Fine Art

Johann Berthelsen

Denmark, New York, 1883 - 1967

Washington Square

Oil on canvas board
12 1/8 x 9 inches (30.4 x 23 cm)
Signed: Johann Berthelsen

Johann Berthelsen painted exquisitely rendered landscapes of New York City, often judged “poetic” by contemporary critics.   Ironically though, it was music not art, to which Berthelsen originally aspired.  A native of Copenhagen, Denmark, Berthelsen immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1889, when he was six years old.  From 1901 to 1905 he studied at the Chicago Music College, and later he eventually taught music in Chicago.  From1911 to 1912 he was listed as a vocalist living in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  However, Sven Svenson in Chicago and Wayman Adams in Indianapolis were two acquaintances that convinced him to paint.  Although he devoted most of his time to singing and music, Berthelsen began to paint first for his own pleasure and then, after 1932, on a full-time basis. In 1922 he moved to New York City.  He initially established his artistic reputation with his work in pastels.  Working with small canvases, he found inspiration in New York’s Central Park, rendering this subject most effectively in its seasonal transformations.  In 1922 he moved to New York City.

He painted similar scenes in and of Chicago, and they also met with critical and popular acclaim.  Having achieved success as a pastelist, Berthelsen turned his attention to oils.  He returned to the fundamentals of drawing in order to discover a technique appropriate to the medium.  Berthelsen used a heavy impasto to almost palpably render his landscapes and his city and park snowscapes.   He also painted still lifes.  Unlike his landscapes, these works, also on small canvases, are clearly defined, with his color ranging from bright to low key.

Johann Berthelsen was a member of the prestigious Salmagundi Club, the American Watercolor Society, and Allied Artist of America.  He participated in several exhibitions, including the Art Institute of Chicago in 1925, and Indianapolis, 1946, and finally there was a retrospective at Swope America in the 1980s.

Our painting is a prime example of Johann Berthelsen’s skillful rendering of New York City on a snowy day.  In the foreground we find Washington Square Park, the thick layer of snow not even revealing the slightest hint of the grass underneath it.  Only a few paths created by the strollers break the white surface of the snow.  Berthelsen has used a deliciously thick layer of paint to emphasize the untouched layers of sparkling white snow covering the ground.  We only find a few people walking through the park, their red faces and forward leaning composure indicating that the icy wind does not allow for a slow leisurely stroll.  In each side of the pictorial space Berthelsen has rendered a tall tree, the leafless branches stretching into the snow-filled sky.  As the viewer’s eye moves further into the scenery, we find the notorious Triumph Arch towering at the edge of the park as well as the relatively tall buildings surrounding the park.  The contours are barely discernible, hidden behind the fog and snow.  Nonetheless, one immediately feels their grandeur as they are stretching into the sky, making the people appear miniscule.  Together with the trees, these buildings create a rather intimate view of the park that adds a warm feel to the scenery despite the cold weather.  Berthelsen has used a very delicate, light palette that leaves the scenery with an air of poetic beauty.  Aside from a few splashes of red, green and yellow, the scene is held in a curtain of white, gray and light pink colors that leave the impression of a fairytale landscape.  In particular, we notice how the piece shimmers with a certain light that comes from the snow covered ground.