Revived and Redesigned: Rosemaling in the Upper Midwest

“Revived and Redesigned: Rosemaling in the Upper Midwest” explores how a Norwegian folk art has become embedded into the traditions and landscapes of the Upper Midwest. This exhibit showcases the work of a few practitioners interviewed for the Sustaining Scandinavian Folk Arts in the Upper Midwest project, contextualizing their work in the wider development of rosemaling in the Upper Midwest. Featuring fieldwork conducted by graduate student fieldworkers in 2018 and 2019, this exhibit shares how rosemaling has become embedded into the landscape, artwork, and collaborations across the Upper Midwest.

From Norway to Wisconsin

A map of Norway, Sweden, and Finland with the different regions of Norway highlighted in different colors.
Migrants came from all parts of Norway. This map highlights each of the country's regions in a different color. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Rosemaling is a painting tradition that originated in rural, eastern communities of Norway in the mid-1700s. The folk art drew inspiration from the ornate curves characteristic of Baroque- and Rococo-style acanthus carving, featuring C- and S-shaped brushstrokes within floral designs and flowing scrollwork. Painters learned the technique from local guilds before traveling across the countryside, painting churches on commission to earn a living. A number of amateur artists contributed to the development of regional styles as they attempted to copy the artwork of these traveling painters. Traditional rosemaling styles are named for the regions in which they originated; while there are well over fifteen different styles, three especially popular styles include Telemark, Hallingdal, and Rogaland. Today, rosemaling is practiced in many different parts of the world. It is especially common in the Upper Midwest, the destination for many of the Norwegians who migrated between the 1840s and 1910s, and has become a part of the landscape for many communities.

The popularity of rosemaling in the Upper Midwest is thanks in large part to two stages of revival. The first is credited to Per Lysne in the 1930s. Lysne learned the art from his father in the late 1800s, when rosemaling was undergoing a period of transformation and revival in Norway. The craft had already been transformed in those hundred years since its origins, as Janet Gilmore notes, from the work of traveling artisans to a mass-produced cottage craft industry, driven in part by nostalgia for the art’s provincial origins (2008: 32). Lysne carried on the art’s transformed role after migrating to Stoughton, Wisconsin, by rosemaling and selling items for extra income in the wake of the Great Depression. Lysne’s work inspired the writing of several newspaper and magazine articles about him and his rosemaling, spreading word of both his work and the painting style itself. Notably, he painted items that had not traditionally been rosemaled in Norway, and was particularly known for his round smörgåsbord plates. Per’s fame generated a lot of interest in the tradition, and many visited his studio to watch him work, interested in trying the craft themselves. Though most rosemalers in Norway had been men, Lysne’s painting inspired a number of women in his county to learn the art, some of whom went on to become accomplished masters themselves: Oljanna Venden Cunneen, Ethel Kvalheim and Vi Thode.

A yellow wooden platewith rosemaling in blue, red, and green and text in Norwegian around the edge.
Per Lysne is well-known by those who have taken up rosemaling. Ken Magnusson has one of Lysne’s plates hanging on his wall.
Ann Walser shows the back of a plate with the name Lysne visible on the bottom edge.
Ann Walser of Verona, Wisconsin, shows the back of a Per Lysne plate that she purchased. She notes that some of his work has recently been reproduced on a larger scale and can be purchased online.

A second revival can be credited to Marion Nelson, Director of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, for instituting an annual Rosemaling exhibition in 1967. The annual Vesterheim National Norwegian-American Folk Art Exhibition has since expanded to include weaving, woodworking, knifemaking, and most recently as of 2018, metalworking. The exhibition draws entries from across the country and prizes of Blue, Red, and White ribbons are awarded, representing points that can be accumulated over multiple years towards a Gold Medal. Two of the first gold medalists in rosemaling, Vi Thode and Ethel Kvalheim, had been influenced by Per Lysne’s work and became leaders in supporting rosemaling’s continued revival.

A black and white photo of Lysne holding a paintbrush and rosemaling a plate at a table in his studio.
Per Lysne painting one of his famous smörgåsbord plates at his studio in Stoughton, Wisconsin. Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society (Photo by Arthur M. Vinje, "Rosemaling a Smorgasbord Platter," 38105,

Rosemaling Revived

Vesterheim began offering regular rosemaling workshops, often bringing in painters from Norway (including the renowned Nils Ellingsgard and Sigmund Aarseth) with the goal of expanding and energizing the American rosemaling scene. Many of these Norwegian rosemalers had professional art training rather than learning rosemaling through an apprenticeship model.

Vi Thode wrote several guides to rosemaling and is known for pioneering the American Rogaland style. Mary Koehler of Winona, Minnesota, purchased one of her books: “We call it the Bible of rosemaling because that’s all I needed, basically.” Clarice Dieter of Morris, Minnesota, notes that over time, Thode developed her “own style that was Americanized,” and is the style which has largely caught on. A micro-regionalism began developing in the 1980s with hubs of styles in particular locations. Learn more about the different rosemaling styles and their development in this companion exhibition.

Ethel Kvalheim was skilled in a number of styles and received a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship in 1989. Neither Kvalheim nor Thode ever took formal rosemaling lessons, and Gilmore notes that this first generation of American-born rosemalers in the Upper Midwest were indeed mostly self-taught (2008: 33). They often shared resources and advice, connecting friends and neighbors through the craft.

What started as a Norwegian folk art became associated with many places in the Upper Midwest whose early settlers had Norwegian heritage. Gilmore notes that in many towns, rosemaling promoted a community identity that engaged with the community’s Norwegian-American history and heritage, “while honoring the region’s tradition of ethnic pluralism” (2008: 33). Over time, rosemaling became more symbolic of the Upper Midwestern communities themselves, rather than a Norwegian heritage removed in time and place.

Innovation and Collaboration in the Upper Midwest

A number of rosemalers learn the artform through a class, others teach themselves from books and guides. Some have chosen to teach, either offering classes through their own studios, or teaching classes at regional folk schools or heritage centers. Many classes are in the traditional techniques, while others are offered in Americanized styles. Enlarge the presentation below to learn more about how rosemaling has developed in the Upper Midwest since its early revival, see the work of a few practitioners, and learn about their collaborations and ideas for the future of the art.

How to Learn More

Interested in learning to rosemal? A number of folk schools offer rosemaling classes such as the Milan Village Arts School in Milan, Minnesota; the Vesterheim Folk Art School in Decorah, Iowa; North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota; and the Duluth Folk School in Duluth, Minnesota. The Wisconsin State Rosemaling Association was founded in Stoughton, Wisconsin, in 1967 and also offers classes and resources, as does the Illinois Norsk Rosemalers’ Association.

To learn more about rosemaling and its practitioners in the Upper Midwest, visit our companion exhibition or one of several other online exhibitions through Recollection Wisconsin, the Stoughton Historical Society, and Wisconsin Folks. A number of books and articles have also be written on Rosemaling in the Upper Midwest, a few are listed below.

Ellingsgard, Nils. (1993). Norwegian Rose Painting in America. Decorah: Vesterheim.
Ellingsgard, Nils. (1995). Rosemaling: A Folk Art in Migration. Norwegian Folk Art: The Migration of a Tradition. New York: Abbeville Press.
Gilmore, Janet. “Mount Horeb’s Oljanna Venden Cunneen. A Norwegian-American Rosemaler ‘on the Edge.’ ARV Nordic Year of Folklore,  2009(65): 25-48.
Martin, Philip N. (1989). Rosemaling in the Upper Midwest: A Story of Region & Revival. Mt. Horeb: Wisconsin Folk Museum.
Nelson, Marion John. (1995). Folk Art in Norway and Norwegian Folk Art in America. Norwegian Folk Art: The Migration of a Tradition. New York: Abbeville Press.

Curated by Mirva Johnson