Bernhard Berntsen’s self portrait, now at Vesterheim, shows a dual identity: construction worker and artist. He is dressed in overalls and a hard hat, and in the background is a view of Manhattan from high above the city. This was the view that Berntsen was accustomed to seeing. He built scaffolding around skyscrapers to facilitate construction or repairs. A wrench, representing his trade appears together with a paintbrush, representing a lifelong passion to capture the world around him.
Berntsen was born in Oslo, Norway, in 1900. He broke his leg ski jumping and became restless after it healed. He decided to immigrate to the United States in 1919. A gallery owner saw one of his sketches and recommended he apply to study at the Art Students’ League. He applied and was awarded a scholarship. He also studied art in Chicago, but returned to New York City to join the Chrysler Building scaffolding crew.
During lunch breaks, he would sketch coworkers or people that he saw on the street or at the bus stop. He used a grease pencil on newspaper and also sketched directly onto steel girders. In 1935, Berntsen held his first street exhibition in Greenwich Village, but he kept his job as an iron worker for 41 years. He retired from construction work in 1965 and moved to northern Virginia. He was once asked if he ever thought he would make a living as a painter. He said, “Never. There were bad times and the work on the skyscrapers was what kept us alive.”
There are more than 150 oil paintings, crayon drawings, and sculptures by Bernhard Berntsen in the Vesterheim collection. For this, which is both the first exhibit in the Commons and the first solo show of his work at Vesterheim, the focus will be on his sketches on newspaper and unique views of the growing metropolis of New York City.