What makes Bror Nordfeldt’s Summer Dusk (Solitude) a masterpiece
By Chadd Scott
Bror Nordfeldt "Summer Dusk (Solitude)" c. 1920 | Photo by Chadd Scott
Those of us who love the West and Western art, but live “out East,” are often left eating our hearts out at Instagram posts of Sonoran sunsets or stories online detailing the latest museum exhibition 2,000 miles away for beloved artists. I say “our” because I live just outside of Jacksonville, FL. I make it “out West” a few times a year, always looking forward to my next visit.
Imagine my surprise then upon entering “American Made: Paintings and Sculpture from the DeMell Jacobsen Collection” at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville and coming face-to-face with one of the finest Western landscape paintings I’ve ever seen. Among the roughly 100 paintings and sculptures, it struck me instantly. A genuine slice of the West in the East.
Bror Nordfeldt’s Summer Dusk (Solitude) from 1920 is roughly three feet square. The nocturne depicts a rider with bowed head on a donkey under a harvest moon against the backdrop of northern New Mexico’s mountains. The figure is weary. We imagine he’s been in the saddle for hours. Maybe days. His shoulders, like that of his mount, are stooped. The sun has long since set, yet still, they forge on.
I imagine they’re headed home. What other reason could there be to push so hard for so long?
The paint handling is loose and rich. Up close, a heavy impasto gives the picture a textural feel.
An inky sky is interspersed by thin clouds. Moonlight reflects off the mountain peaks. Moody blue. Pine trees are represented by inverted green “V’s” the way a child might do it.
For those of us fortunate enough to have experienced northern New Mexico, fortunate enough to love it, Nordfeldt (1878-1955) masterfully captures the feel. “Haunting beauty and isolation” as museum wall text explains. I’ll buy that.
This is no easy trick as I’ve written about before. Particularly for a Swede! Imagine how different the landscape Nordfeldt grew up with appears from that of this painting.
Bror Nordfeldt was not an artist I was familiar with prior to seeing the work.
He emigrated to Chicago in 1891 and enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1899. For the next 10 years he would study and practice his craft in Chicago and Europe. In 1919 he moved to Santa Fe where he would spend the next 20 years.
This was the period during which northern New Mexico became a pilgrimage site for America’s avant-garde painters. Nordfeldt was among the first wave.
Marsden Hartley visited Santa Fe and Taos at the exact same time. This was just after the Taos Society of Artists was founded in 1915. Leading American modernist Stuart Davis spent the summer of 1923 in New Mexico. Georgia O’Keeffe began visiting in 1929.
The DeMell Jacobsen Collection
The DeMell Jacobsen Collection is one of the finest private assemblies of American art. Pieces have hung at The Met and the Smithsonian.
“One of the things I tried to do was find masterpieces, but not necessarily the most well-known artists; I want people to know the full depth and breadth of our artistic and cultural heritage,” Diane DeMell Jacobsen said of her collecting focus while she and I spoke in front of Summer Dusk (Solitude). “For me, I look at this painting and it makes me tired. This guy’s been working all day and he’s trying to cross that mountain and he’s tired. The vibrancy and the impasto, it’s just beautiful.”
She acquired the painting from a Christie’s auction.
Her collection spans 200 years from the Colonial Period to today. Included are portraits of George and Martha Washington along with circus workers and laborers. Big names – Thomas Cole, Robert Henri, Hartley – are comingled with artists like Nordfeldt yet to receive widespread acclaim.
“There are a lot of definitions of what constitutes a masterpiece,” DeMell Jacobsen said. “My definition is not how detailed a painting is, how many objects are in it, it’s what it does to me. It takes your breath away. You get this ‘ah ha’ moment and then you say, ‘oh my God, it’s really terrific.’ It is that overall, overwhelming reaction.”
By that criteria, Summer Dusk (Solitude) is a masterpiece. To me anyway. And Jacobsen. And I’d be willing to bet anyone else “out East” longing to be “out West.”