Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt (1878 – 1955)

Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt Museum Collections


Bror Julius Nordfeldt was a Swedish immigrant to the United States who moved to Chicago as a fourteen year-old boy. There, he worked as a typesetter at a Swedish-language newspaper, where his superiors noticed his artistic talent and urged him to pursue a career in art. To that end, Nordfeldt enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute in 1899 and began studying etching, engraving, drawing and painting. He developed quickly, and moved into the 57th Street Artists Colony. A prominent local mural painter, Albert Herter, eventually hired the young Nordfeldt to assist him with his latest project: a commission from the McCormick Harvester Company to paint their entry in the Paris Exhibit of 1900. Nordfeldt accompanied the piece to Paris when it was shipped and installed, and ended up staying in Europe for three years.

Nordfeldt’s time in Europe was primarily in Paris, where he studied at the Academie Julian with Jean Paul Laurens. He was heavily influenced in his time there by the work of Manet, Gauguin and Cezanne, and a Fauvist influence became quite apparent in his work. He had an opportunity to study woodblock cutting in London, and displayed work at the Royal Academy of London. The experience was eye-opening, and the style that resulted didn’t sit well with some American audiences upon his return. America was still very much enamored of the academic realist style that had sustained painting since the renaissance, and Nordfeldt’s embellishments of color and form were not appreciated by some. He had two shows in Chicago in 1907, one of which was academic in style and one of which was more closely Fauvist. The latter show caused much consternation amongst those in attendance, though it received positive write-ups in the city press.

Nordfeldt was getting close to the style that would define much of his later work, but the outbreak of the First World War brought him to California, where he painted boat camouflage, and Europe, where he served in combat units. Military service was a great distraction from a career that seemed to be emerging from obscurity, as Nordfeldt had just won a silver medal in etching at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.

Upon returning to the U.S. in 1917, Nordfeldt moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he painted jazzy, motion-filled palettes of Indian figures and ceremonies, as well as untraditional portraits and still lifes. His pieces were, conceptually, a step further towards modernism than the material being produced by most New Mexico artists of the day. He was deeply involved not only in documenting Pueblo Indian tribes, but in attempting to preserve them. He helped found the Indian Artists Fund, which attempted to foster and preserve the arts of the Pueblo.