The Stars Align: McPherson Students’ Enthusiasm Creates Lasting Legacy

When McPherson built a high school in 1911, an exhibition was organized to raise funds to buy artwork for the new building. With assistance from Carl Smalley, a local seed merchant and art collector, the exhibition grew into an annual week-long event that attracted half the town’s population and garnered national attention. With funds raised from nickel and dime admissions, Smalley guided the students in making astute purchases of original art.

The art collection also was boosted by Lindsborg’s Birger Sandzén, whose annual lectures were a highlight of the week and who sold his paintings to students at discounted prices. He also often donated prints in honor of graduating classes.

Contemporary artists such as Robert Henri, Childe Hassam, and Thomas Hart Benton sent works for the annual exhibitions, which also included original prints by Rembrandt and Whistler. McPherson’s example inspired other Kansas school districts to borrow versions of exhibitions Smalley curated.

When the exhibitions ended in the mid-1930s, the McPherson schools owned 130 pieces of original art. Many of the works have been conserved through private donations and hang in the McPherson Museum.

McPherson classrooms, such as this 1913 first-grade class, competed to sell the most tickets to the annual exhibition with the winning class receiving a piece of art. The prize in 1914 was Michelangelo in Youth, a Caproni reproduction (right), one of several plaster casts sold by the Boston-based Caproni and acquired by the McPherson schools. Caproni casts were used widely for teaching by U.S. art schools, museums, and universities during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Birger Sandzén
Born 1871, Blidsberg, Sweden
Died 1954, Lindsborg, Kansas

Rocks and Cedars, 1920
Oil on board

67 1/4 x 87 1/2 x 2 1/4 in.

McPherson USD 418

Albert Bloch
Born 1882, St. Louis, Missouri
Died 1961, Lawrence, Kansas

Three at Table, 1925
Oil on canvas

36 x 40 in.

McPherson USD 418 

A trio of men stare arrestingly at subjects around them rather than engaging one another in this apparent café scene. The McPherson schools acquired Bloch’s painting with proceeds from its 1930 exhibition. Also that year, the graduating class donated five watercolors to the collection. 

Bloch first studied art in St. Louis. He went abroad in 1909, studying in Germany and then in Paris. He participated in the first Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) exhibition in 1911 in Munich. He was the only American artist invited to join the influential expressionistic group whose members included Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. The group, which was known for its color explorations, dissolved in 1914 with the advent of the First World War. After his return to the United States, Bloch headed the art department at the University of Kansas from 1923 to 1947. 

Charles E. Hallberg
Born 1855, Gothenburg, Sweden
Died 1940, Chicago, Illinois

Lake Michigan, 1909
Oil on canvas

22 x 36 3/4 in.

McPherson USD 418 

A soft green haze, cresting waves, and an opening sky suggest the passing of a storm in this view of Lake Michigan. The oil was acquired with proceeds from the first McPherson schools exhibition in 1911, along with a painting by Lindsborg’s Birger Sandzén, a close friend who often invited Hallberg to send his art to Kansas exhibitions. 

At seventeen, Hallberg worked on a British brig to support his family. For a decade, he sailed European seas, usually with his painting supplies on board. In 1883 he moved to the United States to sail the Great Lakes. He continued to paint scenes of the changeable waters of Lake Michigan after settling in Chicago and taking janitorial jobs, and soon caught the attention of the director of the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). Five of Hallberg’s paintings were shown at the AIC in 1902, and a one-man show there in 1906 included forty-one works. 

In 1905 Hallberg was one of the key organizers of the Chicago-based Swedish American Art Association, which began a program of annual exhibitions modeled on Sandzén’s annual Midwest Art Exhibition. 

Harold C. Dunbar
Born 1882, Brockton, Massachusetts
Died 1953, Chatham, Massachusetts

The Morning Letter, ca. 1912
Oil on canvas

25 1/4 x 31 3/8 in.

McPherson USD 418 

Albert Krehbiel
Born 1873, Denmark, Iowa
Died 1945, Evanston, Illinois

The Stream in Winter, ca. 1918
Oil on canvas

22 x 30 5/8 in.

McPherson USD 418

Krehbiel’s depiction of a tree-lined stream conveys the depths of winter, when leafless trees permit a better view of the rising and falling sun. The artist grew up in Newton as the son of a Mennonite carriage maker who co-founded Bethel College. 

Krehbiel studied in Europe and at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he taught for thirty-nine years. This painting was exhibited at the Art Institute in 1918, the year it was purchased with proceeds from McPherson’s annual art exhibition.

Francis Seymour Haden
Born 1818, London, England
Died 1910, Bramdean, Hampshire, England

Breaking Up of the Agamemnon, No. 2, 1886

9 11/16 x 18 1/8 in.

Frederick Goulding, publisher

McPherson USD 418, gift of the class of 1929, on loan to McPherson Museum

The McPherson schools’ collection includes this work by Haden and the nearby The Forge by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The two artists were brothers-in-law and worked together on a series of etchings on England’s Thames River. The Agamemnon was the last surviving wooden-hulled battleship in the British Navy. American artist Joseph Pennell wrote of Haden’s depiction of its dismantling near Greenwich: “The balance of light and shade … is remarkable and with a very few lines and masses he makes the glow and glitter of the sunset and long lines of the tide.” The graduating class of 1929 raised funds to purchase the print for the schools. 

James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Born 1834, Lowell, Massachusetts
Died 1903, London, United Kingdom

The Forge, 1861

7 5/8 x 12 7/16 in.

McPherson USD 418, on loan to McPherson Museum  

Charles W. Bartlett
Born 1860, Dorset, England 
Died 1940, Honolulu, Hawaii

Kobe (Street Festival After Rain), 1916

15 1/4 x 10 in.

Watanabe Shōzaburō, publisher

McPherson USD 418, on loan to McPherson Museum

After Emilio Zocchi
Born 1835, Florence, Italy 
Died 1913, Florence, Italy

Michelangelo in Youth, ca. 1911
Hollow cast composition with plaster overlay

25 x 15 x 12 in.

P. P. Caproni & Brother sculpture reproductions (Caproni Collection) 

McPherson USD 418, on loan to McPherson Museum

Twenty-Third Annual Exhibition, McPherson City Schools, 1933

Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery Archives, Lindsborg

The McPherson schools’ annual exhibition outgrew the one classroom at the high school where it had originated and expanded to fill every blackboard in every classroom on an entire floor of the high school building. The students continued to have classes in the rooms, and all students from the junior high and grade schools were brought over at least once to view the exhibition.

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Smalley’s art catalogue, 1922-1923

McPherson, Kansas  

Private collection 

The connections that helped raise the annual McPherson schools exhibition to national caliber belonged in large part to Carl Smalley, a local seed merchant who opened a shop dedicated to art, books, and imported gifts. Many of Smalley’s friends—Oscar Jacobson, Henry Varnum Poor, William Dickerson, and Anna Keener—annually sent works to the exhibition. 

Besides knowing most, if not all, prominent Kansas artists, Smalley was acquainted with museum directors throughout the country. It was not unusual for a director to drop in at the McPherson exhibition and request that some of the artworks be sent to his institution. William Eggers of the Art Institute of Chicago visited one year and asked Smalley to forward paintings to the museum’s Annual American Exhibition. 

The friendship between Smalley and Lindsborg artist and art professor Birger Sandzén, whose work is pictured on the cover of this sales catalogue, was close, though practical. Sandzén kept Smalley supplied with art for his shop and the schools’ annual exhibitions. Smalley convinced Sandzén to produce editions of original prints to widen his audiences. 

Kansas Participants for To the Stars Through Art kansasparticipants