CARL JOHAN NORDELL
Nordell was born in Copenhagen on 23 September 1885. In 1892 the Nordell family settled in Westerly, New Jersey, where Carl Johan, one of several children, received his education. Reportedly, a local gambler and art collector, Richard Canfield was so impressed with young Nordell’s talent that he assisted him to gain admittance to the Rhode Island School of Design. Carl was a tireless student and serious in his studies of art, literature, and philosophy. Friends nicknamed him “The American Frans Hals,” as a result of his study of that Dutch master. After graduating from the school in 1905, Nordell continued his training at the Art Students League in New York City for the following two years. There he received criticism and instruction from George Bridgman (1864-1943), a noted teacher of anatomy, and Frank Vincent DuMond (1865-1951), a landscapist associated with Old Lyme.
The popularity of Impressionism in America at this time had reached its peak, and the style was of paramount influence in Nordell’s advanced studies. Around 1906, Nordell visited an exhibition of paintings by the Ten, most of whom were American Impressionists. Moved by the work of Tarbell and Joseph R. De Camp, he sought instruction from them at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Nordell worked diligently under Tarbell and experimented with the genre of women in interiors, or Intimism. In 1909, Nordell received the Paige Traveling Scholarship, which provided for two years of continued study in Europe. He became one of the hundreds of Americans to receive criticism from Jean-Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian in Paris. From this base, he made study trips to visit major museums and galleries in Italy, Holland, Spain and Germany and during this period Nordell’s style reached a level of uniqueness, though he definitely remained under the general influence of French Impressionism. By the time of his return to Boston in 1911, Nordell had successfully incorporated the use of broken color, a high-keyed palette, and the practice of working en plein air to achieve an accurate representation of light and atmosphere. In October of that year, the Boston Art Club presented eighty-seven of Nordell’s watercolors and oils to the viewing public. Some of the watercolors seem revolutionary in their spontaneity.
Nordell continued his career in Boston at Fenway Studios and exhibited in national competitions, including the annuals of the National Academy of Design, the Art Institute of Chicago; at the 1912 biennial of the Corcoran Gallery he won the fourth Clarke Prize. Nordell’s finances were augmented by portrait commissions of some of Boston’s affluent citizens. The artist was so intent on recording the sitter’s likeness that in this genre, he deviated from his usual impressionist technique. In the women-in-interior genre, he frequently depicted a fully draped woman seated in profile or at an oblique angle to the picture plane. These pensive and attractive young ladies usually gaze into space and become an integral part of the pleasant ambiance of the scene. In this way, Nordell remained within the Genteel Tradition as it was manifest in Boston.
The artist exhibited several such works in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, and won a silver medal for his efforts. In 1918, a one-man exhibition of fifty works was presented at the Boston Art Club. Nordell remained active in the Boston area art clubs and societies through the early 1920s. In the winter of 1921 Babcock Art Galleries presented him with yet another one-man show. During this period, Nordell increased the production of prints and won the Salmagundi Club’s Shaw Prize for etching in 1923. Sometime after 1927 he began taking summer sketching trips to Chautauqua Lake, New York and he also had a studio at Pine Dell in Annisquam (Cape Ann). In addition, Nordell accepted a teaching position with Grand Central Art Galleries.
In 1931, Nordell exhibited at the Bevier Gallery in Rochester, New York, including such works as The Morning Concert. He continued to work after the death of his wife but in the 1930s, an ailing hip forced him to slow his pace. Although he spent more time in his studio in these years, Nordell made sketching trips to various spots in New York State and New England. After he remarried, Nordell moved to Westfield, New York where the couple summered; in the winters, Nordell painted and exhibited in Florida. In 1947, the Nordells moved to San Fernando, California, where they spent one full decade and both worked in art therapy programs in Los Angeles hospitals beginning in 1951. Six years later, the artist died (in San Fernando) on 6 June 1957, at the age of seventy-two. A retrospective show of his work was presented in 1975.
American Painters of the Impressionist Period Rediscovered. Exh. cat. Waterville, ME: Colby College Press, 1975, p. 19; O’Gorman, James F. This Other Gloucester: Occasional Papers of the Arts of Cape Ann Massachusetts. Gloucester, MA: Ten Pound Island Press, 1976, p. 86; Michael David Zellman. 300 Years of American Art. Seacacus, NJ: Wellfleet Press, 1987, p. 804.
Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.