Ben Blessum was born in Marstein, Romsdalen, Norway, on November 4, 1877. After spending his younger years in Trondheim, he emigrated to Menominee, WI, with his parents in 1888 when he was 11 years old. He also lived in Eau Claire, WI, where his father worked in the lumber mills. He received only six years of formal schooling before quitting in order to help the family make a living, working variously as a lumberjack, bricklayer, clerk and bookkeeper.
At the age of 18, he moved to Chicago, IL (1896), where he attended art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked as a commercial artist. He worked for the Chicago Tribune as an illustrator, designed book jackets, and created satirical drawings. He also wrote articles for various publications in Norway including Bergens Tidende, Morganbladet, Aftennposten, and Urd.
In 1903 Blessum traveled to Europe, visiting Norway for the first time since emigrating. Back in America after several trips to Norway, he produced sketches, paintings and drawings. During a trip to Norway in 1913, he was commissioned to design and execute a painting for “The Emigrant” at the Norwegian Centennial Exposition in Oslo, held to celebrate the anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution in 1914. Shortly after receiving this commission, he painted “The Departure of the ‘Restauration’” (which sailed from Stavanger to America in 1825), purchased by the Norwegian-American steamship line. It has appeared in reproductions in several thousand copies.
After a visit to Norway in 1915, Blessum held an exhibit in Chicago which was well received. In 1916, he lived in Santa Fe, NM, painting Indian subjects for the Santa Fe Railroad. During World War I, Blessum served as a representative to the American Committee on Public Information in Norway and acted in the same capacity for the U.S. War Department. After the War, Blessum was commissioned by the Norwegian State Railways to manage their U.S. travel office in New York and promote tourism in Norway with a poster campaign, lectures and articles. He delivered nearly a thousand lectures on Norway.
After living for several years in New York, Blessum settled in Chicago with his wife, Karen Olsen, whom he married in 1900, and their children, Norman and Dagny. He retired in 1936 and built a home at Deep Lake, about 40 miles from Chicago. Blessum died at Lake Villa, IL, on October 4, 1954, at the age of 77.
Blessum exhibited widely, beginning at the Art Institute of Chicago where his works were shown between 1903 and 1909. Exhibitions of his works were held at the Chicago Norske Klub Annual Art Exhibit in 1921, the Norse-American Centennial Art Exhibition at the Minnesota State Fair in 1925, the University of Minnesota exhibit “The Divided Heart: Scandinavian Immigrant Artists, 1850-1950” in 1982, and the Norwegian-American exhibit in Norway in 1989. A one-man retrospective of 80 oil paintings by Blessum was held at the Chicago Norske Klub in 1945. He was a member of the Palette & Chisel Club in Chicago.
During his life, Blessum received numerous honors including the Order of the Knight of St. Olav, First Class, bestowed by King Haakon in recognition of his many services to Norway. He served as secretary of the Norwegian National League for over 50 years. Beginning in 1905, he was a member of the Bjørgvin Singing Society. He also belonged to the Normennenes Singing Society and attended several sangerfests.
Courtesy of Luther College