In 1929 another well known Swedish artist arrived in Kayenta. Gunnar Widforss was four days shy of his fiftieth birthday when he checked in at the Wetherill-Colville Guest Ranch on October 17. Amiable and outgoing, unlike his fellow countryman Carl Oscar Borg he would never be described by anyone as a Viking. Short, balding, with a ruddy complexion and thick glasses that “completely dominated” his angular face, his good natured but absent minded demeanor, combined with his attire of knee breeches, high laced boots and necktie, led most of those forming first impressions to guess his occupation as a schoolteacher or archeologist. Indeed, his physical appearance and thick Swedish accent may have led few to even develop a curiosity about his profession or identity. But to those who knew him well there was universal agreement on his status in his chosen field. He was, quite simply, the best watercolorist in America.
Although both had been born in the same year in the same land, Widforss’s life had been as charmed as Borg’s was tumultuous. The son of a Stockholm merchant, Widforss grew up receiving acceptance and encouragement from both parents. His maternal grandmother taught graphic art at the Swedish State School of Arts, Crafts and Design – an unusual position in late nineteenth century Sweden for a woman. His mother was a talented amateur artist. His father, “stern though indulgent,” instilled a sense of discipline and order that would in time help his son develop his inherent talent to the highest level.
Widforss’s family connections led to an apprenticeship to a well known decorator while he was still in grammar school. In 1896 he entered Stockholm’s Royal Technical Institute. While Borg was nearly starving in the streets of London, Widforss was still living at home, diligently finishing his studies.
After graduating, he was given a journeyman’s certificate as a decorative painter for the city of Stockholm. He spent the next eighteen months assisting another decorator in St. Petersburg, Russia restoring church paintings. During this time he made several sketches of Russian life. Just as Borg’s early portraits on wrapping paper at a London mission had instilled him with the confidence to aim for higher endeavors, the feedback Widforss received from his Russian drawings convinced him he was destined for much more than commercial work. He too resolved to someday become a great artist.
After returning home Widforss started his own decorating business. Aided by his family’s connections and money the business prospered, but he found the work routine and unsatisfying. He yearned to be a fine artist. In 1904 he left Sweden to follow his dream, embarking on an extended trip throughout southern Europe, New York, Florida and New Orleans. When funds became tight he would find employment as a house painter or decorator, but only for short periods of time. He made it a practice to always return full time to his artistic efforts whenever his savings exceeded $25.
In 1908 Widforss returned to Sweden where he spent the next year studying the old masters’ paintings in the galleries and museums of Stockholm. He then departed on a second extended trip through central Europe and North Africa. It was during this time his artistic voice and identity emerged, defined by both his preference of landscapes as a subject matter and his choice of watercolor as a medium.
Widforss was an inordinately disciplined man, able to apply his artistic efforts for long, uninterrupted periods of time. The result was a mastery of a difficult medium, the level of which has been achieved by very few. Using daubs instead of broad strokes, combining opaque paints with transparent, his techniques combined with his skillful technical proficiency result in a signature style that gained admirers the world over.
In 1912, one year before Borg’s breakout exhibition in Paris, Widforss was featured in two exhibitions in the same city. Both shows were major successes. Several of his paintings were acquired by King Gustav of Sweden and Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Duchess Nathalie of Oldenburg convinced his home town of Stockholm to acquire two paintings for their city hall. After more than ten years of hard work Widforss had become an overnight success.
One can only wonder if Widforss would have chosen to stay in Europe but not for the outbreak of World War I. While Borg returned to America as quickly as circumstances permitted, Widforss served for a brief compulsory stint in the Swedish army, then spent the rest of the war years touring Scandinavia. After the war ended he spent a few years in central Europe before deciding to travel to the Orient by way of the United States. However, like Borg, once he reached California he saw no reason to go any further.
While Swinnerton’s safari members were making their way to Kayenta in the late summer of 1922, Widforss was exploring the remotest areas of Yosemite. Shortly afterward his work came to the attention of Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. Mather convinced Widforss to specialize in painting the national parks. Widforss agreed, and in December of 1924 was given a one man exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Gallery Director W. H. Holmes noted Widforss was “possibly the greatest watercolorist in America today.”
After leaving Sweden, Widforss supported himself solely through the sale and barter of his art. Unlike Borg, he never cultivated a wealthy benefactor. Nor did he need one. He lived a simple life, acquiring only what he needed to get by. His “little Ford,” which carried him to his favorite painting locations, was his primary worldly pleasure. Howe Williams, coordinator for the Arizona Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), recalled “Widforss lived in a hermit-like simplicity and aloofness; but always genial and well beloved by those who knew him. For months at a time he lived in a tent on the south rim of the canyon with an occasional excursion in his car to the far northern rim.” In time, he became known to many of the locals in the Grand Canyon area as “Weedy.”
Widforss was as contented a man as Borg was a restless one. But one doctrine the two held in common was their belief in art as a religious calling. Both believed their best works were a form of spiritual expression.
There were those who criticized Widforss’s paintings as being strictly representational – “mere reproductions” of what he saw. (In fact, there still are. One recently published criticism described his style as “naïve realism”). But such critiques are made by those insistent on applying simplistic labels to works of wonder. Legendary Hopi artist and teacher Fred Kabotie observed of Widforss: “When you look at one of his paintings you always know what kind of day it was, just what the weather was like. You hear the aspen leaves and smell the pine needles – it feels like you’re right there.”
Still, the criticism came from many directions. An unidentified, “famous” Taos artist allegedly once said “If he just wouldn’t copy nature so closely he’d be the greatest living painter in America.”
Fortunately,(or unfortunately depending on one’s tastes) Widforss ignored the advice. Like Swinnerton, he rarely included figures or any other signs of humanity in his American paintings. His rationale was the same. He saw no point in trying to improve on God’s creation. He was more than “content to play the humble role of an interpreter.”
Yet his was very much a personal interpretation. As one reviewer noted, perhaps Widforss’ greatest strength was in his simplicity of composition. “He selects with judgment and never attempts too much.”9 Unlike Dixon, Borg, or Swinnerton, Widforss made no effort to convey the immensity of the vast open spaces of the Colorado Plateau. Only sections, or narrow viewpoints, of broader subjects were typically portrayed – the deepest part of the aspen grove instead of the entire forest, the stone fireplace at Hermit’s Rest instead of the whole camp, the pyramidal summit at Breezy Point instead of the entire peak. Perhaps nothing illustrates this as well as his entry in the guest book at Kayenta. The entire page is filled with only the top one third of Agathla Needle. If not given the context of the Wetherill’s guest book, the untitled subject matter would likely leave one guessing about the location.
The same year that Widforss visited Kayenta, W. R. Leigh spent a month on the canyon’s south rim. He found it a frustrating experience. “I struggle in mad haste to utilize the moment, but ah! How futile! How hopeless! …What a wretched makeshift these paltry pigments!” He believed it not only challenged his artistic abilities to the fullest, it outright mocked and defied his “puny efforts.”
Noted woodblock artist Gustave Baumann shared Leigh’s sense of futility, calling the canyon an “artist’s nightmare.” Walking away in frustration, he declared it an impossible task. “You see a wonderful composition and when you look back, it’s gone.”
But to Widforss, ever the disciplinarian, the answer was derived from the consistent application of effort. Like a Roadrunner foraging through his territory, he was usually at the same location at the same time every day. He could often be found at “Pima Point from 9 AM to 10 AM, Hopi Point from eleven to noon, and at Yaki Point from 3 to 4.” It was a routine which would go unchanged for weeks.
Unlike most well known Canyon painters, he did not hug the south rim. He would frequently descend the Bright Angel Trail all the way to the canyon floor, painting the landscape from different vantage points and angles. His adept skill as a colorist enabled him to successfully capture moments in time rather than just straightforward chronicles of the landscape.
In the late 1920s his love for the American West finally convinced him to become a U.S. citizen. It was a status he officially realized three months prior to his arrival at the Wetherill-Colville Guest Ranch. Like Borg, Widforss’ reasons for visiting are not known. Even more mysterious is the apparent lack of enthusiasm for the local scenery. As with Borg, the author has yet to catalog any paintings by Widforss of Tsegi Canyon, Black Mesa or any of the other scenes around Kayenta which so many of his contemporaries found inspiring. There is only one known Widforss painting of Monument Valley. Apparently even Canyon De Chelly, one of Borg’s favorites, did not beckon. He did create several paintings of Mesa Verde around this time, and it is entirely possible Kayenta was just a stopover on his way from the Canyon to southwestern Colorado. But of the over 150 paintings itemized in Widforss’ estate when he died, not one title has Four Corners subject matter.
It may have been a simple matter of commercial considerations. By now, Widforss had cultivated a following as a painter of the National Parks. Undoubtedly most of his clients sought his paintings of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. But then why visit Kayenta in the first place? It was still “a damn long ways from anywhere, in any direction.” As early as the mid-1920s, there were rumors of the National Park Service pushing for legislation to have Navajo National Monument expanded to include Monument Valley and Rainbow Bridge, and changed to a National Park. Perhaps the talk alone was enough to entice Widforss to make the trek.
Then again, he may have just been taking the scenic route to Mesa Verde, seeking an opportunity to meet with one of the original explorers of the region’s most important cliff dwellings on the way.
According to Carl Oscar Borg’s biographer Helen Laird, Borg was the product of a generation of “poor Scandinavian sons who had suffered in childhood with their patient, uncomplaining, but obviously unhappy mothers. Many such sons married late or not at all.” Borg married late – twice. Widforss married not at all. Widforss apparently came to Kayenta alone. Where he went when he left, or even in which direction he was headed, remains unknown.
Widforss returned again on November 14, 1932, this time accompanied by Ansel Hall, Chief Forester for the National Park Service. Again, Widforss’s purpose in making the trek is unknown. It is known Hall, one of the National Park Service’s most important historical figures for his role in initiating and developing the interpretive programs, decided after his meeting with John Wetherill to begin organizing and procuring funding for the 1933-34 expeditions of Rainbow Bridge and Monument Valley. The result was the area’s first interdisciplinary expedition, whose objective was to “explore, research, and record data about this fascinating region of the anciently inhabited Southwest.”
That “Weedy” was accompanied by an important official from the National Park Service (NPS) on his second visit makes the dearth of any Widforss paintings featuring local subject matter all the more intriguing. He even refrained from making any sort of artistic contribution to the guest book. The inscription consisted solely of his signature, followed by his residence which he noted simply as “Grand Canyon.”
“Grand Canyon.” Gunnar Widforss
Watercolor. 19” x 22”. C.1924.
Collection of Doreen and David Picerne.
“Grand Canyon of Arizona.” Gunnar Widforss
Watercolor. 17” x 19”. C.1928.
Collection of Doreen and David Picerne
“Breezy Point.” Gunnar Widforss
Watercolor. 12” x 11”. C.1926.
Collection of Doreen and David Picerne
“Hopi Point-Grand Canyon.” Gunnar Widforss
Watercolor. 16” x 12”. C.1926.
Collection of Doreen and David Picerne
Gunnar Widforss-Entry in the Wetherill-Colville
Guest Ranch registry. October 1929.
Courtesy of John and Louisa Wetherill Collection.
“Monument Valley.” Gunnar Widforss
Watercolor. 15” x 19”. C.1932.
Courtesy of Gouldings Lodge and Tours.
“Lone Sentinal-Grand Canyon.” Gunnar Widforss
Watercolor. 20” x 24”. C.1930.
Courtesy of Henry Lockett.
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