ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
Arvid Frederick Nyholm (1866 - 1927)
By Brian B. Magnusson, Ph.D. © Illinois Historical Art Project
Tall, with dark hair and brown eyes, animated, equipped with handle-bar moustache and Van Dyke beard, and invariably sporting his distinctive pince-nez spectacles, Arvid Nyholm, to most observers, cut a profile that was anything but Scandinavian. Many thought he was Gaelic - quick-witted, ready to smile and possessing a joie de vivre, which immediately suggested Mediterranean origins. Even to those who knew him well, such as fellow Swede and artist Birger Sandzén (1871-1954), Nyholm was an unusually warm and gregarious fellow who was immensely likable and who possessed a penchant for imbuing ordinary tales with outrageous, side-stitching humor. In short, Arvid Nyholm had “presence.” He also had talent. Born in Stockholm on July 12, 1866, Arvid Fredrik Nyholm emanated from a successful middleclass family. His father was Carl Fredrik Nyholm, manager of Centraltryckeriet (the Central Publishing Company), a position, which at the time in class-conscious Sweden elicited respect and denoted success. His mother was Amalia Petronella Wahlberg. As a stockholmsgrabb (a “kid” born and raised in Stockholm), Arvid received his initial schooling at Södrarealskolan. He successfully passed his student examination in 1886.
Early on, Arvid’s parents recognized their son’s penchant for drawing and painting and, to their credit, actively encouraged his artistic endeavors. To his father’s way of thinking, Arvid possessed a special skill that could be utilized in assuring a financially secure future. Given the profound physical and demographic changes taking place in Stockholm as a result of Sweden’s burgeoning Industrial Revolution, architecture struck the elder Nyholm as a likely career for his son. Consequently, at Carl Nyholm’s urging, Arvid entered Tekniska Högskolan (The Trade University) in 1886 for the purpose of becoming an architect. Arvid’s tenure at Tekniska, however, was neither long nor happy, or, as stated laconically in his own words, “[I] yearned to be able to draw figures other than those defined by geometric lines.”
Arvid’s father must have expressed disappointment at his son’s rejection of a future in architecture. Nonetheless, he supported Arvid’s decision of 1887 to enter private study under Andreas Brolin, one of Stockholm’s best-known stage and set designers. Arvid also took private lessons from Gösta Krehl, an academy-trained illustrator who specialized in classical drawing and genre subjects.
Nyholm’s friendly, outgoing personality assured him many friends. One of his first, and certainly one of his best, was Henry Reuterdahl (1870-1925) who, in 1889, was also a student at Brolin’s studio. Like Nyholm, Henry later immigrated to America where he became one of the period’s foremost magazine illustrators as well as a painter of marine subjects. It was also at Brolin’s studio, in 1887, Nyholm met and married the woman with whom he would share the rest of his life: Amelie Josephina Grönander. Of considerable artistic ability herself, Amelie forever remained Nyholm’s foremost admirer and supporter; together, they had five children, three girls and two boys.
Like many other young, aspiring Swedish artists in the latter 1880s, Nyholm looked to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts for his formal entry into the world of Swedish painting. Yet, the Academy, through its rigid adherence to mid-nineteenth century aesthetics and its general opposition to policy change, was under attack; many aspirants had already turned their backs on its conservative instructors and meaningless curriculum, choosing instead to seek their artistic development beyond the borders of Scandinavia. Among these was Anders Zorn (1860-1920), an exponent of plein-air painting and ultimately one of Sweden’s most energetic proponents of National Romantic aesthetics. He was also one of the so-called opponenterna (“the opponents” [to the Academy]) and actively supported the creation of Konstnärsförbundet (The Federation of Artists). In 1890, he began teaching at the Federation’s first art school in Stockholm. Nyholm began his studies at the Academy in 1889 though, by the following year, he, like many of his contemporaries, was intoxicated with the air of revolution enveloping Swedish art. In many ways, it was Anders Zorn who epitomized the changes taking place - his innate genius, his flamboyant rejection of the Academy, his fervent belief in individual aesthetic development, his adherence to plein-air aesthetics, and his attainment of international renown - all these qualities had served to elevate his stature to almost mythic proportions.
In the summer of 1890, when Zorn was in Sweden, a small number of students from the Academy solicited him to give them painting lessons, a request which, to both their surprise and elation, the great master accepted. Nyholm was in this group, and it may very well have been he who helped orchestrate the request. As he later recalled with amusement, Zorn immediately ordered the students “to rent a studio, hire a model and go to work.” Indeed, as history would show, this initial summer class with Anders Zorn on Norra Smedjegatan soon evolved as Konstnärsförbundet’s first art school. Nyholm spent the rest of 1890 studying under Zorn’s tutelage, and by the fall of 1891, he had been joined by several other young artists who one day would also make their mark in America: Birger Sandzén, Carl Lotave (1872-1924), Gerda Lindblad Ahlm (1869-1956) and August Franzén (1863-1930). Zorn, together with his colleagues Richard Bergh and Per Hasselberg taught these young students in a way that did not stifle the individuality of their pupils, but fostered a belief that “Art is Life.” The class was decidedly convivial - even when the teachers were present - thanks in large part to Sandzén’s penchant for song and Nyholm’s love of a good story. Indeed, for the young artists whose destinies would lead them to the New World, their time with Zorn, Bergh and Hasselberg constituted a defining moment in their respective educations; an exhilarating time in Swedish art when they, themselves, were participating in history in the making.
Nyholm’s studies at Konstärsförbundet (state art school) lasted only a year and a half. Yet, his time with Zorn was of fundamental significance to his artistic development. In terms of technique, subject matter and preferences in media, few students who worked under Zorn in the early 1890s adhered more closely to the tenets espoused by their teacher than did Nyholm. Like Zorn, Nyholm excelled in oils, watercolors and graphics and, indeed, in following his master, Nyholm was as much at home in one media as the other. His brushstroke in oils was often bold, assertively applied, at times, almost sculptural, a classic hallmark of Zorn’s approach. The colors he preferred also resembled Zorn’s, whose palette tended toward deep, rich, dark tonal variations, with pronounced chiaroscuro and highlights of small, seemingly spontaneous dashes of red, white or green. In watercolor, too, there existed a strong stylistic kinship between student and teacher, particularly in their love of the medium’s aesthetic effects - its fluidity, spontaneity and quick impressions. Even in his preferred subject matter, portraiture and landscapes, Nyholm demonstrated his indebtedness to Zorn, and both men were strikingly adept in capturing the immediacy and intimacy of their subjects, a shared ability often cited in discussions of their styles. Yet, there existed differences. Nyholm’s brushstroke always remained more restrained and his surfaces smoother than Zorn’s. His portraiture was invariably more literal, and his interior scenes, for which he was particularly appreciated, exude a warmth and familial security which is virtually absent in Zorn’s oeuvre.
Nyholm’s adulation of Zorn, however, went beyond painterly genius. Instead, much of it can be traced to prevailing Swedish aesthetics which then, as today, were little understood beyond the Sweden itself. For Nyholm and the other students at Konstnärsförbundet’s art school, Sweden in the 1890s was at last assuming what they viewed to be its rightful place as a major force in virtually all aspects of the arts. Epitomizing this was Anders Zorn - talented, erudite, and immensely self-assured. Well-traveled and already basking in international renown, Zorn, at thirty-one years of age in 1891, was uncontested as Sweden’s foremost artist, symbolizing, as he did, the individual spirit and unbridled genius inherent in the Swedish psyche. But Zorn had other qualities which appealed to his Swedish contemporaries: his roots lay deeply embedded in the soil of Dalarna, a central Swedish province which historically denoted stubborn individualism and tenacious folk ways and which today, just as at then, epitomizes the soul of rural Sweden.
For Nyholm, city-born and six years younger than Zorn, the master painter from a remote village Dalarna embodied a set of Swedish cultural values to which Nyholm, a child of his times, readily adhered. Zorn, for his part, saw in Nyholm not only a student who sought to follow his own stylistic conventions but a young man who possessed passion and talent, especially for portraiture. It is therefore no coincidence that in later years Anders Zorn recommended Nyholm for portrait commissions which Zorn, himself, could not undertake. Though the teacherstudent relationship between Zorn and Nyholm continued, a spirit of friendship, confidence and camaraderie gradually emerged and, ultimately, in later years, the men came to regard one another as colleagues as well as friends.
Indisputably a work which most closely recalls the aesthetics of Anders Zorn is an untitled painting in the Augustana College Art Collection that shows a young woman clad in a parish costume from Dalarna. Titled A Young Lady Sewing, the figure sits with a thimble (fingerborg) on her finger and stitches the collar of a Dalecarlian winter coat. The dark, log wall behind her and the warm colors of her decorative hat, vest and shawl create an intimate, rustic environment of the type that Zorn made famous. The lighting is sharp and focused; the palette is warm; and the mood is tranquil. The lady’s countenance exudes contentment and health; her lips suggest, ever so slightly, a smile. In virtually every aspect of this painting, Nyholm has paid homage to Anders Zorn.
In late autumn 1891, Nyholm left Stockholm to pursue a career in New York. The reason for his departure is unknown, though “America fever” no doubt played a role in his decision. Unlike many Swedish immigrants reaching America in the 1890s, Nyholm did not immediately proceed to a destination in the Midwest or Pacific Northwest. He choose instead to settle in New York, no doubt assuming the huge East Coast metropolis would offer better prospects for an artist specializing in portraiture and landscapes. Unfortunately, there are few references to his first years in this country, although it appears he, like so many other immigrants, needed time to acclimate to a new language and culture. This is suggested in a terse 1909 reference which states “[t]he way to success was difficult and long…[i]n order to provide for his family, [Nyholm] for a number of years had to seek his livelihood through executing ‘crayon drawings’.” The article goes on to say that in spite of his difficulties, Nyholm never ceased in his artistic endeavors. Instead, he acquired an atelier, taught drawing and painting, took commissions and, by the end of his sojourn in New York, appears to have achieved a substantial degree of success. In November 1897, for example, his painting, Summer Day (location unknown), was selected to be shown in the National Academy of Design’s annual Autumn Exhibition. The following year, another of his works was displayed, this time an oil titled Village Street – Autumn (location unknown).
Many biographical studies state Nyholm was a member of the National Academy, however, there is no record to this. Being as conversant in watercolors as oils, Nyholm also exhibited, on at least one occasion with the New York Watercolor Club. According to a catalogue, dated 1902-03, Nyholm entered two paintings in the Club’s 13th Annual Exhibition, Thunderclouds and Shadows and Moonlight, works that were displayed in the Vanderbilt Gallery together with entries by Childe Hassam (1859-1935).
Throughout his stay in New York, Nyholm maintained close contacts with his countrymen. Anders Zorn, for instance, made seven well-publicized trips to the United States between 1893 and 1911 and each time renewed acquaintances with old friends, former pupils and fellow artists. Visits with Nyholm were doubtlessly included in Zorn’s itinerary, though, prior to 1906, records supporting this fact are lacking. In 1893-1894, for instance, Zorn spent several “especially enchanting weeks” in New York where he made many acquaintances and where he made a portrait study of Henry Marquad and painted portraits of George Bend, the Schiffs and the Hildreths. It is consequently inconceivable that Nyholm, as Zorn’s student and admirer, did not, in some way, contact his famous mentor. It is just as unlikely that Zorn would spend time in New York without looking up one of his most promising students. Zorn was back in New York during his 1896-1897 visit and again in 1898-1899 and 1900-1901. By 1907, however, it is clear the two men were not only in contact with one another but that Zorn was fully aware of Nyholm’s successes as a portrait painter. On at least one occasion, at the Art Institute of Chicago, Zorn made public reference to Nyholm’s artistic competence, a sincere and gracious gesture which doubtlessly in part was intended to insure future commissions for his one-time student.
Nyholm’s contacts with Zorn also included two visits with Zorn in Sweden; the first in 1906 when Nyholm stayed and painted with his teacher in Mora, experiencing first-hand, as he did, Zorn, the wealthy, rural patriarch and the rich National Romantic milieu which Zorn had created for himself. Nyholm’s second visit occurred six years later, in the summer of 1912. On that occasion, Nyholm found Zorn in the Swedish Archipelago where, in an embodiment of belle epoque, the Swedish artist was enjoying the warm Scandinavian summer, relaxing and painting aboard his luxurious yacht. Nyholm also visited Sweden in 1920 in conjunction with the touring exhibit, American Painters of Swedish Descent. No mention, however, is made of a visit with Anders Zorn.
Nyholm was not the only Swedish artist residing in New York City in the 1890s. His friend from Brolin’s studio in Stockholm, Henry Reuterdahl had also ended up in New York (1896) and was had embarked on a highly successful illustrating career. Emil Gelhaar (1861-1934), a landscape and portrait painter was there too, though his stay lasted only until 1895 when he accepted a position as Director of the School of Fine Arts at The Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Another Swedish artist, August Franzén, resided and worked in New York also and, like Reuterdahl, became a well-known illustrator and painter. Though the frequency of contacts between these artists during the 1890s is unknown, they obviously enjoyed professional links with one another, an interaction which increased after the turn-of-the-century through their involvement with Chicago’s Swedish Club and its annual art exhibits from 1911 on.
In 1903 Nyholm and his wife Amelie moved to Chicago, where he immediately established himself as a professional artist within the Swedish community. Indeed, he wasted little time in securing connections with the city’s Swedish Club and it was probably there that he met Carl Nilsson (1867-1940), Hugo von Hofsten (1865-1947) and Charles Edward Hallberg (1855-1940), Swedish immigrant artists like himself. Together, in February 1905, they conceived the idea of creating an organization whose purpose, among other things, would be “to make Swedish art further known and respected [in America].” Elected secretary of the group, which they
called the Swedish-American Art Association, Nyholm immediately set to work arranging the first exhibition scheduled to run from October 23 until November 5 at Anderson’s Art Galleries at 178 Wabash Avenue in Chicago. The event was well organized and included more than eighty works by some nineteen artists. Yet, to its coordinators’ chagrin, the show proved to be of more interest to Americans in Chicago than to the city’s Swedes. No sooner had the show closed, than calls were heard for disbanding the Association. Meager sales, accumulated debts, and a deep disillusionment with Chicago’s Swedes and their response to an exhibition which had “brought honor to the… represented Swedish-American and Swedish artists,” made it clear the Swedish-American Art Association could not survive. Nyholm himself, substantially down on his finances, had spirited out of town to join a small group of “picture fakirs” in making copies of paintings in Winnipeg, Canada. Within a few weeks the Association was dissolved. Its existence had spanned just nine frenetic months.
Though understandably disappointed by the demise of an organization that he was instrumental in organizing, Nyholm could nonetheless count be proud of his efforts. Ten of his works had appeared in the show; his oil painting, A Self-Portrait (location unknown), had been awarded second prize; and he had been given wide, positive exposure in the Chicago press. However, Nyholm was not one to ruminate on his losses; he had a good business sense and he knew he must exhibit both frequently and outside the Swedish community if he was to succeed as a professional artist in cosmopolitan Chicago. With this in mind, he joined the Palette and Chisel Club in 1905 and, a short time later, he became a member of the Chicago Watercolor Club and the Chicago Society of artists. In fact, during his career, Nyholm remained active in various new organizations as they were formed including the Association of Chicago Painters and Sculptors and the Chicago Galleries Association. Indeed, in the twenty-four years Nyholm resided in Chicago, he is known to have shown his work in no fewer than fifty-eight exhibitions, most of which were held in the Chicago area. Nyholm was especially conscientious in submitting works for events arranged by the Art Institute, and rarely did a year pass, from 1905 on, when Nyholm’s name did not appear among the entrants in the Institute’s annual exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity. Frequently his entries were reviewed in both the Chicago Evening Post and Chicago Record-Herald. On at least nine occasions, photographs of his works were illustrated in local newspapers.
By 1908, Nyholm had established his reputation as a first-rate portrait painter. His portrayals of General W.D. Whipple (West Point Academy, 1903), painter Charles Hallberg (unlocated, 1905), A Portrait of a Man (unlocated, 1905), The Novelette (1905), Self-Portrait (1905), Girl in a Swedish Costume (unlocated, 1907), and Portrait of a Little Girl (unlocated, 1908), elicited both attention and approbation in the Chicago press. Many of these earliest portraits, however, were of individuals in the Swedish community, one exception being the portrait of General Whipple, a posthumous work requested by his family after the general’s death in 1902. The painting measures forty-four by thirty-one inches, and is still found in the West Point Military Academy. The dashing portrait depicts Whipple in formal military attire, replete with medals, sash and saber. In depicting this highly regarded veteran of the Civil War - Whipple served with distinction in the Atlanta Campaign and was made Brevet Brigadier General (1865) - Nyholm renders a likeness which is at once both realistic and monumental yet which nevertheless betrays the artist’s love of impressionist brush work. How and why the painting was commissioned is unknown, though it is obvious Nyholm demonstrated his superb maturity as a portraitist.
In 1907, a year after Nyholm visited Anders Zorn in Mora, Zorn returned to Chicago where he lectured at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and, while there, he took the opportunity to praise Nyholm’s talent as a gifted portrait artist. The Swedish painter was well known in Chicago and his endorsement must have been greatly appreciated by Nyholm whose own achievements as a portrait artist were gaining attention. It should also be noted that sometime during the period 1907-1908, Nyholm met Mr. and Mrs. J. S. Carpenter, well-to-do benefactors of the arts in Des Moines, Iowa. In the years immediately following, the Carpenters became two of Nyholm’s most ardent supporters. Through frequent exhibitions and growing contacts within the upper crust of the American community, during the next seven years, Nyholm acquired a number of major portrait commissions including portrayals of William Carpenter (Mayor of Des Moines) 1909, James Wilson (U.S. Secretary of Agriculture) 1910, Edwin A. Potter (President of the American
Trust and Savings Company, Chicago) c.1910, and O. A. Eberhart ( Governor of Minnesota) 1914. In what must have been a particularly gratifying series of purchases, Nyholm received orders in 1913 for portraits of three Beloit College alumni; namely Professor Joseph Emerson (As a Young Man), Dr. Asher W. Curtis, and Dr. Thomas Christie. Mrs. Joseph Emerson, longtime curator of the Beloit College art collection, arranged the order. It is safe to assume that it was also Mrs. Emerson who initiated the college’s acquisition of Nyholm’s first prize winner in the 1912 Swedish-American Artists Exhibit, A Family Circle. Sometimes referred to as A Family Circle, the painting was purchased for Beloit College through a group calling itself “Friends for the Beloit College Art Hall.” This painting, like several other domestic scenes, portrays two members of the artist’s family seated around a large lamp on a table whose warm glow creates an artificial luminescence set against deep shadows and rich highlights of color. The effect is one of warmth, intimacy and security, a testimony to the values of home and family. Unfortunately, the college can no longer account for this very important work.
Though Nyholm made three trips to Europe, his travels within the United States were restricted largely to the Midwest. His outdoor painting excursions, when they occurred, rarely took him far from Chicago and his family. On several occasions, however, Nyholm visited Des Moines, Iowa, the first time in 1909 when Mrs. J.S. Carpenter, through the city’s Women’s Club, arranged an exhibition of approximately fifty works by Nyholm, Emil Gelhaar and Charles Edward Hallberg. How and where Nyholm met Mrs. Carpenter is not recorded, though it is obvious that from 1909 on, Nyholm and the Carpenters enjoyed a close friendship. Not only did J.S. Carpenter take painting lessons from Nyholm, but also Nyholm may well have assisted Carpenter in selecting works of art to purchase for his private collection. By 1912, the Carpenters are known to have owned no fewer than five portraits by Nyholm. In addition, they purchased one of the artist’s Swedish motifs, A Little Dalecarlian Girl (location unknown). They also acquired The Lamp (location unknown), an interior scene depicting members of the Carpenter family as they sat in their drawing room. Later in 1909, Nyholm returned to Des Moines and, together with J.S. Carpenter and Emil Gelhaar, set off to paint Native Americans on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In what must have been a curious sight to the local Sioux, the two Swedish artists and their wealthy patron made their trek across the reservation in a covered wagon to set up an impromptu atelier in the home of the former Indian agent, Charles P. Jordan. It was later recounted in a newspaper article Nyholm offered sitters fifty cents an hour and once word of his generosity spread, “[Jordan’s home] was thronged with Indians dressed in their brightest colors.” Nyholm’s Rosebud sojourn is said to have lasted a week and produced eight portraits (all locations unknown).
Nyholm’s liaison with the Carpenters did not stop with the painting excursion to South Dakota. In May 1912, Nyholm accompanied J. S. and his wife on what was billed as a “summer trip” to Europe. Understandably, Nyholm began his stay with a visit to Sweden and like many Swedish-Americans, it can be assumed he remained in there at least through midsommer (June 21). Midsommer was a particularly evocative time of the year when Swedes, in adhering to timeless, atavistic traditions, pay special homage to nature, country and culture. It was probably sometime just after Midsummer that he visited Anders Zorn who was on his boat in the Swedish archipelago and for whom leisurely cruises among the islands and holms (the word “holm,” means a small island or headland) along Sweden’s East coast were one of his greatest pleasures. Later, Nyholm journeyed south, met up with the Carpenters in France, and spent the rest of his European sojourn sightseeing and providing J. S. with painting instruction. It is suggested the two men were working out of doors by the fact that the following year at least four of Nyholm’s entries in the Works by Swedish-American Artists exhibition involved French subjects; namely, The Old Fountain, A Bit of the Village, In the Sunshine - Brittany, and The Old Farm House.
The Carpenters were not the only ones to energetically support Nyholm and his art. Through his involvement in the Swedish Club of Chicago, Nyholm met and became close friends with Charles and Thyra Peterson, two of the city’s most cultivated and well-to-do Swedish-Americans. Deeply committed to furthering the Swedish cultural presence in Chicago, Peterson, as president of the city’s Swedish Club, presided over the organization at a time when it reached an unprecedented height in its growth and cultural influence. Peterson was intensely committed to the arts, especially painting. This interest readily coalesced with the aspirations of Nyholm and Charles Hallberg whose own hopes for another exhibition of Swedish-American art were still very much alive. Through the “energy and generous financial support” of Peterson, and Nyholm, Hallberg, as exhibit coordinators, a series of Swedish-American art shows was initiated on an annual basis (except during the Great Depression and World War II; in 1949 the exhibits became biannual) that ultimately spanned more than five decades (1911-1964).
Peterson was doubtlessly gratified by the assistance he had received from Hallberg and Nyholm. A notice in the Chicago Evening Post praised the two for “hanging a worthy gathering” in what was billed “the most important (exhibition) of its kind ever given [in Chicago].” Nyholm’s role, in particular, appears to have been significant; not only was he closely involved in the logistics, but he also served on both the selection jury and the hanging committee. Of the more than eighty paintings displayed, Nyholm entered eight works including The Novelette (A Girl Reading), Portrait of Charles Hallberg and Self-Portrait, the latter receiving second prize. The Novelette was cited in the 1911 Bulletin of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences as “one of the most beautiful paintings in modern times.”
Immediately after the 1911 exhibit, Peterson, Nyholm and Hallberg began planning another show for the following year. Nyholm, who had just recently completed a portrait of the inventor John Ericsson for The Swedish-American Republican League of Illinois, agreed that the Ericsson portrait, together with Henry Reuterdahl’s Battle of the Monitor and Merrimac, should serve as historic fix points in the 1912 Swedish Club exhibit. As things turned out, the second Exhibition of Works by Swedish-American Artists proved every bit as successful as the previous one; there were ninety-eight entries (by twenty-eight artists), which, according to Birger Sandzén, were characterized by “a certain freshness, spirit and independence.” While Sandzén made little note of the show’s Swedish character, the writer of a review in the Chicago Record-Herald described the exhibit as reflecting “more strongly the influence of the mother country than of the adopted one,” particularly in the paintings “uncompromising approach to nature as decoration…whether depicting American scenery or Swedish.” The article then went on to cite especially meritorious works, beginning with Nyholm’s “spirited’ portrait of Fabian Söderblom and his genre scene, A Family Circle, which was praised for its use of light and color. A large photograph of the Söderblom portrait accompanied the review. Two months after the March 1912 Swedish Club show, Nyholm left with the Carpenters for his summer sojourn in Europe.
For Nyholm, the years following the first two Swedish-American show can be seen as a watershed of opportunities. From that point on, Nyholm’s name appeared among the entrants in virtually every show arranged by the Chicago Swedish Club and the Chicago Art Institute. In a letter to Birger Sandzen, Nyholm expressed his efforts to improve upon an already good Swedish-American annual exhibition. More often than not, he juried the Swedish Club shows, and, by 1915, thanks to the success of his portrait of Greta, he also began serving on jury committees for the Artists of Chicago and Vicinity exhibitions at the Institute. Though financial considerations always had to be reckoned with Nyholm became firmly established as a member of Chicago’s art community and, as a professional painter of portraits during this period. He enjoyed not only notoriety, awards and acclaim, but also frequent sales. It was undoubtedly a source of great personal pride when his portrait John Ericsson (1912), was hung in the National Museum of Art in Washington D.C. What is more, another of his portraits, The Novelette (1905), had been proclaimed “one of the most beautiful paintings of modern times.”
Time and time again, his paintings procured awards and public acclaim. In 1913, for instance, in addition to the several landscapes he entered in the Works by Swedish-American Artists exhibition, Nyholm produced both The Yellow Lamp and Motherly Cares (locations unknown). The latter painting was a watercolor and depicted one of his daughters dressed in a Swedish costume sitting at a table sewing clothes for her doll. It was in 1913 the artist also received a commission to paint a portrait of his friend and supporter Charles S. Peterson, a work that is now in the collection of Småland’s Museum in Växjö, Sweden. It was later, in December 1913, Nyholm, together with Charles Hallberg, Hugo von Hofsten and Alfred Jansson, exhibited at the W. Scott Thurber Art Galleries in Chicago. Nyholm displayed seven canvasses, five of which were apparently done during his European trip the year before. In a Chicago Evening Post article, Nyholm is described as having “an enviable reputation for portraiture” and, together with his three colleagues, was said to be an ardent supporter of Swedish-American exhibitions and one who frequently exhibited with the Chicago Society of Artists. According to the same source, the Thurber Art Galleries exhibit was the first time the men ever displayed their works on Michigan Avenue.Some of his most accomplished canvases during this highly productive period included The Yellow Lamp Shade (1913), Charles Peterson (1913), Dorothy (1914), Greta (1915), Home from the Market (1916), The Chinese Coat (1919) and Dr. Walter Haines (1919) (all locations unknown). By the end of the decade, he had painted many of this country’s leading business magnates and political luminaries. Around this same time Nyholm was honored as one of six Swedish-American artists who were selected to produce frescoes for the lunettes in the main hall of Chicago’s Swedish Club. The theme was American history and the role Swedes had played in it. Nyholm’s contribution was John Morton Signing the Declaration of Independence.
In Swedish language publications of the period, Nyholm was often referred to as a devoted family man and, indeed, he and Amelie, together with their children, were often viewed in terms of what at the time exemplified familial stability, harmony, and tranquility. The Nyholms loved children, a fact which frequently can be seen in his paintings. The children in his paintings were often his own, and invariably they are portrayed in contexts that exuded a warm, convivial environment bearing distinctly Swedish overtones. At times his children are shown in “old country” garb, such as Girl in a Swedish Costume (1907) and Motherly Cares (1913). Even when the children were older, they posed for paintings, as exemplified in his much-touted Greta, which dates to 1915. He frequently clad his models in Dalecarlian garb. Some of his best examples were Girl with a Lute (undated, location unknown, illustrated in Karl Hildebrand and Axel Fredenholm, editors, Svenskarna I Amerika, Vol. 2, Stockholm: Historiska Förlaget, 1925, p.176), Home from the Market (Efter torguppköpen) (1916, location unknown), Brita (1917, Riksföreningen Sverigekontakt, Gothenburg), and A Young Lady Sewing (1925, Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois).
Nyholm’s reliance on Swedish-American subject matter was probably, at least partially, a subconscious effort to legitimize Swedish family values in America. Though his painterly style and his preference for portraiture link him indelibly to Anders Zorn, Nyholm’s love of family scenes - often involving quiet, sheltered, middle-class interior settings juxtaposed with traditional parish costumes and other Swedish elements - suggests an attitude toward life, a Weltanschauung, which, in its celebration of the Swedish home and family, differs only in degree and locality from that of his contemporary Carl Larsson. Nyholm, of course, knew Larsson’s paintings and illustrations well, and while the two artists differed profoundly in their stylistic approach, nonetheless, there remained strong parallels in the cultural messages which were conveyed through their work.
Just as Carl Larsson painted his wife Karin, Nyholm portrayed Amelie. But while Larsson’s depictions are invariably set in the light, sun-filled environment of Sundborn, Nyholm’s portrayals of Amelie usually occur as quiet, interior domestic settings which emit a sense of middle-class serenity and well-being. One such portrayal is found in the collection of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Small in format (fourteen by seventeen inches) entitled The Letter, the canvas depicts Amelie Nyholm sitting at her writing desk, momentarily lost in thought as she composes a letter. Sunlight pours in from the window above, illuminating Amelie’s face, collar and hands and heightening the dramatic import of an activity that is otherwise as mundane as it is contemplative. Nyholm has given the painting a title that evokes Romantic associations; indeed, this portrayal of Amelie might well represent a letter home - a so-called Amerikabrev - which for family and friends in the “Old Country” represented a vital link with those who immigrated to the New World. Conversely, The Letter might even be synonymous with Nyholm’s “Billet doux” (The Love Letter). The latter work cannot at present be accounted for, though it was listed as one of the works that Nyholm sent to Sweden in 1920 as part of the American Artists of Swedish Descent exhibit.
At the end of the decade, Nyholm became embroiled in a controversy stemming from his success and its accordant duties of sitting on juries for competitive exhibitions. Judging the works of others carried with it the potential for criticism, an eventuality that ultimately occurred during the Artists of Chicago and Vicinity show of 1919 at the Art Institute. In his capacity as jury chairman, Nyholm, together with his fellow jurors, sculptor Emil R. Zettler, and painters Henry Leon Roecker (1860-1941), Alfred Juergens (1866-1934) and Wilson Irvine (1869-1936), decided first prize should be awarded to Frank A. Werner (1877-1953) for his portrait of famed Chicago architect Louis H. Sullivan. The decision, meanwhile, was not unanimous and the ugly dispute that ensued in the press echoed accusations of jury bias, favoritism and “German propaganda.” While the harshest criticism seems to have been directed toward Zettler, Roecker and Juergens, Nyholm cannot but have suffered deep, personal indignation in having his jury decision openly discussed in the media and his committee publicly tainted by scandal. Nyholm’s own thoughts on the matter have gone unrecorded, though he undoubtedly felt a degree of vindication in not only securing the guarded support of George W. Eggers, Director of the Art Institute, but also in seeing his own entry in the exhibition, a portrait of Dr. Walter Haines (of Rush Medical College) “[ranked] first in the estimation of many artists.” The suggestion of impropriety nonetheless took its toll, and it is significant that Nyholm never again chaired a jury. Later the same year, Nyholm exhibited The Chinese Coat in the Works by Swedish-American Artists exhibit at the Swedish Club. This painting, which is one of Nyholm’s most successful works, was not only well-received but was also used as an illustration in the exhibition catalog.
Putting the scandal of the previous year behind him, Nyholm returned to Sweden in the summer of 1920 in company of Svenska Chicagokören (The Swedish Choral Club of Chicago). Nyholm’s role, however, was anything but musical; he had accompanied the choir so as to represent Chicago and the Swedish Club in conjunction with the first traveling exhibition of Swedish-American art to visit Sweden. Organized and underwritten by Charles Peterson, this show -- the American Artists of Swedish Heritage Exhibit -- entailed one hundred paintings and lithographs by forty artists. Beginning in May at the National Academy of Design in New York, the exhibit went on to Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg and ultimately concluded at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Nyholm’s own contribution to the show was substantial; he was one of twenty-six individuals who assisted Peterson in arranging the exhibition and, together with James Allen St. John (1872-1957), Gordon Saint Clair (1885-1966), Antonin Sterba (1875-1963) and Hugo von Hofsten, he juried the show when it hung in Chicago. His own entries included a chronological portrayal of Nyholm’s career. Part of this group was his Greta, a portrait of his eldest daughter which had earlier won the popular picture prize, sponsored by Chicago artist and patron Flora I. Schofield (1871-1960), in the 1915 Artists of Chicago and Vicinity show as well as the Mrs. William Ormonde Thompson Prize in the same show. In addition, it had garnered first prize in the exhibit of Works by Swedish-American Artists, also in 1915. Greta again received widespread publicity when it was used to illustrate the show both in the Chicago Tribune and in the American-Scandinavian Review. Given the earlier successes of The Novelette and Greta in America, these two paintings were logical choices for the tour to Sweden. Fifty-four years of age and seemingly in excellent health, Nyholm had no idea this would be his last trip to Sweden.
Unfortunately, there is no documentation suggesting that Anders Zorn was able to see the exhibit of Swedish-American art when it was in Stockholm, even though he undoubtedly knew of the exhibit and would have liked to have seen it. Indeed, had Zorn made the journey from Mora to see the show, Nyholm would definitely have been on hand to meet him and would also have made public references to the meeting upon returning to the United States. Nor does it seem that Nyholm visited Zorn in Mora as he had done fourteen years earlier, in the summer of 1906. This, however, does not rule out the possibility that he contacted Zorn, given the latter’s failing health.
In 1923, Charles Peterson underwrote another traveling exhibit to Sweden, this time in celebration of the Gothenburg tercentenary. Again, Nyholm was involved in arranging the show and, as before, served as a member of the selection jury. On this occasion, one hundred and eight paintings by forty-six artists were displayed in an exhibit that ran from May 8 to September 30. Nyholm, however, only exhibited two canvases, a self-portrait and a painting of Minnesota’s former governor Adolf O. Eberhart. Whether these works represented canvases which he, himself, viewed as being two of his best, or whether they were simply accessible for exhibiting, has gone unrecorded.
Nyholm continued to enjoy a number of portrait commissions and other success including Marshall Field & Company’s decision to illustrate his painting Interior, California Bungalow (1923). During the 1920s, though, Nyholm became a favored artist for the venerable Saddle and Sirloin club that included all of the city’s wealthy meat packers. His first known portraits for the club were of F. Edson White and A. MacNeilage. By 1927 he had painted enough portraits of club members to have a one-man exhibition at the club in conjunction with the International Livestock Exposition.
His works were featured in 1925 at the O’Brien & Jacobus Galleries in Chicago and included both etchings and paintings. Grace Ambrose gave the exhibit a glowing review, and his works from the show were illustrated in the important Magazine of the Art World twice. In 1926 Nyholm painted A Young Girl, a work which he entered in the annual Artists of Chicago and Vicinity show and which appeared in the Chicago Tribune. In fact, throughout the mid 1920s, Nyholm’s works were a regular feature of the newspapers.
From 1922 to 1927, Nyholm received commissions to paint members of the John Nydén family in Philadelphia. He also juried a number of shows including the annual Works by Swedish- American Artists at the Swedish Club in Chicago (1923, 1924, 1925, 1926), Artists of Chicago and Vicinity (1921, 1922) at the Art Institute, Chicago’s Bohemian Art Club (1926), Chicago Galleries Association Semiannual Exhibition (1926), and the Hoosier Salon (1927). Indeed, the same year Nyholm juried the Hoosier Salon, he received an award of $250 from the Chicago Art Galleries Association.
Although Nyholm’s active participation in Chicago’s art circles continued unabated, his health in the later 1920s declined markedly. One is struck by the fact that during his last two years of life, at a time when his physical condition became increasingly precarious, the artist doggedly insisted on painting, exhibiting, and serving on juries. Finally, in June 1927, after long periods of discomfort, Nyholm underwent exploratory surgery, the results of which determined he was suffering from advanced stomach cancer. Six months later, on November 14, Arvid Fredrik Nyholm passed away; he was sixty-one years of age. In what was certainly an apt yet understated assessment of the artist’s death, Oliver Linder observed Nyholm had departed this earth “in the midst of his best and most mature productivity.” Surviving were his wife, Amelie, six children, innumerable friends and supporters, not to mention a truly prodigious corpus of portraits, genre motifs and landscapes. His passing also left a discernible void in the world of Swedish-American art in Chicago, and it is no coincidence that after 1927, in absence of his drive and enthusiasm, the frequency of art exhibits at the Swedish Club declined markedly.
Arvid Fredrik Nyholm was an artist of great ability. His keen eye for mood, detail and momentary impression, particularly in his portraiture, reveals an aesthetic virtuosity that periodically rivaled that of the most accomplished painters of the early twentieth century. Yet, as with many foreign-born and foreign-trained artists of his generation, Nyholm’s place within the spectrum of American art is difficult to gage. Unlike fellow Swedish immigrant artists like Birger Sandzén, Henry Reuterdahl, and Carl Oscar Borg (1879-1947) who developed highly personalized styles within the fabric of American aesthetics, Nyholm consciously adhered to the painterly tenets he had learned during his student years in Sweden under the instruction of Anders Zorn. In style, subject and inclination, Nyholm always remained unabashedly Swedish, and it is herein that his work, when viewed against the backdrop of late nineteenth/ early twentieth century American art, constitutes a striking dichotomy. Active and well-liked within Chicago art circles, and drawing most of his income through commissions from well-situated Americans, Nyholm, time and again, easily transcended the limitations of his immigrant background, particularly in the realm of portraiture, the genre for which he was best-known and in which he was most accomplished. However, in spite of his many successes and contacts in American society, Nyholm always remained predisposed toward his own ethnic community. It was this allegiance which has ultimately dictated his legacy not as an American artist, but as an artist from Sweden whose sense of identity lay inextricably fixed within the cultural embrace of Swedish-America.
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