Johann Berthelsen was born in Copenhagen in 1883, but spent his formative years in Manitowoc. He then lived much of his adult life in New York City, where he painted the city snowscapes for which he became famous.The Rahr-West Art Museum owns the snowscape pictured here, “Brooklyn Bridge.” This painting, donated to the museum by Johann’s wife, Helenya, provided the connection with Johann’s son, Lee, and the Johann Berthelsen Conservancy, LCC in Milwaukee, which brought this exhibit to life.“We have always thought that the proper place to start an exhibition of my father’s work would be his hometown,” says Lee. A family connection between the Berthelsens and the Rahrs also makes the Manitowoc museum a fitting venue for the exhibit.According to Lee, Johann immigrated to Manitowoc with his family when he was just 7 years old. He spent his time as a protege in a local church pumping the organ and worked in a chair factory where a local newspaper reported he cut off one of his fingers with a bandsaw. The finger, which was successfully reattached, was on the hand he would later use to hold his paintbrush.
In Manitowoc, he also picked up his knowledge of boating, which he applied to his many New York maritime scenes. “He always felt very close to Manitowoc and his roots in Manitowoc and Wisconsin,” says Lee. “(Through this exhibit) I am returning my dad and his art to his hometown.”
Johann’s painting career took off while living in New York city during the Depression. When he could no longer feed his family by teaching voice lessons, Johann found that people would pay 50 cents to $1 for his paintings. “That was a big deal because that meant he could buy a loaf of bread,” says Lee.
From humble beginnings, Johann soon became world-renowned. During his lifetime, he met and painted for many stars including Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. Sinatra owns more than 30 of Johann’s paintings. Lee, who was home when his father met Louis Armstrong to discuss a painting for his wedding anniversary, says, “Within five minutes they were talking opera and symphonies. (Armstrong) was a very talented musician, who was versed in the classics, as well as jazz.”
Though he became known for his snowy New York City paintings, Berthelsen also was an accomplished opera singer and a professor of music. The exhibit will bring all of this work and history together to create a holistic image of Johann as a man and an artist.
“The aim is to get the visitor to know Berthelsen on an intimate level: not just the art, but the motivations behind the art and why he made the choices he did,” says Eva Kozerski, assistant director of the Rahr-West Art Museum.
For Lee, the exhibit is very personal. “I get to say ‘thank you’ to the people of Manitowoc, to the people of Wisconsin for the role played … in forming him,” says Lee.
The exhibit is sure to have something for everyone with history, music and and a wide variety of Johann’s work in oil, pastel, watercolor, monotype and charcoal depicting scenes from Wisconsin to New York. Come and appreciate the local artist who made it big, but still made it home.
— By Jennifer Clausing