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Gausta, Herbjorn (1854–1924)

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Harmony Area Historical Society
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Portrait of Herbjorn Gausta

Portrait of Herbjorn Gausta by Robert Koehler, 1915.

Herbjorn Nilsen Gausta, one of the first Norwegian American professional artists, gained critical acclaim during the late nineteenth century for creating images of landscapes, people, and daily Norwegian American life. He may be best known, however, for his religious work, which comprises over 400 rural church altar paintings.

Herbjorn Gausta was born on June 16, 1854, in Tinn, Telemark, Norway. In 1867 he immigrated with his family to America, where his parents purchased a farm outside the growing village of Harmony, Minnesota. Herbjorn maintained a close relationship with his family and the town until he died, even choosing to be buried there.

In 1872, Gausta enrolled in a parochial school training program at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His teachers encouraged him to pursue a career as an artist. An early supporter was Ulrik Vilhelm Koren, a Lutheran minister who served northeast Iowa and southeast Minnesota. Koren recognized Gausta’s potential. He raised funds for him to travel to Norway and enroll in an Oslo art school. Gausta left America in 1875, then became a student at the Bergslien School of Painting.

After finishing courses in Oslo, Gausta remained in Europe. He traveled, painted, and took additional art classes. He then enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, where he was awarded an academy medal for his exceptional work.

Gausta returned to America in 1882. He lived in several cities before returning to Decorah, where he created altar paintings for rural churches in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. His first altar painting was commissioned in 1884, possibly for the church in Greenfield Prairie, his hometown congregation. He charged $75 to $200 for an altar painting.

Gausta taught art courses at Luther College from 1886 to 1887, during which time he lived with Reverend Koren and his family at the Washington Prairie Parsonage. He moved to Minneapolis in 1888 and purchased a private studio. In 1889, a fire destroyed the studio and over 100 of his earliest creations. Despite this setback, Gausta continued to paint. His “Farmer’s Daughter” won best in class during one art exhibition. He also participated in the 1890, 1891, and 1893 Minneapolis Industrial Exposition Art Exhibitions.

In 1894, Gausta teamed with fellow artists Robert Koehler, Alexis Jean Fournier, and Alexander Grinager to create the Minneapolis Art League, which promoted and organized art exhibitions showcasing local artistic talent. Its first art show was held in 1896 at a small Minneapolis gallery. The following two exhibits were held in Koehler’s home. The third, in 1897, was held at the Minneapolis Public Library. Over a two-week period, two thousand people viewed the eighty-two pieces of art, which consisted of charcoals, oils, pastels, and watercolors.

In 1905, Gausta participated in the Minnesota State Art Society’s second annual Minnesota State Art Exhibit. Although the exhibit was held in Winona, a special preview was hosted at the new Minnesota State Capitol. Due to interest in Cass Gilbert’s new building, crafted in the Italian Renaissance and Beaux-Arts styles, hundreds of people attended the event. Gausta selected his “Fishing Village” for the exhibition.

According to one of Gausta’s art professors, quoted in Olof Nickolaus Nelson’s History of the Scandinavians and Successful Scandinavians of the United States, the artist was a talented but unassuming man. “He does not know how to advertise or put himself forward,” the professor said, “but he is one of the best Scandinavian artists in this country; his landscapes are beautiful, original and natural.”

As he aged, Gausta retained a deep affection for his boyhood home, often spending summers on his family’s farm; the landscape surrounding Harmony continued to inspire him to create paintings. He died on May 22, 1924, in Minneapolis. His funeral was held there, but he was buried in Harmony at Greenfield Lutheran Cemetery. A sixteen-foot granite monument was erected at his gravesite in 1927.

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Edwards, Lee M. Domestic Bliss: Family Life in American Painting, 1840–1910. East Syracuse, NY: Salina Press, 1986.

Greiner, Lissa. “Washington Prairie Volunteers Uncover More Than Spirit of Giving: Historic Gausta Paintings Discovered During Renovation of Parsonage.” Decorah Newspapers, April 2, 2009.
https://decorahnewspapers.com/Content/News/Local-News/Article/Washington-Prairie-volunteers-uncover-more-than-spirit-of-giving-/2/10/19542

Harris, Leo J. “Before the Museums Came: A Social History of The Fine Arts in the Twin Cities.” London: Versita, 2013.

Johnson, Millicent Yates. Let’s Have Harmony: A Centennial History. Rochester, MN: Davies Printing, 1996.

Nelson, Marion John. “Minnesota Painters of Norwegian Background, 1870–1970.” Minnesota History 57, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 74–85.
http://collections.mnhs.org/mnhistorymagazine/articles/57/v57i02p074-085.pdf

Nelson, Olof Nickolaus. History of the Scandinavians and Successful Scandinavians in the United States. Vols. I and II. Second revised edition. Minneapolis: O. N. Nelson, 1900.

“One Hundredth Anniversary, 1856–1956: History of Greenfield Evangelical Lutheran Church.” Greenfield Lutheran Church.
http://greenfieldlutheran.com/100-year-anniversary/

Vanderplas, Melissa. “Historical Society Plans Art Tour to Area Churches.” Fillmore County News Leader, September 26, 2016.

Related Images

Portrait of Herbjorn Gausta
Portrait of Herbjorn Gausta
Painting of Washington Prairie Parsonage
Painting of Washington Prairie Parsonage
Painting by Herbjorn Gausta titled “Grace Before the Meal,” 1880–1889.
Painting by Herbjorn Gausta titled “Grace Before the Meal,” 1880–1889.
Painting by Herbjorn Gausta titled “Grace Before the Meal,” 1880–1889.
Painting by Herbjorn Gausta titled “Grace Before the Meal,” 1880–1889.
Painting by Herbjorn Gausta titled “Young Mother,” 1885.
Painting by Herbjorn Gausta titled “Young Mother,” 1885.
 Scheie Lutheran Church altar painting
 Scheie Lutheran Church altar painting
Altar Painting by Herbjorn Gausta
Altar Painting by Herbjorn Gausta
Painting by Herbjorn Gausta titled “The Good Shepherd,” 1885–1895.
Painting by Herbjorn Gausta titled “The Good Shepherd,” 1885–1895.
Painting of a Southern Minnesota lake scene by Herbjorn Gausta
Painting of a Southern Minnesota lake scene by Herbjorn Gausta
Painting of a farm landscape by Herbjorn Gausta
Painting of a farm landscape by Herbjorn Gausta
Painting by Herbjorn Gausta of a natural spring
Painting by Herbjorn Gausta of a natural spring
Painting titled "Mending The Net" by Herbjorn Gausta
Painting titled "Mending The Net" by Herbjorn Gausta
Photograph of an altar painting in Elstad Lutheran Church by Herbjorn Gausta
Photograph of an altar painting in Elstad Lutheran Church by Herbjorn Gausta

Turning Point

In 1884, Herbjorn Gausta is hired to create his first church altar painting for a rural Minnesota church, possibly his hometown congregation in Greenfield Prairie.

Chronology

1854

Herbjorn Nilsen Gausta is born in Vestjorddalen, Telemark, Norway.

1867

Gausta and his family immigrate to the United States and settle on a farm near Harmony.

1872

Gausta begins a training program for parochial teachers at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

1875

Gausta leaves for Norway to study at the Bergslien School of Painting.

1878

Gausta studies at the Munich Academy of Art, winning a medal for exceptional work.

1882

Gausta returns to America.

1884

Gausta receives his first commission for a rural Minnesota church altar painting.

1886

Gausta teaches at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

1888

Gausta moves to Minneapolis and opens an art studio.

1889

A fire destroys Gausta’s art studio and several of his early works.

1890

Gausta begins showcasing his paintings in Minnesota art exhibits.

1894

Gausta helps organize the Minneapolis Art League with fellow artists Robert Koehler, Alexis Jean Fournier and Alexander Grinager.

1924

Gausta dies in Minneapolis and is buried in Harmony.

1927

A sixteen-foot obelisk granite monument is erected at Gausta’s grave site.