Swedish postage stamp features Krans at right (https://czeslawslania.org/sw1986/).

Three paintings by Olof Krans have been donated by the Merle and Barbra Glick estate to the Bishop Hill State Historic Site, in Henry County near the Quad-Cities. Merle Glick, who was active in numerous civic and community institutions in the Peoria area including the Peoria Riverfront Museum, coordinated a 2014 exhibition and catalog of the 19th-century Swedish-American primitive painter’s work.

According to a press release today from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which administers the state’s historic sites since former Gov. Bruce Rauner eliminated the historic preservation agency, the paintings are “Salja By [town], Sweden,” “Olsson Farm in Sweden II,” and “Prairie Grove” to the state museum at Bishop Hill. The Glick family previously donated five other artworks to the Bishop Hill State Historic Site. A DNR spokesman gave details:

A nationally known expert on Illinois folk art, Merle Glick was a strong advocate for Krans’ art. In 2014, he coordinated an exhibition of Krans paintings at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. His work on the exhibit included the first publication of a complete catalog of Krans’ works.

Painted between 1900 to 1901, each of the paintings provide a window into the life of Olof Krans and Bishop Hill. “Salja By, Sweden” depicts the Alfta Parish Church in Sweden. “Olsson Farm in Sweden II” features the farm where the Krans family resided prior to emigration. “Prairie Grove” features a large broken tree in the foreground with a small grove of trees in the background. The scene is believed to have been present in the Bishop Hill-Galva area at the time of its painting.

They’re now on display at the Bishop Hill Museum, which is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The paintings are part of 108 artworks by Olof Krans currently on display.

The Olof Krans collection is a remarkable window into 19th-century Americana — featuring everything from portraits of Civil War soldiers to local landscapes and settlers in the Bishop Hill religious colony — and Bishop Hill is quite a treasure. It’s where my interest in Swedish-American immigrant history was kindled, and it’s a wonderful place to buy good strong coffee and Swedish-style rye bread. (The Colony Store even had tubes of Kalles Kaviar, a Swedish delicacy perhaps best appreciated by those who already have a taste for unusual Scandinavian food products, the last time I visited.) It’s also historically significant.

Founded in 1846 by Swedish religious dissidents, the colony attracted other settlers from Sweden to west central Illinois and became an early focal point for Swedish immigration. It is better known in Sweden, perhaps, than it is in the United States. And in 1988, the 350th anniversary of Swedish emigration to America, the Swedish postal service issued a commemorative stamp (shown at the top of this page) featuring several colony buildings and a self-portrait of Olof Krans. It’s quite a piece of art, too, by engraver Czeslaw Slania of Poland and Sweden.

There’s not much information available in this country on Krans. Wikipedia has a pretty good writeup, and Martha Jan Downey of the Illinois Historical Art Project has a detailed, meticulously researched biography that somehow manages to be both entertaining and historically accurate. She says, with some justification:

The paintings by Olof Krans have taken their place in the permanent collection of material culture preserving the history of the Bishop Hill Colony under the stewardship of the [then-]Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. This collection has given Krans a reputation beyond that of a typical small town artist and assured his place as one of Illinois’ outstanding folk artists.

More than that, Downey includes enough circumstantial detail, including a number of items from the Galva Weekly News in the 1870s and 1880s, to support that claim. She also notes a flurry of interest in his work by regional and Works Project Administration artists in the 1930s, and quotes the director of the National Museum in Stockholm, Bengt Dahlback: “The paintings of Olof Krans … are not only interesting documents for the early history of this settlement but also important works of art by a genuinely naïve artist.”

(Downey’s article also has a wonderful side-by-side comparison of a contemporary photo of Krans with the self-portrait! Definitely worth a look.)

Another good source of information that might be hard to find elsewhere is a 2014 article in the Peoria Journal-Star, written when the Peoria Riverfront Museum opened an exhibition of Krans’ work. Leslie Renken of the Journal-Star wrote:

“It is rare to have this kind of extensive documentation from a community from this time period,” said Kristan McKinsey, curator at the Peoria Riverfront Museum where “Olof Krans: Painter of Bishop Hill” will be on exhibit through Feb. 22.

In addition to Krans’ paintings, the exhibit features artifacts from everyday life in Bishop Hill — cooking implements, a trunk, and a bible table. There will even be some currency that was used in the colony.

“It was printed in Bishop Hill, and it is uncut,” said McKinsey.

Renken also shed light on Martha Downey and Merle Glick, whose just-published catalog of Krans’ paintings was featured in the Peoria exhibition:

“He’s been a long-time fan of Olof Krans,” said Martha Downey, the superintendent of the Bishop Hill state Historic Site. “He’s always wanted to do a catalog documenting Krans’ work, and so he finally said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Glick donated funds and oversaw the creation of the book “The Art of Olof Krans: A Prairie Vision,” a comprehensive survey of the artist’s work. Newly published, the book is being celebrated by the Riverfront Museum exhibit. In addition to full color photographs of almost all of Krans’ work, the book features essays by Martha Downey and Chicago art historian Esther Sparks.

Some of the quotes in Renken’s J-Star article shed still more light on Krans, and on why his paintings are of more than routine historical interest. So I’ll let her have the last word:

Krans was a painter in every sense of the word — if it needed paint, he was your man. Krans painted houses and store signs, but he was also known for his skill with decorative painting techniques popular in civic buildings and home interiors. People also paid him to create paintings from favorite images.

“He was known as being a wizard with a brush,” said Downey. Krans achieved local notoriety in 1895 after painting Bishop Hill as it appeared in 1865 on stage curtains for the community’s town hall.

“The community loved it,” said Downey. “The following year he did some of his memory paintings that were praised in newspaper accounts.” Krans donated his paintings to the town — each year he added more. The collection is now in the Bishop Hill State Historic Site museum.

Links and Citations

Martha Jan Downey, “Olof Krans (1838 – 1916),” Illinois Historical Art Project https://www.illinoisart.org/olaf-krans.

Vicente López, The Art of Czeslaw Slania https://czeslawslania.org/sw1986/.

Merle Glick, obituary, Peoria Journal-Star, Nov. 11, 2014 https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/pjstar/name/merle-glick-obituary?id=16583497.

“Olof Krans folk paintings donated to Bishop Hill State Historic Site,” press release, May 26, 2022, Illinois Department of Natural Resources https://www.illinois.gov/news/press-release.24963.html.

Leslie Renkin, “Peoria Riverfront Museum looks back at mid-1800s Bishop Hill with Olof Krans exhibit,” Peoria Journal-Star, Oct. 11, 2014 https://www.pjstar.com/story/entertainment/local/2014/10/11/peoria-riverfront-museum-looks-back/36191066007/.

[Published May 28, 2022]

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