At Large  June 1, 2022  Sheila Regan

Emily Abbott: Nordfeldt’s Widow & the Weisman Art Museum

Courtesy of Weisman Art Museum, bequest of Emily Abbott Nordfeldt, 1990.21.12

B.J.O. Nordfeldt, cropped view of Self-Portrait, 1940. Oil on canvas. 32 × 26 in.

The work of Swedish immigrant painter and printmaker Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt (1878-1955) offers a window into how American art ushered in Modernist ideas from Europe as it simultaneously cultivated its own identity.

B.J.O. Nordfeldt: American Internationalist, on view at the Weisman Art Museum, features work from WAM and fifteen museum and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Hirshhorn Museum, and the University of New Mexico Art Museum. The exhibition also highlights an artist whose family played a small but important role in shaping the institution that WAM is today.

Nordfelt immigrated to the United States as a teenager, later attending the Art Institute of Chicago. He’d go on to apprentice in New York and further his studies in London and Paris, and worked for a time in Europe and North Africa. He practiced and taught around the United States, and became known for the expressive brushwork and striking emotion on view in his portraits, maritime scenes, and landscapes.

Photo courtesy of the Weatherspoon Art Museum, UNC Greensboro.

B. J. O. Nordfeldt, Chicago, 1912. Oil on canvas. 43 x 37 in.

Diane Mullin, senior curator at the Weisman, says the museum has been looking at the contours of its American art collection in recent years. “We’ve been looking more at the breadth of it, and one of the things that’s come up quite a bit is about the notion of immigrants and their role in American Art,” she says.

The Weisman holds the largest collection of Nordfeldt’s work in the country, in part, Mullin explains, because of the relationship his widow had with the University of Minnesota.

Emily Abbott Nordfeldt was also an artist. She met Nordfeldt when he was teaching at the Minneapolis School of Art, where she was his student. After he moved from Minneapolis, they lost touch but re-kindled their correspondence in 1944. Over letters and whimsical drawings, their romance blossomed, and eventually, the two married.

Courtesy of the Weisman Art Museum.

B.J.O. Nordfeldt, Robert Riedel, 1911-12. Oil on canvas.

Emily became a strong supporter and advocate for her husband’s work, during his life and after his death, in 1955. She donated works to institutions across the country, including a large number of works to the University of Minnesota.

She had quite a few ties with the University. According to Lyndel King, former director and chief curator of WAM (from 1981 to 2020), Emily’s father was a law professor and she took classes there herself for some time. Her feeling of closeness to the University compelled her to advocate for a bigger, better home for art on the University of Minnesota campus.

Before Frank Gehry designed WAM’s iconic building in the 1990s overlooking the Mississippi River, the university’s collection of art was held in a small gallery space known as the University of Minnesota Gallery, on the fourth floor of Northrop Auditorium.

The rooms had low ceilings, no climate control, and no passenger elevator. Crates and stands for sculptures had to be carried up three flights of stairs by hand.

King calls Emily a “true blue” supporter of the museum, adding “She knew all about all the things we had to overcome to actually do anything with that space."

Courtesy of the Weisman Art Museum.

B.J.O. Nordfeldt, Harvesting with the 1831 McCormick Reaper, 1899-1900. Oil on canvas. 

Emily wrote a letter to a potential benefactor, Frederick R. Weisman, at the suggestion of King. In the foreword of the exhibition catalog, King included an excerpt from Emily’s letter:
“It is shocking (as you may know) that the Permanent Collection is in storage because there is no room for exhibitions of the collection… We have two excellent museums in Minneapolis but they do not fulfill the purpose of a University Museum, which should be on campus, available and convenient for students and scholars.”

The letter struck a chord, and Weisman responded:
"So much of what you have written reflects my own thinking, i.e. a Permanent Collection does not belong in storage, it belongs on walls for the public to view and appreciate….”

Like Emily, Weisman spent time in Minnesota as a young person. “I think kind of like Emily, the University of Minnesota was kind of a nostalgic place for him that reminded him of his youth,” King says. “And I think maybe that quality of her correspondence maybe really touched him in a visceral way.”

Ultimately, Weisman donated $3 million in support of the construction of WAM's home on campus.

For King, having Nordfeldt’s work re-examined for its contributions to Modernism is the end of a journey begun by the artist’s widow. “She was so devoted to making sure that his work was placed in museums, and that his work was given the appropriate attention,” King says. “And I just want to say, Emily, we did it.”

About the Author

Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a freelance journalist and arts and dance critic based in Minneapolis. She regularly writes about dance for the Star Tribune, in addition to writing for local and regional publications such as City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, and the Southwest Journal. Her byline has appeared in Hyperallergic, ArtForum, Artnet News, Bomb, LitHub, High Country News, as well as the Washington Post and The Lily.

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