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The story behind Minnesota’s official state photograph

Wikimedia Commons
“Grace,” the Minnesota state photograph, taken by Eric Enstrom, c.1920.

Around 1920, the photographer Eric Enstrom took a picture of a white-bearded visitor to his studio in Bovey. The resulting image, which Enstrom called “Grace,” gained international recognition and was designated Minnesota’s official state photograph in 2002.

Eric Enstrom was a Swedish American photographer who lived and worked in the mining town of Bovey. Around 1920 (some accounts date the event to 1918), an itinerant salesman named Charles Wilden visited his studio. Impressed by what he recognized as kindness in the man’s face, Enstrom asked Wilden to pose for a picture. He had Wilden clasp his hands and bow his head, as in prayer, while seated at a table with an arrangement of household objects, including a book, a loaf of bread, and a bowl of soup. He called the photograph “Grace.”

Enstrom composed “Grace” to represent survival in the face of hardship. He later connected it to World War I and the heavy toll the trenches of Europe had taken on American lives, as well as the rationing faced by Minnesotans on the home front. In a 1961 interview, he explained his intention to capture an image that would inspire thankfulness in people who had endured privations during the war. By highlighting Wilden’s devout posture and humble surroundings, he aimed to evoke the spirit of religious faith, thankfulness, and humility he associated with many of the newly arrived European immigrants to Minnesota.

As the 1920s progressed and tourists began to purchase “Grace” from Enstrom’s studio, the photograph became a well-known fixture in local churches, restaurants, and private homes. In 1926, Wilden signed over his rights in the image to Enstrom for five dollars and Enstrom registered a copyright.

Enstrom and his daughter, the artist Rhoda Nyberg, painted over prints of the originally black-and-white image to give it the appearance of a colorful oil painting. Nyberg continued to paint versions of the image for the rest of her life, even painting a matching image depicting an elderly woman.

During the 1950s, the Enstrom family sold the rights to “Grace” to Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis — a publisher associated with the American Lutheran Church. The photograph continued to grow in popularity in Minnesota and across the United States, and by 1961, Augsburg Publishing had sold twenty thousand prints.

In 2002, Senator Bob Lessard of International Falls and Representative Loren Solberg of Bovey sponsored a bill in the state legislature that designated “Grace” the official state photograph. Governor Jesse Ventura signed it into law later that year. Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer hung a sepia print of the photograph on her office wall, as specified in the bill.

In the 2010s, Augsburg Fortress (a new incarnation of Augsburg Publishing) continues to sell prints of “Grace.” Since 1995, the image has been in the public domain and can be found on many Web sites. The picture hangs in the cabin of the Northwestern, the Alaskan crab fishing boat featured in the Discovery Channel’s reality TV show “Deadliest Catch.” In 1993, a monument to “Grace” and its creator was erected near Bovey Village Hall.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (15)

A Mystrery To Me

It's a mystery to me why this picture is so popular. It's an old man, saying to himself, "I can't believe it's come to this. Once again, dinner is a lousy loaf of bread and a bowl of thin gruel. And the only thing I have to read is the Oxford English Dictionary."

But I guess art can be interpreted in myriad ways.

No mystery to me....

The photographic artist gives us a hint to the meaning of the photo in its title. Just a hint.

Missed the point entirely

"But at least I have a lousy loaf of bread and a bowl of thin gruel to eat; and I can always work on my vocabulary. It's a luxury many don't have.... so thank you for what I do have."

Press Here

Speaking of missing the point, y'all sure can make it easy (and kind of fun) to press your buttons.

Just what book is on the table? We have no clue, but it sure looks much larger than every bible I've ever seen, and I've cracked a number of them.

Standard Size

That was a standard size for a family Bible in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many were actually larger in length and width (which was still a common style left-over from before the 1800s), though still about the same thickness as shown in the picture, and were often the only book found in many homes during the time. They often also functioned as family records of births, marriages, and deaths, recorded on the blank pages just inside the cover (though, some of the Bibles were printed with pages explicitly intended to record such information). Many Bibles from that time period are now collected for the genealogical data they contain, though they are often falling apart at this point (the covers were often made of leather, and the leather on most of these are now very weak and brittle, which isn't helped by the size and weight of the books, themselves). You can still find many of these at estate sales for those passing away in their 90s right now (whom, as the children of the families who owned many of these, had inherited their parents' Bibles when they passed, but were not passed-on/accepted/inherited by those children's children, id est, the Baby Boomers). The small personal Bible that are common today is a fairly recent innovation.

Book on the table

My grandma was Rhoda Nyberg who added color to her father, Eric's picture. The family story is that it's not actually a bible, but a Swedish dictionary. Additionally, Rhoda Nyberg never colorized the copy cat / inspired by picture gratitude. Enstrom did not take that picture and it is unrelated to the family, aside from the fact that it is considered a companion to the original work.

A few little thoughts / corrections! There is more information at www.gracebyenstrom.com

picture

This photo is very similar to the last shot in the movie A History of Violence.

A Missed Alternative

Nice picture, but I used to have a Danish-American immigrant neighbor who looked even more picturesque as often seen through his window, illuminated under a bare, dangling light bulb while he read a large family-style Bible. He had full beard and his pants were held up by a piece of rope. You might say he resembled Santa Claus, except that his eyes often conveyed stubbornness or anger. Aware that my neighbor's name was Sorensen, one of my friends dubbed him, "Soreheadsen." But he was a memorable character and we last parted in friendship.

The Story Behind Minnesotas State Picture

In 1979, Alden, Minnesota celebrated their centennial. All the men in town grew beards. My parents were good friends of Kenny Ness who was a photographer from Wells. He came up with the idea that since my dad looked so much like the gentleman in this photo, that they should do a reproduction. They quickly threw a brown table cloth over the dining room window, a can of soup in a wooden bowl, and some bread on a plate and they took the picture. Kenny ended up winning state photo awards for the photograph. I now have the original hanging in my living room. I wish I could upload a picture of the picture.

The Augsburg connection

Picky point: The names of the publisher should be reversed. Augsburg Publishing House was the publisher of the American Lutheran Church, which obtained the rights to the image. It wasn't until the late 1980s, when the ALC merged with two other Lutheran denominations to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, that the publishing house became known as Augsburg Fortress.

Thanks

Thanks for pointing this out — we’ve fixed it in the article.

Thanks for the quick

Thanks for the quick correction!

The book in Grace

My father was gifted with two original copies of this photograph from Eric Enstrom in 1967. He was 91 years old and on his way to Sweden at the time. From my late father's notes pasted on the back of the framed print: "Mr. Enstrom explained how he posed the peddlar Charles Wilden to compose the portrait he shot specifically to show at the Minnesota Photographer's Association in 1918. He was discouraged at the poor reception and in the greater interest in natural scenery and mining he photographed when not doing portraits. He let us in on secrets that heve never been published in the many accounts of the making of the picture. The "family Bible" was actually a thick dictionary providing the scale needed for his composition; the "sunlight" streaming from the scent was faked by scratching the glass negative so that a picture frame appears as an open window. To prove the latter point he hunted through the pile of prints until he found one that showed the corner of the fram but no rays of "sunshine."

The copy I inherited from my father is hanging on my kitchen wall and has the picture frame in the left corner with no streaming light.

Yes!

Cathy knows what she's talking about!!

Picture of Grace

My Family has one of the first picture of Grace My grandmother Bought it for my Dad and Moms Wedding presant, It's still in the same frame and has the news paper clipping on the back of it.