In the early decades of the 20th century, La Crosse was home to an interior design firm known throughout the upper Midwest. Oyen Designs provided interior decorating, and it also furnished frames, carpets and draperies. The artists who worked there came from different countries, and they worked together to create a renowned design studio.
One of those men, Axel Soderberg, painted this picture.
Axel Edward Soderberg was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1859. He attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen, and he decorated the Swedish king’s palace in Uppsala. In 1893, Soderberg immigrated to the United States to decorate buildings for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Odin J. Oyen was born in 1865 in Trondjem, Norway. His family immigrated to Madison in 1870. He attended the Art Institute in Chicago in 1883 and, after graduation, he moved to La Crosse. In 1888, Oyen joined Louis Nelson to form Nelson & Oyen, an interior design firm. In 1890, the men decided to dissolve the firm and go their separate ways. A year later, Oyen started his own interior design firm and hired his father and brother as painters.
In 1903, Soderberg joined Odin Oyen’s decorating firm in La Crosse. Oyen enticed Soderberg from a job opportunity at a competing decorating firm in Clinton, Iowa. Soderberg is described as the most significant artisan of Oyen. Together Oyen and Soderberg were a phenomenal team. Both men were immigrants, and part of their success and teamwork may have been because they had similar artistic techniques and wanted to succeed in their new homes.
Oyen’s firm specialized in murals and interior designs in buildings, such as churches, banks, hotels, clubs, hospitals, libraries, courthouses, schools, theaters and breweries.
The La Crosse County Court House, which opened in 1904, was decorated by Oyen and Soderberg. The murals on the inside of the dome, the grand staircase and the circuit courtroom were primarily the work of Soderberg.
Soderberg worked with Oyen until his death in 1922. Shortly after, in 1926, Oyen died, and his business was carried on by Louis Nelson and Oyen’s son Leighton. The firm dissolved in 1931 during the Great Depression, when the number of business contracts declined. Part of this decline was due to stylistic changes with which the firm could not keep up.
This painting by E. Soderberg shows the teamwork between Soderberg and Oyen. There is a small blue sticker on the back from Oyen’s Art Store at 114 S. Fourth St. It is a mix of gouache and watercolors, and it depicts pioneers on their journey westward in covered wagons. More than likely it was a study for a large mural commissioned for a public building.
Oyen and Soderberg’s work can still be viewed in various institutions across the Midwest.
This painting represents a partnership between two immigrants who created art in numerous buildings. It was intended to recognize pioneers and western expansion, but more importantly for us, it also tells the story of two Scandinavian artists who together built their careers and homes in the young city of La Crosse. For this, it is treasured in the La Crosse County Historical Society’s collections.