one he was planning.

The artist’s early paintings have subdued hues; his later works in oil are more vivid. He portrayed his adopted state in a variety of ways—lithographs, drawings, watercolors, and oils. The drawings and prints range from appealing portraits of pioneers to the stone houses, trees, small streams, and broken country of west-central Kansas.

In 1930 Sandzén helped organize the Prairie Print Makers Society to help spur an interest among artists, laymen, and collectors. He formed the Prairie Water Color Painters in 1933 to provide encouragement and training for young painters in the region.

His favorite subject always remained the Kansas landscape. It has been said that through his unique painting style, he was able to transform these scenes into “opalescent jewels of shimmering colors.” He was described as “the one painter in the United States who by-passed the art movements of the past forty years and reveals himself as a bridge between the impressionists and the so-called abstract expressionists” gave something to art in Kansas that is beyond measure.

Sandzén never left Bethany for any extended period of time although he served as visiting faculty at a number of American universities and art schools. He spent many summers in the Southwest and much of his art reflects his interest in the mountains and their dramatic colors.

“Birger Sandzen is the poet painter of immense sun-washed spaces, of pine-crowned luminous, gigantic rocks and of color-shifting desert sands,” wrote one art critic. “The spectator is amazed at this captured beauty. This dreamer-painter is truly a master.”

A number of honorary degrees and other kinds of recognition were bestowed on Sandzén including a knighthood, conferred upon him by the King of Sweden in 1940.  Also a musician, for a number of years Sandzén sang with the oratorio society in its annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah. His wife was a Bethany graduate and a member of its music faculty at one time and his daughter, Margaret, pursued a career in art in Lindsborg. Sandzén retired from the faculty in 1946 but continued to work in his studio almost until his death in 1954.

Today his work hangs in galleries and private collections around the world but the subject matter holds a special interest for Kansans and other westerners. The best representation of Sandzén’s paintings may be found in the gallery that serves as his memorial on the Bethany campus.

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