Biography of Sven Birger Sandzen

Sven Birger Sandzen. A writer in the American Magazine of Art in February, 1917, paid a deserved compliment to Lindsborg as a city of art and culture better known and appreciated by the outside world than many industrial communities of greater population and wealth. This writer said:

“Lindsborg had today the largest number of practicing artists in proportion to its population of any city in this country. By artists, however, is not meant merely painters, sculptors and architects, but also musicians. The musical festivals held in this city of the plains have become celebrated for their quality and musically are welcome events–occasions of national pride. They are attended by people from all over the state of Kansas and from other adjacent states–more than seven thousand a day. It is said at that time the annual exhibition of paintings is held, and though music makes the stronger appeal, the pictures do not go unheeded.”

In the fall of 1894 there came to this distinctively artistic community of Kansas Sven Birger Sandzen, to accept a position in Bethany College. With the exception of two trips to Europe he had been there ever since and had been accomplishing a great pioneer work. In the college he is professor of Romance Languages and Aesthetics, and is also dean of the School of Fine Arts.

Mr. Sandzen was born at Blidsberg, Sweden, February 5, 1871, a son of Rev. John Peter and Clara Elizabeth (Sylven) Sandzen. He was graduated from the College of Skara, Sweden, in 1890, and then studied in the University of Lund. He also studied painting at the Art School of the Artists League in Stockholm under A. Zorn and R. Bergh and subsequently was at the school of Aman-Jean in Paris. He also gained impressions and came in contact with the best art of the world in the principal art museums.

Concerning the development and adaptation of his powers to a distinctively new field as a master of southwestern painting, a writer in the Scandinavian Review of 1916 speaks as follows:

“It is quite a step from Sweden to Kansas, especially Kansas in the early ’90s. Sandzen had always lived in a country where life was settled, fixed, cultivated; a country of many traditions where the arts held an honored place. He had come to a land raw, fluid, changing, devoid of native traditions, devoid of art, devoid of all but youth, hope and wonderful material resources.

“As he continued to live in the plains, however, he began to see a kind of beauty in the endless sweep of country. The idea that here in his hand lay a new field for artistic expression began to germinate in his mind. Instead of looking backward, he began to look forward. His career as an artist began.

“Kansas possesses a comparatively dry climate. Hence the sunsets are more brilliant, the distances more transparent, the sunshine more intense than in an atmosphere of more humidity. Sandzen realized that the soft grays, greens and blues he had used in his studio days must be discarded for pigments of greater intensity. * * * In this way Sandzen began to solve his problems, namely to find an adequate personal technique that would interpret the plains he had begun to love. Ten years he spent in constant study and experiment. He filled many sketch books, wasted yards of canvas and pounds of paint. Much time he spent out-of-doors, sometimes with sketch book and pencil in hand, when he would make quick, virile sketches, summing up the landscape as simply as possible. At other times he was content merely to wander and observe, for he believed strongly in the training of the memory and often worked entirely from the impression he had received from momentary splendor of nature. So many of the most wonderful effects of light thrown on hill and mountain or cloud last but for a moment.

“Some of these experiments were failures; many were very crude, while some of them were successful. Lindsborg was far away from art exhibitions or the talk of the studios, and Sandzen worked doggedly on alone, keeping at his work in spite of discouragement and misunderstanding. Gradually the years of work began to bear fruit. Experiments ceased to be only experiments.

“The method of working which Sandzen had devised like all he does is the product of his own temperament. In studying a landscape he makes as many as fifty sketches of it in charcoal or pencil followed by studies in colors, and the final painting is the very synthesis of the landscape, sure, clear and beautiful. He knows exactly what he intends to say before he touches the brush to the canvas, and works slowly and deliberately, with an inner enthusiasm that is often hard to keep in hand. He composes, analyzes, arranges, striving for simplicity and clearness. By studying honestly and perseveringly the simply form and color of a primitive landscape he had gradually learned the great fundamental principles of landscape design and color treatment. As a painter, teacher, writer and lecturer he exercises a powerful influence in the development of the young national art of the southwest.”

The name Sandzen is gradually becoming better known and appreciated in the art exhibitions of the eastern cities, and his ability was better appreciated in Europe and sooner than in America. His best work is as an interpreter of the wonderful scenery of the Southwest. This work was represented by a painting at the International Panama-Pacific Art Exhibition at San Francisco. When the war began he had been invited to make special exhibition of his works in London and in Stockholm. Recently three of his works have been added to the collection of the National Museum in Sweden. This Kansas painter is also represented in the Library of Congress, Washington, the Art Institute of Chicago, and in many other public collections. From his classes also have gone out young men and young women as teachers to other schools and colleges of the Middle West, and thus the inspiration had spread.

Quoting again the writer in the American Magazine of Art, “He is essentially a modern and an independent, but in the best sense of these words. He draws and paints with force and individuality, he follows none. His pictures are personal interpretations, rendered with much directness and great virility. He had something to say and he says it strongly. The Kansas country is not considered picturesque, but he had found it so and had made others see its beauty. The Colorado Boulder region he had also found immensely attractive and his pictures painted there set forth its beauty of bigness. So also his oil paintings interpret the majesty and colorful quality of the mountains, not as others have interpreted them, but in a manner which is vivid.”

Professor Sandzen had a collection of 500 paintings and drawings of western and southwestern subjects. He is author of “With Brush and Pencil,” published in 1905, and of numerous articles on subjects of art and travel found in magazines and newspapers. He is a member of the Lutheran Church. He was married November 28, 1900, to Alfrida Leksell of McPherson, Kansas, a graduate of the Bethany Conservatory of Music in 1900. She was born in Moingona, Iowa, in 1877. Their only child is Elizabeth Sandzen, born in 1909.



Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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