Herbjorn Gausta has been described as the first Norwegian-American professional artist in the United States. Herbjørn Gausta was born on the Gausta farm in Vestfjørddalen, Telemark, Norway, June 16, 1854. In 1867 he emigrated to America with his parents and four sisters, settling on a farm near Harmony, Minnesota. Gausta entered a training program for parochial school teachers at Luther College in 1872, but left for Norway three years later on a stipend provided by the communiity of Decorah under the leadership of U.V. Koren.
Gausta studied at Knud Bergslien’s Academy of Art in Oslo. In 1878 he attended the Munich Academy of Art where he won the prestigious academy medal. In the spring of 1881 he traveled to Norway. He then returned to America in 1882, first settling in Chicago before moving to Madison and LaCrosse, Wisconsin. He returned to Decorah and taught at Luther College during the 1886-1887 academic year. During part of this time he lived with the Korens at the Washington Prairie parsonage where two of the sketches he did on the walls of his room may still be seen. He traveled to Europe three more times, in 1887, 1894 and 1899.
Gausta based his studio in Minneapolis, living there from 1888 until his death, where he supported himself by painting portraits of prominent Norwegian-American individuals and about 400 altarpieces for Norwegian-American churches. His landscapes and genre paintings were well-received, particularly those painted during his early years. He also painted copies of master works of art for additional revenue. His sketchbooks indicate that he also drew superior caricatures. In 1889, his studio burned completely so that almost 100 early paintings were lost. Gausta died on May 22, 1924 in Minneapolis at the Deaconess Hospital. After a funeral service at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, he was buried at Harmony, MN. In 1927, a granite monument over sixteen feet in height was erected to his memory. He never married.
Gausta is perhaps the best known of the Norwegian-American artists and is considered “a painter of exceptional talent…” (Nelson) There are almost 60 paintings by Gausta in the Fine Arts Collection. Some were donated by Gausta himself but others were given to Luther College by alumni and other friends of the College.
Courtesy of Luther College