When I think of Swedish artists, my mind immediately goes to master painter, Anders Zorn. So when my boss, Linda Wehrli suggested Isaac Grünewald for our next Art History 101 blog, I was pleased to discover another famous Swedish painter! Creativity must run in their blood because I was immediately drawn to his playful palette and modernist style. Since we are in the midst of celebrating Hanukkah, Linda thought it apropos to pay tribute to the artist’s Jewish heritage! He and his wife reaped success in the face of anti-semitism. We hope you enjoy this introduction to master painter Isaac Grünewald, his beautiful paintings and story of triumph over adversity.

Artist Isaac Grünewald was a Swedish-Jewish expressionist painter born in Stockholm, Sweden on September 2, 1889. He was the leading and central name in the first generation of Swedish modernists from 1910 up until his death in 1946, so basically for his entire life! In addition to being an artist, he was also a writer and public speaker. 

Having studied at an influential Swedish art school for three years, at the age 19, Grünewald traveled with his artist friends, Einar Jolin and Einar Nerman to Paris where they soon began studies at Henri Matisse‘s academy, The Academie Matisse. (Wow, to have studied with Matisse!!) In 1909, he gained recognition in his homeland when he exhibited his work with a group of Scandinavian artists known as The Young Ones.

Grünewald met his future wife Sigrid Hjertén in 1909 and encouraged her to study painting with him in Paris. Having married in 1911, Grünewald and Hjertén regularly exhibited together at home and abroad. Talk about #CouplesGoals.

Art historians nowadays often cite them as being responsible for introducing modernism to Sweden. At a time in history when anti-Semitism was both widespread and politically correct, and women artists were looked down upon, their works were often the subject of ridicule in the press. In fact, recent research has shown that Grünewald was the number one target of anti-Semitism in the Swedish press between 1910 and 1926.

Unfortunately, because of his role as the leading and most controversial pioneer in Swedish modernism in his days, he is still sometimes portrayed as a Jewish caricature, with insinuations of not having earned his success fairly. In Swedish journalism and literature, he is sometimes portrayed as an insignificant “Matisse imitator” as an artist, but a genius as a businessman. Despite all of this, Grünewald began reaping major commercial successes.

In the 1920s, Grünewald created stage designs for the Royal Swedish Opera and other theaters. He decorated the walls and ceiling in the minor hall (since renamed Grünewald Hall) at the Stockholm Concert Hall, site of the Nobel Prize ceremony, and in 1928 the walls of the Matchstick Palace.

Even more impressive, Grünewald’s work was part of the painting event in the art competition at the 1932 Summer Olympics!

Between 1932 and 1942,  Grünewald was a professor at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, and in 1941 he opened his own art school. During the WWII, he worked at the renowned Rörstrand porcelain factory. Talk about busy! He then was awarded the Prince Eugen Medal in 1945, which was founded to commemorate the 80th birthday of Prince Eugen and is awarded for outstanding artistic achievement. Well deserved!

Sadly, his wife Sigrid Hjertén suffered from lifelong mental health problems that resulted in her being hospitalized permanently. Grünewald divorced in 1937 and remarried. In 1946 he and his second wife Märta Grundell were killed in an airplane crash. Grünewald was the father of three sons born in 1910, 1911 and 1940.

Although Grünewald battled many obstacles throughout his life, it is evident that he made a lasting impression in the art world, especially for Swedish modernism. According to the Swedish copyright organization BUS, Grünewald is still the single artist whose sales bring the highest yearly income to Swedish art dealers among the modernists. At Stockholm auctionists Bukowski‘s spring auction in 2009, one of Grünewald’s lesser known paintings was sold for 2,65 million crowns – about $340,000 US dollars. Not too shabby!

We hope you were inspired learning about this remarkable artist and his work. And for those who celebrate, a Happy Hanukkah!

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Art History 101 reviews selected artists from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to share on your favorite social media. Comments appreciated! If there is an artist you would like us to feature, please comment below. Thank you for your support!

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