Johann Berthelsen was a painter, lecturer and teacher who painted exquisitely rendered cityscapes and river views in and around New York City and was called a ''poetic painter'' by critics. By the year of his death, he was noted as a competent Impressionist and his charming inner city scenes were often compared with the work of Guy Wiggins and Childe Hassam. Ironically though, it was music not art, to which the artist originally aspired to be great. After Svend Svenson in Chicago and Wayman Adams in Indianapolis convinced him to paint, he decided to combine his love for music with art, he called his snowscapes “painted orchestrations” of Manhattan, in which people hurry through snowy streets dotted with buildings and American flags. He studied “the life” along the East River and often painted it showing the United Nations building.
A native of Copenhagen, Denmark, Berthelsen was six when his family immigrated to the United States in 1889. When he was 18, Berthelsen studied music and voice for four years at the Chicago Musical College from 1901-1905. Following this graduation, he toured the United States and Canada as lead baritone for the Grand Opera Company, after which he taught voice, first at his alma mater and then at the Indianapolis Conservatory or Music. In 1920, Berthelsen opened a private studio in New York City where he gave voice lessons and painted. He eventually became a member of the Salmagundi Club (NYC), Allied Artists of America and the American Water Color Society (NY). He won the Erskine Prize in 1928 at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Holcombe Prize in 1946 in Indianapolis. The Swope Art Museum gave him a retrospective exhibition in 1980. Although he devoted most of his time to singing and music, Berthelsen painted first for his own pleasure and then, after 1932, on a full-time basis. Berthelsen initially established his artistic reputation with his work in pastels. Working with small canvases, he found inspiration in New York's Central Park, rendering this subject most effectively in its seasonal transformations.
Berthelsen painted similar scenes in and of Chicago and they also met with critical and popular acclaim. Having achieved success as a pastellist, Berthelsen turned his attention to oils. He returned to the fundamentals of drawing in order to discover a technique appropriate to the medium. Berthelsen used a heavy impasto to almost palpably render his landscapes and his city and park snowscapes. Berthelsen also painted still lifes. Unlike his landscapes, these works again on small canvases-are clearly defined, with his colors ranging from bright to low key. Throughout his career he was a successful exhibitor and made a hefty living selling his canvases of Manhattan and by the time he died on April 3, 1972, collectors were actively seeking out his New York scenes. Today, he is one of the most popular painters of New York City and his paintings have become difficult to find because of the demand for them.
Reference: Who Was Who in American Art, p. 301, vol. 1; American Art Annual, 1947, 1953.