Swedish-born Knute Heldner (1877–1952) received his early artistic training at the Karlskrona Technical School and the National Royal Academy of Stockholm. Heldner served in the Swedish Royal Navy for nearly a decade before jumping ship and journeying to Boston in 1902. In the United States he worked flexible jobs that left him free to study art at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts and the Art Students League in New York City. While teaching at a small art studio in Minnesota, Heldner met his wife, Colette Pope. At this time his work was colored with philosophical concerns for the working class, a theme which would follow him when he and his wife moved to New Orleans in 1923. A preoccupation with such concerns was fitting for Heldner’s new environment. The French Quarter of the 1920s was entering a Renaissance when the neighborhood was an art colony for writers, photographers, and artists. These individuals flocked to the area to explore the run-down district which overflowed with poor, working-class immigrants while retaining a bohemian charm.
Heldner had already gained national prominence for his self-described “post-impressionist” style when he moved to the city. In 1926 he was honored with a one-man exhibit at the Delgado Museum, now the New Orleans Museum of Art. Heldner then used funds from his art to finance a trip to Europe. While there he traveled and exhibited his work but did not adapt his artistic style to imitate the artists of Europe. In fact, the only change to Heldner’s work at this time came from his adoption of a brighter color pallet, which art historians noted was the result of the subtropical climate of New Orleans.
Works such as this nocturnal forest scene were typical of Heldner’s commercially successful style, which consisted of romanticized depictions of the Louisiana swamps and bayous and their inhabitants. The works he created for himself show his lifelong preoccupation with the working class and the struggles of man. His preferred subjects were the buildings and residents of the French Quarter. He captured the personalities and struggles of the Quarter’s character rather than the idealized versions created by his contemporaries.
Knute Heldner, Untitled, 1930–1940. Oil on canvas, 24 x 22 inches. Purchased through the Alma Lee, Norman and Cary Saurage Fund of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation in honor of Alma Lee and H.N. Saurage Jr. Louisiana Art & Science Museum Collection, 2002.008.001
Like Heldner, Will Henry Stevens, Noel Rockmore, and Conrad Albrizio all studied at the famed Art Students League in New York City for a period of time.