“The Edsbergs: Father and Son,” Ensign, Oct. 1975, 42
In the tiny country of Denmark are two Latter-day Saint artists of note, whose style and technique are so similar that it takes a real expert to tell many of their paintings apart. They are Knud and Soren Edsberg, father and son. Knud, who is perhaps Denmark’s most skillful and best known portrait painter, is 63 years old. Soren, whose fame is spreading and who is now selling paintings in the United States, is 29. The elder Edsberg has been a member of the Church since 1961. Soren’s baptism followed his father’s by several months.
In the National Art Museum in Copenhagen is a classic painting by the Danish artist Christian Dalsgaard. It pictures two early Latter-day Saint missionaries inside a typical Danish home, explaining the gospel to a skeptical Danish family. (See Ensign, October 1974, inside back cover.) The Edsbergs had probably seen the painting many times without really knowing what it was, and perhaps little did they think that they would have the same experience as that portrayed in the painting. Representatives of various denominations had knocked on their door over the years but had always been turned away. Then, quite early one stormy morning in 1960, while Knud was, for some reason, still in bed—ordinarily, he was a very early riser—a knock came on the door and was answered by the Edsbergs’ 20-year-old daughter, Birgitte. Even though she was unable to understand just who the visitors were and what the purpose of their visit was, she invited them in out of the storm and went into the bedroom to tell her father that two men were there who wanted to see him.
Knud, still in his night clothes, came into the front room and was startled to find two young Americans who said they were missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It was a providential visit, for Knud, who had always been a religious man, had been praying that God would lead him to the true church. A few years earlier he had read the Bible completely through in his search for the truth. Some months later, during a serious illness, he had reread the Bible word for word. His study and prayers had convinced him that the church to which he belonged could not be true, for it bore almost no resemblance either in organization or in its teachings to the church of Christ. This bothered him a great deal, because he firmly believed in God and the Bible and wanted to be a member of the true church.
The night before the appearance of the missionaries he had prayed long and earnestly for direction. Even so, he probably would still not have opened his door to two strange young men from America had he not been, in a sense, trapped into doing so. But he and his family did listen to the missionaries. Birgitte was the first to be “caught in the gospel net.” Her father soon followed.
It wasn’t easy for the elder Edsberg: there were bad habits to break and lifelong associations to terminate, but the Holy Ghost bore witness that the Church was true, so the necessary steps were taken. Since being baptized, Knud Edsberg has served as superintendent of the mission Sunday School organization and as a member of a branch presidency for eight years.
Soren was the third member of the family to join the Church. At 16 years of age, he was already a successful painter, selling from $3,000 to $4,000 worth of paintings each year while going to school. This was as much money as an average laborer was making at the time, and Soren was living pretty high, and perhaps just a little wild. But Knud wanted him to be a member of the Church, and Soren’s confidence in the judgment of his father, whom he loved and respected, led him to baptism, although he was not fully converted.
It was a tract on the Book of Mormon, If You Were Asked to Write a Book Like This, that really started him thinking seriously. When he came to realize that without divine help neither Joseph Smith nor any other mortal could have written the Book of Mormon, he was soon blessed with a strong testimony of the book and of the truthfulness of the Church. Soon after his baptism he was called to serve as a counselor to his father in the mission Sunday School organization. Since then he has served as a teacher of the investigators class in Sunday School, MIA president, elders group leader, branch president, district MIA president, and mission public relations director.
Becoming an artist was a long, hard, rough road for Knud Edsberg, who was born in Copenhagen in 1911 and christened Knud Erik Edsberg Andersen in the state church of Denmark. As a young boy, he exhibited unusual ability in drawing, and his mother early recognized that he had a special talent; but being alone and very poor, she was unable even to buy him a brush and some paints.
Knud attended the public schools in Copenhagen for the usual six years, then started serving a five-year apprenticeship as a house painter. The house in which he and his mother and sister lived in Copenhagen was next door to an art supply store, and Knud obtained a part-time job doing what tasks a boy of his age could perform and was paid for his services in bits of canvas, an occasional brush, and some paints. Now at last the boy could begin to make his dream of being an artist come true.
And so he started, completely on his own, with no professional guidance or help from anyone. While his friends were playing in the streets or parks, he was learning to stretch canvas and mix paints and was experimenting with methods and techniques of applying the paints to canvas, wrapping paper, cardboard, or whatever he could find when canvas was not available. He still has, hanging on the walls of his home in Kalundborg, two tiny paintings from those early days: one, a six-inch-by-ten-inch landscape done on a cookie sheet from a pastry shop, and the other, a six-by-eight-inch painting of a fisherman done on canvas.
Perhaps one should not say that young Knud did not have any professional help, because the great Danish artists down through the centuries became his teachers. The churches and museums of Copenhagen are filled with the wonderful works of Danish masters, and Knud spent countless hours, sometimes with his mother, and often alone, admiring and studying their paintings. Ofttimes, when he was trying to paint a face or hands or some other subject without much success, he would leave his easel and go to a museum or a church to learn from the works of the masters.
Although his progress often seemed slow to him, he was never really discouraged, because the overwhelming desire to be a great artist that he seems to have been born with grew stronger through the years.
His mother desperately wanted to get him some help, so she took him, along with some of his paintings, to see the famous artist Tuxen. This painter was so impressed with the ability of the young man that he gave him a small statue to sell to help him in his work; however, he advised the mother to have her son finish his apprenticeship as a house painter and then to come back to see him as a student. The boy prized the statue so highly that he refused to sell it, and it was only years later when he decided to get married and desperately needed the money that he parted with it. Unfortunately, Tuxen died before Knud finished his five-year apprenticeship, so the one chance he had to get some professional help was lost.
Some of Knud’s early subjects were biblical, copied from paintings that he had seen in art museums and churches. He later obtained books containing reproductions of paintings of famous artists and used these as models. The Danish countryside, family members, cows, dogs, fishermen, horses—things that he knew and understood—became his subjects.
When he was 22 Knud started on his first portrait. His subject was himself, and he worked on it off and on for over a year, changing this, redoing that, experimenting with new colors and methods, until he felt somewhat satisfied with the results. When he was 24, he decided that he was ready to start on another model, and his mother was pleased when he asked her to pose for him. Again it was a slow learning process, but after a number of months it was going well and he called his mother in to see the new colors he had mixed and remixed and experimented with. In her excitement over the new results he was getting, she sat on his palette, ruining his efforts of many weeks as well as her dress. He attributes the sad look on her face in the painting to this experience.
As his fame spread, people started to come to him to have their portraits painted. He has long since lost track of the number he has done, but estimates that it must be between 400 and 500. Mayors, government officials, industrial leaders, directors of banks and lodges, and presidents of clubs have all come to him for portraits.
One indication of his popularity as a portrait artist can be seen in the museum of the Carlsberg bottling works in Copenhagen, a company that has the policy of having a portrait painted of all employees who have worked there for 50 years. In their gallery hang 105 such portraits. Seventy-five of these have been painted during the last 20 years, and, of these, 25 have been painted by Brother Edsberg. It is interesting to note that the individual whose portrait is to be painted has the privilege of personal extremity” ly selecting the artist to do the work.
One of the artists that Brother Edsberg admired and still respects the most is famous Danish painter Carl Bloch, whose paintings portraying the life of Jesus hang in the National Museum in the famous Frederiksborg Castle. These paintings have been reproduced many times by the Church magazines and other Church publications as covers and inserts and are widely used throughout the Church as illustrative material on the life of Christ. It was an interesting day in the lives of the Edsbergs when they discovered while doing genealogical research that Carl Bloch was on their family tree.
Danish artist P.S. Kroyer and Swedish artist Ander Zorn were also special favorites of Knud and Soren Edsberg.
Unfortunately, Brother Edsberg’s art has not been widely accepted by the modern art community of Denmark. Many years ago, in competition for a gold medal at the Royal Academy of National Arts, he entered a painting of a man sitting by a fireplace in a Danish home. A professor at the Royal Academy, in criticizing the painting, told him that he must get away from realism and follow the modernistic trends in art if he wanted his work to be accepted. Then the professor proceeded to instruct him on what he must do to the painting for it to receive favorable consideration. But Brother Edsberg was not able to accept modern and futuristic art techniques and fought against what he considered to be the sham and dishonesty of certain trends in art in Denmark at the time. He is a realist. The modernists and impressionists have had little influence on him.
Young Soren Edsberg also showed that he had unusual artistic talent as a child. From the time he could hold a pencil, he started to draw. His mother never had any trouble entertaining him: when he was ill or when the weather was bad and he couldn’t go out to play, all she had to do was give him a pencil or some crayons and paper, and he would entertain himself by the hour.
When he was six years old he was to have an operation on his throat, and his father promised him that when he was well he would be given a palette and some brushes and paints of his own so that he could begin painting in oils. On the very day the young lad returned home from the hospital, he pretended that he was well so he could get his precious equipment and start painting. His first effort was a farm scene.
In the years that followed Soren learned from his father, who tried to teach him everything he knew—all the techniques that he had developed and all the skills that he had acquired on his own through the years. They painted together in fields, on beaches, on farms, in the studio, often painting identical scenes or subjects, with the son observing, ofttimes duplicating, and always learning from the paintings and instructions of his father.
Soren developed so well and became so skillful that sometimes family members could not distinguish his paintings from his father’s. By the time he reached the age of 16 he was selling many paintings each year and making a good living from it. The first of Soren’s paintings accepted by the Royal Academy of National Arts for exhibition was of a cocker spaniel.
But the time came when Soren knew he must not continue to mimic his father’s paintings, so he began to develop his own individuality and has departed quite markedly from many of the techniques and subjects of his father. He also decided not to become primarily a portrait artist and has begun to do more modern paintings, into which he hopes gospel messages and meanings can be read. In the summer of 1972 he brought some of his paintings to the United States, held a number of exhibits, sold many of his works, and received commissions to do paintings for individuals and institutions. He now has an agent in the United States.
Each year, American Independence Day, July 4, is celebrated in Denmark. Many noted Americans have been invited to participate in the festivities and give the patriotic address. Soren was commissioned to do a painting of the event in 1973 to be presented to the President of the United States as a token of the friendship between the two countries.
Because the name Andersen was so common in Denmark, some 30 years ago Knud decided that it would be well for him to use the name Edsberg so he could be more easily identified. Edsberg is a “protected name” in Denmark, which means it is a name that cannot be used without specific permission from the family. When Knud presented his desires to the Edsbergs, they readily agreed.
Soren’s early paintings bore the name Soren Edsberg Andersen, as the father felt that he should not use the Edsberg label alone until he reached a certain stage of perfection. It was a happy day for young Soren when his father said, “Son, your paintings are as good as mine; I think now you should sign them Soren Edsberg.”
Today Knud and his wife, Kirsten, live in a new, American-style house on a hill in Kalundborg overlooking the beautiful Danish countryside and the North Sea. Soren and his wife, Johnna, and two children live in a lovely old villa on the seashore north of Copenhagen, a few miles across the strait from Sweden. Both still spend much time painting landscapes, farm scenes, people, animals—subjects they have known, loved, and painted since childhood.
Both love the Church, are active in it, and look back to the visit of the two young men from America on that wintry day in 1960 as one of the most important days in their lives.