was one of the most distinguished of the Norwegian-American woodcarvers of the upper Midwest. His work drew on the traditions of Norwegian folk art whiledemonstrating significant American influence and individuality. Christenson was born in Sogndal in the fjord country of western Norway, and emigrated to the UnitedStates in 1864, just as the great wave of mass immigration of Norwegians to America was beginning to build. First settling in Iowa, he moved in 1866 to Swift County,Minnesota, at that time a remote and rural area in the western part of the state. This region, where Christenson lived for the rest of his life, remained undeveloped untilthe railroad arrived in 1870 and the small community of Benson was established. Norwegians were among the first white settlers in Benson.As in the case of other immigrant Norwegian woodcarvers, Christenson, a farmer and butcher, did not carve as a means of livelihood, although he made furniture for members of his family. Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum, in Decorah, Iowa, owns two handsome cupboards by Christenson, the only examples of hisfurniture known to be extant. One of them, a bow-front corner cupboard in pine and elm from about 1890, draws upon the traditional acanthus-based designs of Norwegian folk art but in a freer, more individualistic style.Christenson’s masterwork is undoubtedly the great altarpiece that he carved between 1897 and 1904 for his church in Benson. Now installed in a chapel-like settingat Vesterheim, the impressive reredos, is animated by the use of woods of contrasting hues, including natural maple, oak, pine, and walnut, among others. The central panel of the altarpiece contains a highly stylized and moving representation of the crucified Christ at Calvary; other panels depict the Last Supper, the Risen Christ, andother biblical themes, with ornately carved texts in Norwegian as well as vines with fruit and floral motifs. Commenting on Christenson’s freedom from strict Norwegian precedent, Marion Nelson—who wrote extensively about the artist and his altar—observed that the most notable features of his work are “the grandeur and originalityof his decorative and symbolic schemes and the quaint but expressive doll-like qualities of his figures.” Christenson “possesses a creativity of such dimensions,” Nelsonwrote, “that tradition, though present, seems insignificant.”
Religious Folk Art; Scandinavian American Folk Art; Sculpture, Folk
Henning, Darrell D., Marion J.Nelson, and Roger L.Welsch.
Norwegian-American Woodcarving of the Upper Midwest.
Decorah, Iowa, 1978. Nelson, Marion J. “A Pioneer Artist and His Masterpiece.”
Norwegian American Studies,
vol. 22 (1965): 3–17.