Maker unknown; decoration attributed to Per Lysne, c.1930
Little Norway Collection, Gift of Beth Burke
Isaak Dahle, the grandson of Norwegian immigrants and the founder of Little Norway, commissioned artists and workers to complete his vision of the Norwegian pioneering spirit. This door, which came from the “Bachelor’s Cabin” on the property, was made for an armoire and reflects a sense of immigrant resourcefulness and frugality. Though unconfirmed, the sophisticated style points to Per Lysne, the so-called father of American rosemaling. Olaf Colberson, Little Norway’s mural painter, is another possible artist. No matter who created the pattern, the rosemaling welcomes you into a world of Norwegian heritage.
Doors are unusually fascinating and powerful, but often their importance is forgotten and overlooked. They allow or prohibit us to enter spaces, protect belongings, and create change. They can lock us in or out all while being a gateway to a new area. This particular door, not only protected someones treasures in the “Bachelor Cabin” armoire at Little Norway, but also exhibits a proud tradition from Norway through its beautiful decoration. This door also holds a mystery—who painted it?
This door’s story starts with Isak Dahle, the creator of Little Norway, a living museum. Originally this museum was a summer home for the owner, and was stylized to appear Norwegian. To do this Dahle paraded the builiding with Norwegian traditions through its building and incredible artistry and crafts. Isak Dahle commissioned many artists and crafters to decorate Little Norway—this included the design of the building itself, through murals the adorned the walls, and painting doors. Sometime between 1920 and 1935 this door was installed in the “Bachelor Cabin” armoire (sometimes referred to as a wardrobe or a moveable cabinet.) This cabin is located near the “Main Cabin” or the previous owner’s home and was used when a brother moved into town and needed a place of residence.
The door is adorned with a beautiful and colorful rosemaling. Rosemaling is a Norwegian painting style, which encompasses beautiful, and often floral, patterns. The term rosemaling roughly translates from Norwegian as “decorative painting.” This style and the various patterns were popularized in America through Scandinavian immigrants who brought this artistic practice and talent with them. One of the potential artists for this door is often credited as being responsible for the revival of rosemaling in America. There are two artists who could be credited with the decoration on this armoire door: Olaf ‘Ole’ Colberson or Per Lysene. Both immigrants from Norway, both traditionally trained painters, and both proud of their heritage.
Olaf Colberson was a well-established Norwegian landscape artist in Black Hills, WI. After a period of being institutionalized against his will in Mendota Mental Hospital, he was re-established in his community and began painting again to decorate his own home. His friends and neighbors saw his work and asked him to create beautiful paintings for their homes, and as his popularity rose he garnered the attention of Isak Dahle. We know that Colberson was commissioned to paint landscape murals for Little Norway, and some are even displayed in this exhibit, but it is less likely that he was the painter of this door.
The other artist commissioned for paintings in Little Norway is Per Lysene, who is often credited as being responsible for the re-popularization of rosemaling in America during the 20th century. Because he is well known for rosemaling, and Olaf Colberson is known for landscape murals, it is more likely that Per Lysene was the artist for this door, however we will never truly know.
Oleksy, Walter. “Little Norway Tucked Away in Wisconsin Valley.” Chicago Tribune, May 6, 1966.