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B. J. O. Nordfeldt


Bror Julius Olsson (B.J.O.) Nordfeldt was born in Tulstorg, Scania, Sweden to parents Nels and Ingrid Olsson. He emigrated to the United States in 1891 with his family and enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago at twenty while simultaneously working as a printer’s devil for a local Swedish newspaper. He was selected to become an assistant muralist to Albert Herter (1871-1950) for the McCormick Harvester Company’s murals at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. Nordfeldt traveled to Paris to see the project to its completion. While in France, he studied at the Academie Julian under Jean Paul Laurens (1838-1921). 

While in Europe, Nordfeldt went to England and learned etching and woodblock cutting in London from Frank M. Fletcher (1866-1949). He also exhibited at the Royal Academy of London. Upon his return to Chicago, he set up his own studio in 1903. His early work depicted local landmarks of the region. Nordfeldt relocated to New York in 1907 but held his first solo exhibition in Chicago at the Albert Roullier’s Gallery in 1911 featuring regional subject matter, painted in abstract and impressionist styles. While in New York, he also met and married Margaret Doolittle in 1910. 

In 1914, Nordfeldt began spending summers in Provincetown, New York and became a founding member the Provincetown Players experimental theater group. He created set designs and frequently acted with them throughout the next four years. He also began experimenting with new printmaking techniques and in 1916 developed the “White-line” print. The method allows the artist to colorize a print using only one block of wood and one impression for each print instead of different blocks for each color the artist wished to include. 

During World War I, Nordfeldt was employed as Assistant District Camoufleur for the U.S. Shipping Board in San Francisco, specifically assigned to camouflage merchant ships. After the war, Nordfeldt visited his friend and fellow artist, William Penhallow Henderson (1877-1943), in Santa Fe and made the decision to relocate to the Southwest, where he eventually settled for the next twenty years. This time period also marked a significant change in subject matter for Nordfeldt because he began to draw inspiration from Native American dance sequences and Mexican Americans in whom he “found individual human qualities he wanted to convey in his work” (Udall 78). Nordfeldt was greatly influenced by Gaugin, Cezanne, and the Fauvist style of strong, bold coloration. 

In 1921, Nordfeldt joined the Taos Society of Arts. He frequently participated in group exhibitions but refused to have any one-man shows in New York because he did not approve of the high commission demanded by galleries. The exorbitantly high cost of shipping to New York from Santa Fe made shows of this nature impractical. Therefore, Nordfeldt’s prints provided his primary source of income until 1926 when he became a painter exclusively. Documenting Nordfeldt’s work during the 1920s is also problematic because he considered much of his work experimental and chose to leave it undated and untitled. In many cases, he destroyed the works he was unsatisfied with. 

Throughout the 1930s, Nordfeldt taught at various schools including Utah State College and the Wichita Art Association. In 1933 Nordfeldt taught a term at the Minneapolis School of Art where he met student Emily Abbott. After leaving the campus, he began traveling the Midwest creating lithographs for the Works Progress Administration, but he maintained correspondence with Abbott throughout this time. 

In 1937, Nordfeldt permanently relocated to a ninety-acre farm in Lambertville, New Jersey, which allowed him sufficient access to the New York City art world while maintaining the private life he desired. Biographer Van Deren Coke states that at this point in Nordfeldt’s career, “energetic paint application became his major preoccupation,” and in 1931 Nordfeldt arranged his first one-man show since 1917 with Lilienfeld Galleries in New York (94-95). In 1944 Nordfeldt returned to a teaching position at the Minneapolis School of Art, divorced his first wife, and married Emily Abbott, whom he had maintained contact with for nearly ten years. 

The last decade of Nordfeldt’s work focused on constants that could be documented throughout the artist’s career, particularly the seascape. In 1953 Nordfeldt and his wife traveled to the California coast and Emily noted that “the resulting paintings were more abstract, the color brighter…less rigid, have movement and vibrancy and almost a joyfulness and gaiety about them” (Hunter 78). Nordfeldt died on April 21, 1955, of a heart attack while returning from a trip to Mexico. A memorial exhibition was created by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which classified Nordfeldt as one of five major artists to have passed away between 1945 and 1955.