Olof Krans paintings fill gaps in Bishop Hill’s story

Olof Krans
This painting, entitled Olsson Farm in Sweden II, is one of three by the painter Olof Krans donated recently to Bishop Hill State Historic Site. CREDIT BISHOP HILL MUSEUM

BISHOP HILL, Illinois – The vibrant, idyllic visual history of the former utopian colony at Bishop Hill is richer and fuller today thanks to the donation of three works by artist and former colonist Olof Krans.

Claudie Huey recently presented the trio of paintings – “Salja By, Sweden,” “Olsson Farm in Sweden II,” and “Prairie Grove” – on behalf of the estate of her parents, Merle and Barbara Glick. The gift brings to six the number of paintings the Glicks have donated to the Bishop Hill State Historic Site. All are housed in the Bishop Hill Museum, located an hour southeast of the metro Quad Cities.

The remaining Krans piece from the Glicks’ personal collection is designated for another Illinois museum.

“That was my dad’s will and my dad’s wishes,” Ms. Huey told the QCBJ.

Her father was a nationally known expert on Illinois folk art and an advocate for elevating the work of Mr. Krans. The artist was a Swedish immigrant who spent his youth at Bishop Hill and his later life recreating and documenting life there. 

In 2014, Mr. Glick coordinated an exhibition of Mr. Krans’ paintings at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. He also cataloged and celebrated Mr. Krans’ body of work in the book, “Prairie Vision, the Art of Olof Krans.” It was a lifelong labor of love and Ms. Huey was relieved and happy that the first copies arrived before Mr. Glick’s death at age 90 on Nov. 7, 2014.

Olof Krans
The Krans painting Salja
By, Sweden now hanging in the Bishop Hill Museum shows the church in Sweden where many colonists would have worshiped before emigrating to the U.S. CREDIT BISHOP HILL MUSEUM

The Glicks’ recent additions to the Bishop Hill Museum, where the Krans book is available for purchase, were painted between 1900 and 1901. They provide a new window into the life of the colony.

Ms. Huey said she is pleased the pieces are in the colony museum she loves. Her father would be, too, she said, adding, “He was so happy that the state decided to build that sweet little museum” to protect the paintings he had donated over the years.

Illinois state preservationists also welcomed the latest donations, which bring the tally of Bishop Hill’s Krans artworks to 108 pieces.

The new paintings “are an important addition to our collection as they fill in some visual gaps we had in telling the history of Bishop Hill,” said Bryan Engelbrecht, site services specialist II for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation Division. Mr. Krans had a front-row seat for much of that history.

Mr. Krans was born Olof Ersson, son of Eric and Beata, in Sälja in Uppland, Sweden in 1838. He was 12 when he and his family, whose surname was later changed to Krans, came to the Swedish religious colony at Bishop Hill in 1850. The latest Krans paintings are unique because two of them focus on young Olof’s life in Sweden rather than his years in the Henry County, Illinois, colony.

“‘Salja By, Sweden’ is important as it features a Lutheran church that a good amount of colonists attended,” Mr. Engelbrecht said. “As the Bishop Hill Colonists had an alternative set of religious beliefs that brought them into conflict with the State Lutheran Church, the painting is a good visual tool to discuss that subject with visitors.”

“Of secondary importance in that painting is that a few buildings of the town of Alfta are present in the background,” he added. “They show the Swedish architecture which visitors can compare to the buildings in Bishop Hill that combine Swedish and American architectural elements.”

The Olsson Farm landscape also lets visitors see “where the artist lived as a boy” in Sweden, Mr. Englebrecht said. And, “it shows what the farms were like that many of the Bishop Hill Colonists lived on in their homeland of Sweden and gives some insight into what the colonists left behind when they sold their land and possessions to journey to Western Illinois.”

Ms. Huey said the Swedish farm painting is among her favorites. “I just thought that was really, really sweet,” she said.

The Prairie Grove piece illustrates how the Bishop Hill landscape looked in Mr. Krans’ day. Mr. Engelbrecht said, “It showcases how the area looked prior to the erection of the wind farm.” These days more than 100 wind turbines appear to stand sentinel on the former ‘Utopia on the Prairie’ colony.

Olof Krans
This Olof Krans painting entitled Prairie Grove showed the landscape of Bishop Hill when the artist was a colonist there. CREDIT BISHOP HILL MUSEUM

The recently donated Krans pieces and other of his works on display in Bishop Hill also tell a larger American immigration story, according to Martha Downey, who retired in 2019 as the Bishop Hill State Historic site’s site supervisor. The Olof Krans Museum in Tärnsjö, Sweden, for example, is among the museums that use Krans’ art to document that story.

In an article about Mr. Krans that Ms. Downey wrote for the Illinois Historical Art Project, she added, “The influence of the emigration of the Bishop Hill Colonists on future Swedish emigrants cannot be overstated. Their relocation to the United States influenced over 1.3 million Swedes to leave Sweden between 1846 and 1930.” 

The new American colony was settled in 1846 by Swedish religious dissidents led by pietist Eric Jansson, who challenged the established Swedish Lutheran Church. The church pushed back until religious persecution of the Janssonists in Sweden sent him and 1,200 followers to the United States and Bishop Hill. Mr. Jansson was killed soon after he came to America. He was replaced by the Rev. Jonas Olson, whose stern visage was captured in one of the historically significant Krans works on display at the Bishop Hill Museum.

The colony prospered for 15 years, Ms. Downey wrote, until in 1861 the Civil War, economic difficulties and dissent led to the dissolution of the communal organization.

Mr. Krans left the colony that year to serve with the Union Army as part of the Swedish Union Guard “raised” at Bishop Hill, Ms. Downey wrote. He did return to live at Bishop Hill for a time, but relocated to Galesburg in 1865.

He later moved to Galva where he married and established “himself as a decorative painter and a painter of buildings and business signs,” Ms. Downey wrote. His workmanship was widely praised throughout the region, according to various biographies. 

But ultimately, it was the art he created from his memories of Bishop Hill that ensured his work would live on in the Quad Cities region, the state, the nation, and around the world.

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