dedicated himself to the preservation of the history of the Swedish religious colony at Bishop Hill, Illinois, through his portraits of its people, his narrative paintings of itsdevelopment and his landscape paintings of its built and natural environments. Born in Salja, a village in Westman-land, in eastern Sweden, Krans was brought toBishop Hill by his parents in 1850, the same year that Erik Jansson, the leader of the colony, was murdered. Deprived of Jansson’s strong leadership, the communalstructure of Bishop Hill began to disintegrate. Krans resided there for eleven years, working in the community’s blacksmith and paint shops. Following a brief period of service in the Civil War he moved first to Galesburg and then to Galva, Illinois.From the beginning of his working life, Krans demonstrated an interest in creative expression, although there is no evidence that he received any formal training in art.He assisted a photographer for a period after his Civil War experience, but soon began to earn his living as a decorative and commercial painter. Attractingconsiderable local patronage, he received commissions to paint the interiors of churches in Bishop Hill, Galva, and other communities and became expert in theapplication of
marble and wood grain finishes. He also hung wall-paper, and painted signs and other objects.In 1894, Krans was asked to paint a stage curtain for a new community center in Bishop Hill. The resulting work, an impressive fifteen-and-a-half by ten-footdepiction on canvas of the village in 1855, less than ten years after it was founded, marked the beginning of a new phase in the artist’s creative life. In addition toauditorium interiors, stage curtains and scenery, Krans began to paint works that recalled the life and times of the Bishop Hill colonists. In 1896, inspired by the fiftiethanniversary of the founding of the community, he painted some of his most ambitious and successful works. Publicly exhibited for the first time in the ceremonies thatmarked this local milestone, the paintings depict the Swedish pioneers planting, sowing, and harvesting. These compositions, in which the artist emphasizes overallstructure and design over detail, stress the sense of unity that motivated the participants in this communal venture. Indeed, Krans invests the figures in these works withlittle individuality or personality. Instead they blend together to form a harmonious, almost abstract, whole. In one work, for example, a single row of women plantingcorn stretches out almost to the horizon, their individual features barely visible as they work, united by a common purpose, in the vast expanse of the empty prairie.Krans generally painted in oil on canvas, using a colorful palette in his genre and landscape paintings and a more restrained, almost monochromatic, palette in themajority of his portraits—his self-portraits and portraits of his mother, Beate Krans, being the principal exceptions. Using early photographs as sources, the artist painted dozens of character studies of members of the community, including the founder, Erik Jansson, and other leaders. Generally appearing stiff and serious indemeanor, his subjects more likely reflect the long exposures of photography than they do a common grimness of character. His self-portraits, including one as a CivilWar soldier and another, palette in hand, as an artist, are among the most appealing of his works.In addition to his studies of Bishop Hill, Krans created genre and landscape paintings of Galva and other places, biblical scenes, wildlife studies, and other subjects.Some of his work is rendered crudely, but at its best it is well composed, robust and engaging, a remarkable record of a pioneer community and its people. After livingin Galva for thirty-five years, Krans spent the last thirteen years of his life in Altona, Illinois, where he died.
Bishop Hill: A Utopia on the Prairie.
Stockholm, Sweden, 1969.