Johann Berthelsen was a celebrated American impressionist known for his poetic renditions of New York City. Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, Berthelsen immigrated to the United States with his family as a child. He first expressed his artistic inclinations through music, a passion that played out over the course of his career. Berthelsen was a highly trained baritone who toured the country with the Grand Opera Company, ran the voice department at the Indianapolis Conservatory of Music, and opened his own teaching studio in New York City in 1920.
The Victorian critics John Ruskin and Walter Pater likened painting to music, with Ruskin proclaiming that “we are to remember, in the first place, that the arrangement of colors and lines is an art analogous to the composition of music.” Nearly a century later, Berthelsen’s work gave form to Ruskin’s idea. Inspired by the sounds and rhythms of the New York scene, Berthelsen turned his attention to painting, translating the city’s dynamic tempo into expressive brushstroke and form. His colorful snow scenes and graceful nocturnes garnered comparisons to the work of Childe Hassam and James McNeill Whistler and earned Berthelsen entry into the leading art institutions of the day. He was a member of the Allied Artists of America, the American Watercolor Society, the Salmagundi Club, and the WPA/Federal Arts Project, and won prizes from the Hoosier Salon of Chicago and several Indianapolis institutions. The Sheldon Swope Art Museum mounted an important retrospective of his work, “Johann Berthelsen: An American Master Painter,” in 1988. His work is also featured at the Butler Institute of American Art, the Hickory Museum of Art, and in numerous university collections.