A powerful Icelandic-American art force

Holger Cahill (1887-1960), formerly Sveinn Kristján Bjarnasson

Image courtesy of Norway Art®
Holger Cahill’s hometown is here in the green mountains of Northwest Iceland as depicted in this painting. Inquiries about availability may be directed by telephoning Norway Art® at (612) 339-7829.

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On a plane from the United States to Norway, I was settled in my preferred window seat as we flew high over the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly the loudspeaker came on with an announcement from the pilot: “This is Captain Jacobson. In a few minutes, Greenland and Iceland will be visible from the left side of the plane.” Sure enough, there they were, far below my window, outlined like their map images. Surprisingly, Greenland looked icy and white, while Iceland appeared very green!

The green mountains and blue water of northwest Iceland were the home of the Bjarn­arsson family, who emigrated from there about 1890. Little Sveinn Kristján Bjarn­arsson was 3 years old. They had lived in the town of Skógarströnd until leaving for Canada and entering the United States, where they homesteaded land in North Dakota.

When I set out to do the required research for this article on artists of Iceland, I expected to find the usual resources. In this case, however, the research took an entirely different course that led to fascinating, even startling, information about one Icelandic-American: he became a prominent leader in the art world! I had never heard of him, and I left the interesting search of sources that described Icelandic artists to follow clues and gather facts like a Maisie-type detective would. (Have you read Jacqueline Winspear’s intriguing mysteries?)

Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Bjarnarsson family settled on a farm outside of Pembina, N.D., in the northeastern-most corner of the state in the Red River Valley, just across from the Canadian border. It was the home to many Icelandic immigrants.

An immigrant saga

In about 1890, the family of 3-year-old Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarsson left Skógarströnd in northwest Iceland, immigrated to Canada and then migrated to the small town of Pembina, N.D., in the Red River Valley, just across the Canadian border. (Betty Goodman, a well-known Minnesota Department of Health social worker with a special interest for children with disabilities and their families, was born in the neighboring town of Milton, N.D., which also was home to many Icelandic immigrants. Her grandparents came there from northwest Iceland. She emphasizes the correct pronunciation of Pembina is not Pemb-een’-ah but Pemb’-in-ah!)

Entry into the United States from Canada was common at that North Dakota location a few miles from the border, so it is not unusual that the Bjarnarssons and other Icelanders followed that route of entry. (That particular border crossing is the busiest in the area from Washington state to Michigan, to this day.)

For young Sveinn Kristján, life in America was tragically difficult, but as an adult he brilliantly overcame his deprived background. Although the reasons for the family’s decision to emigrate from Iceland are not known, probably a combination of family problems and poverty in Iceland had propelled them to leave in search of a better life. Skógarströnd is still a small town; even today it has an estimated population of only around 500.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Icelandic Lutheran Church in Pembina, N.D., was built in 1895 and was sold to the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox parish in 1937, when the onion dome was added.

In America, the Bjarnarsson family changed its name to Bjornson and then to Johnson. It was a common practice for immigrants to make their names more American and pronounceable. Young Sveinn was to change his name dramatically in the future: Sveinn Kristján Bjarnarsson became Edgar Holger Cahill.

After immigrating, the Bjarnarssons continued to speak Icelandic at home. Sveinn’s early childhood was marked with language and cultural limitations, extreme poverty, lack of formal education, and strife between his parents. His father abandoned the family, and his mother sent him to live and work on a farm owned by an Icelandic family 50 miles away, where he was mistreated. His mother remarried and had another child, Anna. That marriage also did not last.

After two difficult years with the Icelandic farmers, Sveinn ran away. He went first to neighboring farms, where he found work and then to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to search for distant cousins. The cousins refused to take him in, and he went to an orphanage.

A Gaelic-speaking family in a nearby cooperative farm community adopted him, and he was able to attend school regularly for the first time. After living with that family for several years, he returned to North Dakota in search of his mother, only to discover that she and his half-sister had moved. In 1902, he found them working on a nearby tenant farm. His mother had remarried, and she and her son quarreled. Again, he left his mother’s home. The next time he saw his mother was 45 years later.

A distinguished career

In his professional life, Edgar Holger Cahill was known simply as Holger Cahill. His employment in the field of visual arts began in 1921, when he was hired by John Cotton Dana at the Newark Museum and the Society of Independent Artists to write publicity about their activities. Previously, Cahill had worked a journalist and editor and had learned how to write effectively, and he now helped create new media interest in both organizations.

Through the artist John Sloan, who became a friend in Greenwich Village in New York City, Cahill knew many of the leading artists of the day. Because of that background, he was able to encourage Dana to purchase works by contemporary artists for the Newark Museum’s growing collection. After Dana’s death in 1929, Cahill organized the first major museum surveys of American Folk Art at the Newark Museum in 1930 (“American Primitives”) and 1931 (“American Folk Sculpture”).

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A scene in Manhattan, NYC, painted by John Sloan while he was working for the Federal Arts Project.

While directing the Newark Museum, he also published fiction, essays, short stories, and art criticism for the magazines Shadowland International Studio and the New York Herald Tribune. He published a novel, Profane Earth, in 1927 and, in 1930, A Yankee Adventurer, a biography of Frederick Townsend Ward and his role in the Taiping Rebellion of 1861. Together with Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery, Cahill published monographs on the painter Pop Hart in 1928, Max Weber in 1930 and Jules Pascin in 1931. Halpert and Cahill also launched a magazine called Space that ran for three issues in 1930.

In 1932–1933, Cahill served as acting director of the Museum of Modern Art, when the founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., took a leave of absence. He organized several notable exhibitions, including “American Sources of Modern Art,” “American Folk Art: Art of the Common Man in America,” and a survey exhibition, “American Painting and Sculpture 1862–1932.” In 1934, he directed the First Municipal Art Exhibition at Rockefeller Center in New York.

When Cahill left Newark, he employed Dorothy Miller as his assistant on various projects. During the First Municipal Art Exhibition, Miller stepped in as director when Cahill was unable to continue for medical reasons. After that, she became curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He had met Dorothy Canning Miller while in Newark; they married in 1938.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Silkscreen poster for the Federal Art Project forum for artists.

Professional activity

Cahill’s accomplishments were many:

National Director of the Federal Art Program of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration (WPA) from 1935 to 1943

Acting Director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Director of the Newark Museum, Newark, N.J.

Writer: from the production of publicity copy early in his career to writing articles, novels, essays, and poetry, right up until late in his life

Cahill’s contributions to the research, documentation and understanding of the visual arts in America ranged from Native American crafts to abstract expressionism, American folk art, and early American modernists. He oversaw the development of the Index of American Design.

About the WPA and the FAP

Photo: public domain
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Norwegian-American artist Jonas Lie (second from left), and other judges gathered at the WPA national poster contest in 1938.

The Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP) was a national program created as part of the New Deal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, WPA director Harry Hopkins, and FAP director Holger Cahill. Operating between 1935 and 1943, its purpose was to employ American artists who were gravely affected by the economic aftereffects of the Great Depression. Under Cahill’s leadership, the FAP had a huge influence on the development of American art beyond the important assistance and encouragement that it provided to individual artists.

Cahill had a populist approach to American art that made the FAP a massive work-relief program for artists, but it also had other far-reaching positive effects. Public education was enhanced. Morale was lifted.

Local and national exhibitions were sponsored. Hundreds of local art centers were established, including the well-known Harlem Community Art Center in New York City. Murals for public buildings from coast to coast were designed and painted by FAP artists.

National poster contests encouraged participation from artists across the country and produced posters that were widely used to motivate and inform the public. Judges included Eleanor Roosevelt and Norwegian-American impressionist painter Jonas Lie. (For more about Jonas Lie, see The Norwegian American, May 2, 2021.)

In addition, the FAP employed prominent artists, including but not limited to Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. The FAP program and the personal contributions of Holger Cahill laid the groundwork for Abstract Expressionism and the success of the American post-World War II art market. New York City became a world center of the art world.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Holger Cahill at the opening of an exhibition in Illinois, 1938.

Interesting questions remain

Who could have predicted that a child from a deprived and difficult family life and the limitations of an immigrant background would become a leader of important art organizations in America and influence the world of art in many important ways?

Although much is known about Holger Cahill and his life, there is still more to be learned. Some gaps in his life story before New York need to be filled. The Bjarnarsson family history in Iceland would be helpful to know. Conflicting dates should be investigated and clarified. Without formal education, how did Cahill learn to effectively write? His language and communication skills were evidently excellent, but how did he learn a second language so well, coming from an immigrant home where English was not spoken? How did he happen to change his name, and how did he settle on the distinguished moniker “Edgar Holger Cahill”? Where did he travel during his transient years -before he established his career, and how did he support himself? Was he able to find sources beyond usual begging for food at farms and city neighborhoods near railroads?

Honoring a legacy

The contributions of Holger Cahill to American and global art are enormous. As a son of Iceland, Cahill’s achievements are a credit to Iceland. As an adopted son of America, his success was enabled by the opportunities that presented themselves and challenged his ingenuity and initiative. He deserves to be remembered.

From photos of his gravestone in Stonebridge Mass., it appears to need restoration. Perhaps an individual or organization would be interested in having the marker evaluated and possibly restored to prevent deterioration? That could be one step to bring new attention to his inspiring story, as well as honor his legacy.

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Mary Jo Thorsheim

Mary Jo Thorsheim (1937-2023) was the owner of the Norway Art® importing business for 40 years and a regular contributor to The Norwegian American.