William A. Dietrichson (b. 1922 – d. 2014) dramatically evolved in his artistic style throughout a lifelong career. Hennepin History Museum has several of his works in its collection, most of which are from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Our collection is representative of his fantastic and abstract period. These paintings are heavily influenced by Medieval fantasy, abstract landscapes, and seem to illustrate scenes from an epic story that only existed in Dietrichson’s own mind.
This untitled work evokes the imagination. I can easily see this being concept art for a fantasy series. The possibilities for interpretation are endless. But Dietrichson didn’t start out creating bizarre and surreal paintings. For many decades, he was a portraitist.
Dietrichson’s family moved to Minneapolis from Wisconsin when he was a year old. In second grade, he attended the Minneapolis School of Art, now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, as the youngest student in their young adult class. After high school, he served in WWII. Upon returning from the war, Dietrichson dove straight back into art and attended the Art Students League in New York on a scholarship.
After New York, Dietrichson began painting portraits in earnest. He exhibited at local galleries such as the Harriet Hanley Gallery and the Rainbow Café throughout the late 1940s. He created store displays for Dayton’s and was the set-painter for WCCO’s 1950s children’s show Axel’s Tree House. The show needed new backdrops semi-regularly due to the wear and tear of the set, so Dietrichson had plenty of work. Working with tempera on thin paper sheets was a breeze for Dietrichson and it gave him experience in painting landscapes.
In addition to set design, Dietrichson made a name for himself as a children’s portraitist. He participated in “Picture Picnics” at the Walker Art Center, drawing portraits of small children as they enjoyed the day with their family. He taught drawing and portrait classes both independently and at the Minneapolis School of Art, the Minnetonka Art Center, and the Edina Art Center.
Dietrichson spent the latter half of his career pushing the boundaries of his art, not wanting to feel constrained by traditional fundamental art techniques. In 1961, he exhibited in the Killbride-Bradley Gallery’s last one-man show. The show included semi-abstract farmscapes, portraits, still lifes, and one small abstract. Dietrichson’s works since 1961 leaned more toward surrealist and abstract styles, much like what is in our collection.
His 1980s exhibit at the Steensland Gallery advertised “a colorful fantasy of demons, beasts, satyrs, and dragons.” Portraiture was a part of the past for Dietrichson at this point. The selection of his work at the Hennepin History Museum aligns with these themes: mythology, imaginary worlds, and creatures that hardly resemble living beings.
Dietrichson’s works have captured the imagination of his audiences for decades. I hope they will continue to inspire those who enjoy the absurd and odd.
Author Bio: Written by Summer Erickson, Visitor Services Manager and Collections Assistant at Hennepin History Museum. Erickson graduated with a B.A. in Art History and Museum Studies from the University of St. Thomas in 2020.
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Bachmann, April. “Ghostly paintings haunt Gallery.” Manitou Messenger. Vol. 94, No. 6. (1980): 12 https://stolaf.eastview.com/browse/doc/45131227
“Dietrichson Paintings Use Red as Mainstay.” Star Tribune. April 30, 1961. https://startribune.newspapers.com/clip/83231502/star-tribune/
“Dietrichson Show to Open.” Star Tribune. Jan. 04, 1948. https://startribune.newspapers.com/clip/90566670/
Hansen, Jada. “From the Director’s Chair.” Hennepin History. Fall 2011. Vol. 70, No. 3. https://digitalcollections.hclib.org/digital/collection/p17208coll13/id/3202
“Picture Picnic is Planned for Children.” The Minneapolis Star. July 12, 1956. https://startribune.newspapers.com/clip/90568955/
Preus, Helen. “Childhood Preserved – $50 to $500.” Star Tribune. June 07, 1959. https://startribune.newspapers.com/clip/90565987/
“William A. Dietrichson.” Star Tribune. Feb. 16, 2014. Accessed on Dec. 14, 2021. https://www.startribune.com/obituaries/detail/14014297/
“Woman’s Club Art Show Called Best Ever by Dean.” Star Tribune. April 06, 1949. https://startribune.newspapers.com/clip/90566881/
This blog was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.