Johann Berthelsen (1883-1972)

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Johann Berthelsen is most known for his poetic painterly renditions of New York City. His special interest was the early winter months; and the muted grays, ivories and blues that he preferred proved extremely effective for blending a winter atmosphere with city streets and buildings. He was particularly fascinated with the subtle range of colors and the softening of hard contours effected by falling snow.  

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Johann Henrik Carl Berthelsen (pictured in two portraits by his good friend and fellow painter Wayman Adams) was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and emigrated to America with his parents as a young child.  He graduated in 1905 from The Music Conservatory of Chicago College of Performing Arts, after which he toured the United States and Canada as lead baritone for the Chicago Grand Opera Company. He then taught voice, first at the Indianapolis Conservatory of Music, and, beginning in 1920, at his own private studio in New York City.  

During these earlier years, Berthelsen also painted pastels and watercolors, though mostly for his own pleasure.  In the 1920’s, however, his American Impressionist paintings were beginning to be met with critical acclaim along with popular appreciation. This along with financial difficulties brought on by the Depression led him in 1932 to decide to paint full-time, which he did prolifically for the rest of his life.  At that time too, he started painting in oils that proved even more successful. His works continued to sell well, both privately and to a broad range of museums, ultimately allowing him and his wife Helenya Kaschewski to live in New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut.

Johann Berthelsen, (1883-1972)  Brooklyn Bridge in Winter r, 20th Century oil Museum purchase, 1944.2.5

Johann Berthelsen, (1883-1972)
Brooklyn Bridge in Winterr, 20th Century
Museum purchase, 1944.2.5

In 1971 Berthelsen was struck by a hit-and-run driver in Manhattan.  Over the next year, he suffered severe skeletal pain and ultimately became bedridden.  He kept painting however; and his last work, a Central Park spring scene, was completed with the paintbrush tied to his hand. He died on Easter Sunday, 1972. 

As part of the celebration events for its 70th anniversary, HMA featured in various ways a broad selection of works from its own permanent collection. The exhibition Snowfall in the City and the Country (May 11th to September 15th, 2013) was a gathering of winter scenes collected in the museum’s early years by Paul Whitener, HMA’s founder and first Executive Director.  Three of the paintings, among them Berthelsen’s Brooklyn Bridge in Winter, were purchased by Paul in 1944, HMA’s inaugural year. (Berthelsen himself called this painting Old Sailor’s Home, a reference to the brown and green buildings that were the James Slip Gospel Mission.)

Berthelsen’s son Lee remembers his father fondly, "Although my father never had any formal training in art, he relished the company of other artists and learned much from their comments and observations. … One of my father's favorite haunts that figured prominently in his development as an artist was the Salmagundi Club … Founded in 1871, the Club was and is a New York institution where artists and art lovers can meet, discuss, critique, and just enjoy each other's company. He joined the club in 1935 … and he remained a member until his death.”

In 2009, through the efforts of Lee Berthelsen and others, The Johann Berthelsen Conservancy, LLC, was created in Milwaukee. It is dedicated to preserving, protecting and promoting Johann Berthelsen’s artistic legacy; and its web site provided some of the facts in this post along with a lot of other information. (Used with permission.)

On January 16th, 2019, by lovely happenstance, Berthelsen’s grandson Ian K. Wylie Sr. stopped by the museum to enjoy a look at Brooklyn Bridge in Winter. Wylie shared memories of his grandfather and pictures of a few of his grandfather’s many other works. He mentioned for one thing that his grandmother often gilded the frames for his grandfather’s works, though he thinks probably not the one on Brooklyn Bridge in Winter.

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This post is # 24 of the 75 stories to celebrate HMA's 75 years.

Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.