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 Gunnar Mauritz Widforss  (1879 - 1934)

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Lived/Active: California/Arizona / Sweden      Known for: national park landscape painting, illustration

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Gunnar Mauritz Widforss
from Auction House Records.
Grand Canyon
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Gunnar Mauritz Widforss 1879 - 1934

Gunnar Mauritz Widforss was born in Stockholm, Sweden on October 21, 1879 the third of thirteen children. His father, Mauritz, owned a firearm and hunting shop. Widforss’ mother, Blenda, had studied art at The Technical School (now Konstfack) and was a noted amateur painter. When he was sixteen years old Widforss would begin his training to become a painter and muralist at the same school.

Following the completion of his studies at the Technical School in 1900, Widforss traveled to St. Petersburg Russia to work as an apprentice decorative painter. He returned home approximately two years later and then embarked on an extended period of travel around Europe and America. Widforss worked primarily in watercolor, and he led a bohemian lifestyle traveling in search of great landscapes to paint. Between 1904 and 1909, he ventured to Austria, Switzerland, the Mediterranean region and North Africa. From 1906 to 1907 he visited the United States where he resided in Jacksonville, Florida and later Brooklyn, New York doing odd jobs and paintings on commission.

When he was in his mid-thirties Widforss began to gain recognition for his work. Two of his watercolors of the French Riviera were accepted into the Paris Salon of 1912, and King Gustaf V of Sweden acquired six Widforss works. The upheaval of the First World War forced a hiatus on his travels. At the conclusion of the war Widforss resumed his wandering lifestyle throughout Europe. He also had hopes of painting the exotic landscapes of the Orient, but in early 1921 as he traveled across America en route to Japan his funds ran out.

Widforss arrived in California and spent most of February 1921 painting the idyllic seaside views of Catalina Island. He continued exploring the California coast and made many paintings of the dramatic scenery and atmospheric effects found in these newly discovered landscapes. Earlier in his career Widforss had established a pattern of working at popular destinations for tourists where he could be assured of sales. This is a pattern that he followed after his arrival in the West.

Soon after arriving in California Widforss made his way to Yosemite Valley. He first visited there in March 1921 and made it a semi-regular home until around 1928. With its monolithic granite walls and shady groves, Yosemite became another one of Widforss’ major subjects. As with Grand Canyon, which would eventually become his most favored subject, Yosemite offered the dynamic visual contrast of architectural rock formations and deep atmospheric space -- two elements that Widforss was able to capture with captivating accuracy.

Widforss made many friends In Yosemite including Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. Mather became one of the artist’s greatest advocates and suggested to Widforss that he focus his creative attention on America’s national parks. It was advice that he took seriously and over time he earned the sobriquet “Painter of the National Parks.” In addition to Yosemite and Grand Canyon, Widforss went on to paint in many of the western parks including: Zion, Bryce, Mesa Verde, Yosemite, Crater Lake, Carlsbad Caverns, Sequoia, Death Valley, and Yellowstone.

In 1923 Widforss traveled to the Southwest, visiting Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The following year the artist made his only trip to Yellowstone where he made numerous paintings of the spectacular canyon and falls of the Yellowstone River.

Although eventually Widforss began to spend more time in the Southwest and at Grand Canyon, he never grew tired of painting California landscapes. His realistic style contrasted sharply with the colorful and broadly brushed paintings of the emerging California School of watercolorists. Widforss won the first prize at the California Watercolor Society’s 1928 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In March 1929, Widforss presented his most commercially successful exhibit at Gump’s, a luxury home furnishing store and gallery in San Francisco where he had been exhibiting regularly since 1921. The exhibit garnered great critical praise. “Gunnar Widforss ranks with the foremost exponents of the art of the water colorist, and yet on examining the paintings one sees that the medium, with this artist, is immaterial. His pictures have the strength and depth of color of oils and the exquisite delicacy of watercolors,” wrote one reviewer. Following the success of the 1929 Gump’s exhibit, Widforss became a naturalized citizen of the United States, and in October he celebrated his fiftieth birthday at Grand Canyon.

Major museum exhibitions of Widforss’ work have been rare. The first was presented in December 1924 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The exhibit included 72 watercolors that primarily included scenes of western National parks. William Henry Holmes, the first Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. D. C., and an artist also known for his extraordinarily accurate drawings and watercolors, commented on Widforss’ Grand Canyon paintings in the exhibit. “They are remarkable as to geological construction and color. They give a more satisfactory understanding of the Grand Canyon than any that have hitherto been attempted. It is well nigh impossible to convey the immensity and grandeur of these marvels of nature but Widforss has accomplished it.” Holmes went on to say that “These are some of the finest things of their kind that have come out of the West.” In 1926 and 1928 Widforss participated in two exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum of art sponsored by the Society of Scandinavian American Artists.

Gunnar Widforss may be the Grand Canyon painter par excellence. He first visited Grand Canyon in 1923 and eventually made his home on the South Rim of the Canyon. While living at Grand Canyon Widforss exchanged paintings with the Fred Harvey Company for a room in one of the employee dormitories and meals at Bright Angel Lodge. The company exhibited his work in the art gallery that for many years was in the lobby of the El Tovar Hotel. Widforss also made strenuous hikes into the Canyon in order to paint and would spend weeks at a time at Phantom Ranch. Grand Canyon photographer Emery Kolb recalled hiking to Plateau Point (thirteen miles round trip) each day for ten days that it took Widforss to complete one of his masterpieces. One of his favorite subjects were the shady groves of aspen trees on the Canyon's North Rim. Preferring to work plein aire, Widforss worked indoors only on rare occasions and in a letter to a friend remarked that it is "much better to sit out in the middle of the scene."

Widforss often visited Phoenix and the neighboring small towns when the Valley of the Sun was a rural agricultural region, quite unlike the metropolis of today. He did many paintings of Camelback Mountain in the heart of Phoenix, the dramatic Superstition Mountains east of town and the lush green cottonwood trees that lined irrigation canals and provided shade on the margins of the farm fields. Carolann Smurthwaite, a patron of the arts in the culturally vibrant small city, ran an art gallery in the Phoenix Biltmore and regularly exhibited Widforss’ work.

In 1933 Widforss was part of a team of artists who created a series of murals depicting national park themes for the 1933-1934 Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago. He worked closely with George Collins who was the Assistant Chief Ranger at Grand Canyon during Widforss’ residence there. Collins observed that Widforss was meticulous in his work and able to render the most exacting details and subtle effects of light and shade. “He was impatient with anything mediocre,” Collins recalled.

While in St. Louis for an exhibit of his work in November 1934, a doctor confirmed that Widforss had a serious heart condition and warned him to move to a lower elevation when he returned to Arizona. He returned to the canyon only to collect his belongings and to say ‘farewell’ to his friends. It was there on, November 30 th, 1934, that he died suddenly from a heart attack while driving from El Tovar Hotel down to Bright Angel Camp to have lunch. He was buried by his friends in the Grand Canyon South Rim Cemetery by the Shrine of the Ages.

Gunnar Widforss left a great legacy and inspiration for the realistic painters of western landscapes that followed his path. The accuracy of his drawing and use of color and his ability to express deep space and atmospheric effects are unrivaled.

Sources:
Letters from Gunnar Widforss to his family and friends
Archival materials from the Museum of Northern Arizona, Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park Libraries
Belknap, Bill and Frances Spencer. Gunnar Widforss: Painter of the Grand Canyon (Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Press for the Museum of Northern Arizona, 1969).

Written and submitted by Alan Petersen, Curator of Fine Arts at the Museum of Northern Arizona. He is working on a book on Widforss’ life and a catalogue raisonné of his works.


Biography from Thomas Nygard Gallery:
GUNNAR WIDFORSS (1879-1934)

Gunnar Widforss was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1879. He studied to be a muralist at the Institute of Technology in Stockholm from 1896-1900. In search of landscape subjects, he traveled extensively in Russia, Europe and Africa gaining popular acclaim particularly among European royalty who became important patrons of his earlier works. He remained in Sweden until 1921 by which time he had become a premier figure in the art world. While en route to the Orient in 1921, Widforss visited San Francisco and opted to remain.

In 1922 Stephen T. Mather, the director of the national parks, influenced Widforss to make painting America's national parks his specialty. He did just that, and in 1923 illustrated the book "Songs of Yosemite." Many national magazines used his paintings for their covers and his fame in America grew rapidly. He painted the canyons of the Colorado and Yellowstone, Zion and Bryce canyons, the Kaibob forest at Mesa Verde, Taos and Crater Lake but his first love was the Grand Canyon. It was his obsession with the Grand Canyon that prompted him to become an American citizen. He built a studio on the rim of the Grand Canyon and spent his last years there, studying geological formations and painting the beauty that he saw. The paintings from these last years were called "the finest to have come out of the West" and are still highly sought after today. Widforss died on the rim of his beloved canyon at the age of fifty-five and was buried there.

He was a member of the California Watercolor Society and the Scandinavian-American Artists. His works are held by many important private collections throughout the world and can be viewed at the Yosemite National Park Museum and the Museum of Northern Arizona which held a retrospective of his works in 1969.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, VII:
Gunnar Mauritz Widforss
Born: Stockholm, Sweden 1879
Died: Grand Canyon, Arizona 1934

Western landscape “painter of the national parks,” illustrator

Son of a shopkeeper, Gunnar Widforss studied to be a muralist at the Institute of Technology in Stockholm from 1896 to 1900. In search of landscape subjects, he traveled to Russia, in Europe, Africa, and from 1905 to 1908 in the US where he was not successful. He was popular in Sweden on his return; his early patrons were European royalty. He remained there until 1921 when he visited California and settled there in the course of a trip to the Orient.

In 1922, Stephen T. Mather, the director of the national parks, influenced Widforss to make the parks his specialty. Widforss illustrated the book Songs of Yosemite in 1923. National magazines used his paintings for covers. “The quiet Swede” toured the West, “the canyons of the Colorado and Yellowstone, Zion and Bryce canyons, the Kaibab forest, at Mesa Verde, Taos, Crater Lake and along the Monterey coast.”

Widforss, who was a bachelor, became a citizen because of the Grand Canyon, spending his last years in a studio on the rim, studying geological formations and painting from the different aspects in oil and watercolor. The paintings were called the “finest things of the kind that have come out of the West.” When he died of a heart attack, on the rim of the canyon, he was buried there. His estate was 150 landscapes. In 1969, the Museum of Northern Arizona had a retrospective exhibition.

Resource:
Peggy and Harold Samuels, Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, 1985, Castle Publishing


Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art - Beverly Hills:
A native of Sweden, Widforss studied to be a muralist at the Stockholm Institute of Technology from 1895-1900. Following his studies, Widforss earned great acclaim in his native land, and used the proceeds from his sales to European royalty to finance his wanderlust and world travels.

In 1921 Widforss moved to San Francisco, after what he’d intended to be a short visit. Travelling extensively through northern California and the American southwest, Widforss found his greatest inspiration in the National parks he found along the way. Though a great many of his works from these travels hang today in Yosemite Valley’s Ahwanee Lodge, Widforss is best known for his paintings of the Grand Canyon, where he built and maintained a studio along the rim, and where he was later buried, after his death in 1934.

Widforss’ watercolors are renowned today for their masterful control of an unforgiving medium. In his works one quickly sees the awe inspiring and accurate depictions of the vast depth and atmosphere of his favorite subject and adopted home, Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

Biography from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery Santa FeTucson:
Gunnar was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1879. He studied to be a muralist in Stockholm from 1896-1900. Gunnar traveled and painted landscapes extensively in Europe and Africa gaining acclaim among European royalty.

In 1921, he arrived in San Francisco and began to paint the National Parks of the American West. Gunnar's watercolors are renowned throughout the world, particularly his adopted home at the Grand Canyon of Arizona. He established a studio on the rim of the Grand Canyon where his paintings were sold by the Fred Harvey Company at El Tovar. He died in 1934, while standing on the rim of the canyon and is buried nearby.

Gunnar was a member of the California Watercolor Society and Scandinavian American Artists. Today, his paintings are in many private collections and can be viewed at many of the National Parks. He is considered to be one of America's greatest landscape painters.

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