Carl Oscar Borg was born in Dals-Grinstad, Sweden on March 3, 1879 Gustaf Borg, a career soldier. He was the eldest son to an impoverished family and went to school during the winters and spent his springs and summers working as a herd boy for wealthier neighboring farmers.  Borg began copying pictures from a reproduction of King Gustavus Adlophus and yellowing etchings in the old family bible as a child. While his father had negative sentiments towards Borg’s talents, he was praised by his teacher Lars Nören, and pastor A. Magnus Nilman. At 14, in exchange for room and board from the Pastor Nilman and Mrs. Nilman, Borg groomed the Nilman family’s horses and took on other odd jobs. The Nilman family treated Borg like a son and gave him his first set of paints and provided him free access to their extensive library. Recognizing his talents, Pastor Nilman arranged an apprenticeship to a master house painter-decorator in Vänersborg.  His success as a house painter-decorator proved to be successful and Borg left to Stockholm in hopes of becoming a successful independent artist.

This venture proved to be unsuccessful and instead found work with a ship painting firm. In 1900, the firm asked Borg to set sail to France to finish a job. On his arrival in France, Borg took his pay and left his job due to disagreements with the captain of the ship. Without work, friends, and a strong command of the French language, he would have been stuck in France if not for a seaman’s minister’s recommendation for Borg to sail for England where he could book a passage back to Sweden or America. Borg’s bad luck stayed with him in England where he was robbed of all his possessions. For a period, he lived like a vagrant in parks and streets scrounging for food where he could. While down on his luck, he continued to sketch on any scrap of paper he was able to get his hands on.

One day, while he was sketching on the docks of sailors and ships, George Johansen, owner of a firm specializing in portraits and marine paintings, saw Borg’s works and offered him a position. During this period, Borg also began to learn English. While working for Johansen, he also painted the sets at the Drury Lane Theater and soon after, began to gain minor recognition.

In 1901, a Norwegian captain offered to take Borg to America in exchange for a picture to be painted on the ship’s cabin walls. He arrived in Norfolk, Virginia and wandered East earning money decorating houses and carving wooden furniture. He eventually signed on as a sailor on the S.S. Arizona which was headed to California. He arrived in 1903 and took on odd jobs such as laying parquet floors and decorating buildings while in Los Angeles.  His reputation as a hard worker gave Borg his first opportunity when Danish photographer Christian Pedersen offered him partnership in his modest studio. During this period, Borg took photographs, painted signs. Through his partner, he also became good friends with Los Angeles Times first art critic Antony Anderson.

His circle of friends continually expanded when he met Idah Meacham Strobridge. He was introduced to cultural leaders of the community such as Charles and Eva Lummis, artist William president of the Friday Morning Club, Mary Gibson, and wealthy California patron of the arts, Phoebe Apperson Hearst. In the fall of 1908, Borg spent 9 months with Eva Lummis visiting her son in Teguciagalpa, Honduras. Upon his return, in 1909, Borg had gained the reputation of being an explorer painter, book and artifact collector, scholar, pundit, and poet. He gained patronage from Hearst and was given the opportunity to visit and study old master artists of Europe and North Africa for four years at Hearst’s expense. Borg’s trip was full of success exhibiting in Rome, Venice, St. Petersburg, Ghent, Brughes, Amsterdam, Versailles, Vichy, Paris, and London. His first solo exhibition at the Jules Gautier Gallery in Paris in 1913 marked his continual success outside of America. He continually sought unity and continuity linking the new world to an older one.

Upon his return to California in 1916, Hearst arranged for Borg to go to Hopi and Navajo reservations to photograph and paint the Native Americans on their land. For 15 years, Borg continued to return to Arizona and New Mexico to paint while painting landscapes in California. In 1918, he met and married Madeline Carriel and they settled in Santa Barbara until 1925 where he taught at the Santa Barbara School of the Arts, painted, exhibited in solo and group exhibitions, and held regular open houses. Here he met many friendships with others in the arts community including artists Thomas Moran and Ed Borein.

Borg moved to Hollywood in 1925 and taught at the California Art Institute whiles working as an art director for Douglas Fairbanks designing the highly acclaimed full length color film The Black Pirate. The interval years 1925-35 were spent traveling in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Grand Canyon. His wife left him during those years and on one of his three trips to Sweden in the 1930s, he met and fell in love with Lilly Lindstrand. He made the decision to move to Sweden in 1938, but when war broke out in Europe, he was forced to remain there the duration of the war. While in Sweden, he had considerable fame and financial success in selling his paintings of Indians and desert scenes to art collectors. After WWII ended, Borg returned to Santa Barbara in 1945 where he died on May 8, 1947. His biography was published in Sweden posthumously. His subjects include Hopi and Navajo Indians, cowboys, historical scenes, landscapes, marines, and missions.

Member: California Art Club; Laguna Beach Art Association; San Francisco Art Association; California Society of Etchers; Salmagundi Club; Associate of the National Academy of Design; California Watercolor Society; Academy of Western Painters; Société Internationale des Beaux Arts et Lettres, Paris; California Printmakers; Painters of the West.  

Exhibited: Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, MO, 1904; Ruskin Art Club, Los Angeles, 1905; Steckel Galleries, Los Angeles, 1906; Alaska-Yukon Exposition, Seattle, WA, 1909; Los Angeles Painters Club, 1909; Helgesen Gallery, San Francisco, 1910; Société des Artistes Français, Paris, France, 1912, 1920; Salmagundi Club, New York, 1914; Versailles, France, 1914; California Art Club, 1915; Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Diego, 1915; Arizona State Fair, 1916; Société des Artistes Francais, Paris, France, 1920; Pacific Southwest Exposition, 1928.

Works held: Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris; California State Library, Sacramento; de Young Museum, San Francisco; Gothenburg Ethological Museum, Sweden; Irvine Museum; Library of Congress, Washington, DC; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Lowie Museum, University of California, Berkeley; Mills College, Oakland; National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; Oakland Museum; Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach; Santa Barbara Museum of Art; Seattle Art Museum, Washington.

Artists in California: 1786-1940 by Edan Milton Hughes
Carl Oscar Borg: A Niche in Time by Palm Springs Desert Museum