ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 22 Gustaf Oscar Dalstrom
Gustaf Dalstrom in 1927 went to Europe for a year. The sojourn was the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition — all American artists dream of an ultimate year in Europe. He visited his native Sweden, which he had left for Chicago when a boy of 7. He paid, of course, a prolonged visit to Paris and, crowning glory, he penetrated into the south of France to paint in Cezanne’s country.
But he found he couldn’t paint in Cezanne’s country. Cezanne had already painted everything worthwhile — not only Cezanne, but a thousand imitators of Cezanne, each of the imitator diluting the master. Everywhere Dalstrom turned, he saw a “picture,” not a landscape. Everywhere, there were the white houses with the red roofs.
So Dalstrom returned to the United States. He resumed his annual summer jaunts in northern Michigan, around the old lumber town of Manistee, which he had known as a happy playground from boyhood. An uncle lived there, with whom he was in the habit of spending the summer.
Leaving Cezanne’s country to Cezanne, Dalstrom began to look with a new eye on the country around Manistee, which is a few miles north of Ludington. Nor did he look with Cezanne’s eyes, as do so many prize-winning pets of our Art Institute and of American museums in general.
Dalstrom saw the Michigan country as it is, with a quickened interpretative vision. The result is a little group of etchings that genuinely set forth this phase of “the American scene” sensitively, significantly, with no straining for the bizarre, with no four-flush.
It is to Dalstrom and not to the more spectacular, better publicized “Iowa group” that the future will look for honest Midwest rusticity as it manifests itself in this decade.
The etchings culminate in “An Abandoned Farm,” which was chosen in 1934 by the Chicago Society of Etchers as the print to be distributed that year to its members scattered over the world. An avalanche of postcards descended on Dalstrom, some from as far off as Hawaii. Occasionally, there was an adverse criticism — the theme was too melancholy — the depression with its consequent abandonment of farms still too poignant for comfort. Dalstrom explains with an apologetic smile that the farm he etched was abandoned all of 30 years ago.
It is something of a visitation on him that “An Abandoned Farm” achieved such wide popularity, for Dalstrom isn’t of a particularly melancholy type — indeed, he avoids the melancholy, preferring life and action to sedate contemplation. (Psychoanalytically, maybe he is waging too conscious a fight against a disposition he doesn’t want to recognize.)
On his visit to his native Sweden in 1927, Dalstrom had plenty of occasion for dreaming amid noble ruins, for his birthplace is the ancient city of Wisby on the island of Gottland, whose glory was worldwide in the 13th century when, as a member of the Hanseatic League, it was an important link with the Orient via the northern route. Its Cathedral of St. Mary dates from the 13th century, and crumbling walls and fortifications — relics of the Vikings — are still visible. On a farm belonging to Dalstrom’s aunt are the ruins of a chapel built about 1000 A.D., abandoned as a religious edifice after the Protestant reformation, and used as a barn.
It was to all of this, which he had left at the age of 7, that Dalstrom returned. He made many sketches, as was his plain duty as an artist — but they remain mostly just sketches.
“I don’t like ruins,” said Dalstrom, and he returned to Chicago and to Michigan — and to the “Abandoned Farm.”
Dalstrom was born in 1893. His mother died when he was a few months old, and his father, when he was 4 or 6. He was one of three children thus orphaned. His aunts and uncles took the little family in charge, and he and his sister were brought to Chicago to live with one of the aunts. It was one of the uncles who was superintendent of a lumber company in Michigan who had the boy with him every summer between terms of school.
Dalstrom graduated from Lane Tech with the normal amount of drawing taught in the public schools and with ambitions to be an illustrator — like Howard Pyle. It mustn’t be forgotten that Gustav Dore was an idol of Van Gogh’s.
So Dalstrom entered the school of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1914. He was diligently pursuing his way toward his goal when America entered the World War, and he enlisted. He was sent to a training camp in Georgia, just over the state line from Tennessee. During the little time he had away from the arduous training of a rookie getting ready for the trenches, he observed and sketched quaint types of Southern mountaineers. He means to go back some day and paint them.
The war was over before Dalstrom was called out of Georgia, and he returned in 1919 to the Art Institute. He had been doing some thinking and had observed that “illustration” is pretty shallow when you really look into it.
It was in this state of mind that George Bellows found him when Bellows came to the Art Institute school as a visiting instructor on invitation of Director Eggers. Dalstrom soon learned from the vigorous Bellows that “art” is worth any sacrifice — and so he abandoned the idea of being an illustrator and determined to be an “artist.”
Bellows, called away before his year was out, left his class in charge of Randall Davey, a fellow pupil with him of Robert Henri.
It was from Bellows and Davey that Dalstrom and the other students learned about Daumier, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Theretofore, the most “advanced” art they had encountered was Monet and Renoir in the museum of the Institute. Monet, Dalstrom remembers, was considered by the students and even by the instructors as okay, but Renoir wasn’t so good — Renoir couldn’t get his eyes in a straight line across the face in a portrait.
Bellows and Davey came as a shock and a revelation. When Davey, too, was unexpectedly called away, the class decided to go ahead and function without an instructor, there being nobody else in the school in whom the frenzied young men and women students had confidence. So they got their own mode, met regularly, and became a little art republic. Fred Biesel, George Josimovich, Emil Armin, Frances Foy, Frances Strain, Carl Maddern, and some others were fellow students of Dalstrom. Director Eggers winked at the minor revolt against school authority until the term was out, but the class wasn’t reorganized the next year.
Dalstrom, as a bread-and-butter measure, got a job with the Faithorne Engraving Company, making posters, pursuing his “ethical art” as he could. Then after a time, he went to St. Louis where he worked for two years with another engraving company. During those years, he sketched and painted Sundays in the Ozarks and elsewhere around St. Louis.
In 1923, he came back to Chicago and the same year he married Frances Foy, a fellow student in the Bellows-Davey class. Dalstrom and Frances Foy have been among the leaders ever since in the progressive ranks of Chicago artists.
Dalstrom didn’t participate in the “grand schism” that resulted in 1921 in Chicago’s first Salon des Refuses — for the very good reason that he submitted only one picture to the Art Institute jury that year and his picture was accepted. Nor did he help organize No-Jury. He was living in St. Louis at the time.
But on his return, he allied himself with No-Jury so actively that he and his new wife were elected directors. When Weisenborn retired from the presidency in 1926, Dalstrom was elected to the office, which he held for three years. During his presidency, No-Jury left the Marshall Field galleries and held a show in the big gallery above Kroch’s book store. Also during his presidency, there was a No-Jury ball at the Palmer house, with a beauty prize. The winner of the prize was a girl nobody had ever heard of — Ruth Etting. It was Miss Etting’s first step to renown.
Just to show how the past can rise up to confound you … you remember Dalstrom started out to be an illustrator and then shook Howard Pyle for George Bellows. Well, this summer Dalstrom is working on illustrations for a book, and his coworker is Frances Foy. It’s a book on surgery, and the Dalstrom’s are making a series of sketches of surgical operations. For patron saints, they might invoke Rembrandt and Eakins!