The Story Behind “Grace”

Do you recognize this piece of art?

772px-Grace1918photographEnstrom

Odds are pretty good that you do. Perhaps this picture was on the wall at your Grandmother’s house or your home church.  You might even have the picture on your wall. It is one of the most reproduced pictures of the 20th Century.

But do you know the story behind it?

Painted by Rhoda Nyberg, this famous portrait is from a photograph taken in 1918 by Mrs. Nyberg’s father, Eric Enstrom, a photographer from Bovey, Minnesota.

Popular evangelical blogger Justin Taylor recently did some research on the famous piece and here is what he discovered…

Is it a photo or a painting?

It was originally a photo, and it was later painted in oils.

What’s the name of the painting?

“Grace.”

Who is the man in the photo?

Charles Wilden, a peddler who sold foot-scrapers.

What year was it taken?

1918.

Who took the photo?

Eric Enstrom.

Where was it taken?

In Enstrom’s photography studio in Bovey, Minnesota.

What happened?

Wilden, selling foot-scrapers, called upon Enstrom. Enstrom was in the midst of preparing a portfolio of photos for the upcoming Minnesota Photographer’s Association convention. Wilden agreed to be photographed, and Enstrom arranged a table with a bread, a knife, a bowl of gruel, spectacles, and a Bible, asking Wilden to bow in prayer. Enstrom later said, “I wanted to take a picture that would show people that even though they had to do without many things because of the war they still had much to be thankful for.”

Who did the oil painting?

Enstrom’s daughter, Mrs. Rhoda Nyberg of Coleraine, Minnesota. She painted numerous paintings of the original photo.

What about the similar picture of the old woman bowed in prayer?

It, too, is a photo, called “Gratitude,” taken in the 1960s by Jack Garren, who owned a Christian bookstore in Centralia, Illinois. The subject is Mrs. Myrtle Copple (d. 1975), and the photo was designed to complement “Grace.” The two are often packaged together: “Grace and Gratitude.”

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27 thoughts on “The Story Behind “Grace””

  1. I have this picture in my home that I found in a yard sale. I love it and am so happy to find information behind this treasured picture.

    1. Marilyn, I’m not seeing this picture near as much as when I was a young person. In fact, I’m not sure I can name a home in which this classic is on the wall. Glad to know there is at least one home out there that still recognizes the simple beauty of this work of art.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. You will be happy to know that I know of 3 others. I first saw the picture when I got married almost 20 years ago. Two of my sister-in-law’s displayed it. I just saw a Christmas picture of a friend on facebook and in the background was Grace! I asked her if she had any background on it and she did! I was thrilled and looked up more information then as I had something to go on. So, there are 4 of us, Brett that I know of.

  3. I have two of Grace and one of Gratitude displayed in my home. Though I do not recall seeing either in anybody else’s home.

  4. 5, I have both Grace and Gratitude above my dining room table…in the mid to late 60’s my aunt had Grace above her kitchen table… I loved pretending he was having a snack with me… In the 90’s I ran across Gratitude at a book store and passed her by… A couple years ago while going through my husband’s late aunt’s estate I found Grace but in very poor condition. However, it put me on a hunt for Gratitude…I mentioned it to a few family members and last year for Christmas I received beautiful new copies of both… they are now in matching frames and will forever hang above my table…I may even someday, once again pretend that we are having a snack together! I love them!

  5. i have grace been hanging in my dinning room. i bought it in the 80’s from a lady who sold it because it belonged to her husbands deceased wife

    1. It was an act of grace for you to take off her hands, or a lack of grace causing her to get rid of it! Thanks for sharing, Connie.

  6. My grandparents are 92 and moved “to town” this past fall. I asked for and was given their copy of “Grace.” It is in the original frame and has a paper thin backing. I also received their kitchen table and chairs, which I found out they purchased when they married, 65+ years ago. They would have been young children when this photograph was taken and I’m kind of in awe about having it in my own tiny kitchen. It is definitely a reminder to be thankful for what I have.

  7. My mother loved both of these paintings and longed to have a copy of them. I found them for her by fluke one day and she had them hanging in her diningroom for years. She died about 13 years ago and the pictures were supposed to come to me, but my dad couldn’t part with them until two years ago when he said I could take them home with me. They now hang side by side in my kitchen and they are truly an inspiration in and of themselves and a loving reminder of my mother. Thank you for sharing the history of them–now they mean even more!

    1. Connie,

      Thanks for sharing your story. Perhaps these are becoming meaningful family heirlooms that you can pass along as well someday!

      Pastor Brett

  8. We found a different one 1st that is would swear was the same guy reading a bible but i cant find it on here then next day came across “grace” in a thrift store. Any ideas on the other picture looks like the same guy with glasses on readying the bible

  9. are these two pictures copywrited? I wuld love to have copies made ont belgian linen canvas . Do I need permission? if so from whom?

    1. Nicholas, I’m not sure about the copyright status of these pieces. I’m assuming they are in the public domain but not sure. I tried to go to the Contact info page on the family’s website but the url was not working. Perhaps you can try. Here’s the website: http://www.gracebyenstrom.com/

      Sorry for the delay in answering your question!

  10. Published February 27, 2012, 08:29 PM
    Man in famous ‘Grace’ photo mystifies historians
    The death last week of Rhoda Nyberg, the daughter of photographer Eric Enstrom, poured light again on the famous image her father took of a white-bearded peddler bowed in prayer at a table, a photo that Nyberg famously colored.

    By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

    The death last week of Rhoda Nyberg, the daughter of photographer Eric Enstrom, poured light again on the famous image her father took of a white-bearded peddler bowed in prayer at a table, a photo that Nyberg famously colored.

    Perhaps the big question one gets from the image seen in so many homes is who is that guy?

    Turns out he is a man of mystery, of sorts, if we define mystery as something we don’t know much about.

    His name was Charles Wilden and two historians of the photo say nobody knows where Wilden came from, where he was born or where he died; wherever it was, it apparently was without any family.

    The man behind the giant, black-shrouded camera was a Swedish immigrant who was in his early 40s when he asked Wilden to pose in his studio in Bovey, Minn., between Grand Rapids and Hibbing in the middle of the state’s Iron Range and timber country.

    That was about 1920. In 1926, Wilden signed over all his rights to the photo to Enstrom for $5, according to a receipt from Enstrom’s family, said Lilah Crowe, executive director of the Itasca County Historical Society in Grand Rapids where the camera and the receipt and several copies of the photo are held.

    Nothing else of Wilden.

    Legends, stories

    “Charles fell off the map,” said Crowe, who once worked in Enstrom Studio and now gives popular presentations on the photo. “We have not found where he died.”

    She thinks he was born in Sweden, like Enstrom, because Enstrom’s children remember the two “chatting away in Swedish,” Crowe said Monday.

    Maybe not, says another historian of the photo.

    “He remains a very, very elusive figure,” said Don Boese, St. Paul, retired history professor at Itasca Community College who researched Wilden and the photo, publishing articles and a booklet on it all. “Researching him is finding all kinds of legends and all kinds of stories and more non-answers than there are answers.”

    “He moved to the Grand Rapids area sometime before 1920 and where he came from exactly or where his roots are, it’s not possible to say,” Boese said Monday. “He doesn’t appear in the Minnesota census.”

    Many accounts date the photo at 1918. But Boese said Nyberg, born in 1917, told him she remembered seeing it taken, so he figures it was 1920 or so.

    “It just appealed to people,” Boese said. “Later, when Enstrom answered questions about it, he said in the wake of World War I, he was looking for something that would represent still being thankful. But Enstrom never put down a thorough account of where he was coming from so many mythologies have crept in.”

    Ne’er do well

    Many remark on the humility the subject displays in his bowed head and the tired, penitent slump of his arms and folded hands.

    Wilden had a lot to be humble about.

    “He was living in a very primitive sod hut near Grand Rapids, eking out a very precarious living,” Boese said. “He was going door to door selling various sundries. One was a boot–scraper. That’s how Enstrom encountered him. Enstrom looked at him and Enstrom was a really good photographer and saw features in him he thought were outstanding.”

    (Crowe says Enstrom also is famous for being the first to photograph Judy Garland, before she was 3 and was still Frances Gumm in Grand Rapids.)

    The thick book on the table was not a Bible, as many think and even the receipt from Wilden describes it, but a dictionary belonging to Enstrom, Boese said.

    One of the misconceptions was that the man in the photo was a pious, even saintly, Christian, Boese said. “The stories about him centered more around drinking and not accomplishing very much.”

    The single piece of official documentation he did find on Wilden was a divorce decree.

    “Very soon after he arrived in Grand Rapids, he married a woman from Grand Rapids in 1920,” Boese said. “Very soon, he and that woman divorced and she would never talk about what happened. Her descendants knew only in vague terms of that marriage.”

    The woman re-married and had children. Her granddaughters, in fact, visited Crowe some years ago at the Historical Society’s museum in Grand Rapids.

    “They asked some questions,” Crowe said. “They knew their grandmother had never gotten along with him well. She was from the Deer River area.”

    Boese said “the story was passed down to the family that one of them put the picture up in his house and that brought severe recriminations upon him from this (ex-wife.)”

    Famous nobody

    Ironically, for someone who has left no family or known history, Wilden’s image in the photo brought forth countless people over the years claiming he was a relative, Crowe and Boese say.

    None panned out.

    A decade ago, Boese interviewed an elderly man in St. Paul who had a credible story of knowing Wilden as a young boy.

    “This person remembers his house, remembers when his mother, when she was baking bread, made an extra loaf for Wilden, who very much appreciated it because he had so little.”

    Augsburg Fortress Press made a deal with Enstrom about 1930 to use the photograph, in Sunday school materials and a myriad of prints and photo. Enstrom had income of that his whole life, and his children after his death, although it wasn’t enough to live on, Crowe said.

    Boese said Enstrom, once he started making money with the photo, tried to find Wilden with no success.

    “I was in Ukraine some years ago, in Kiev, walking down the street and in this window, there was that picture hanging on the wall,” Boese said. “Here’s a guy whose face has become famous literally the world over… a face so known of someone of who we know practically nothing.”

    Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send email to slee@gfherald.com.

  11. In answer to Sadies question above, the other print is “Grace” by Michael San Fratello. I am thankful in that I have all three…

  12. We always saw Grace and Gratitude as separate pictures but were able to find it in one frame at a Christian book store with the prayer from 1 Chro. 16:34 between them. It, too, hangs above my dining room table.

    1. That’s the first I’ve heard of such a combination, but it makes a lot of sense. Perfect verse for it, too! ” O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever.” (1 Chron. 16.34, KJV). Thanks, Kathy, for sharing!

  13. I am seeking information on the painter whom Sadie described since it sounds like the picture that hangs in our Sunday school classroom. It is signed Michael Sanfratello. I’d like to do an article for our church newsletter as the congregational historian.

  14. I first saw these prints at age 4 in a neighbors home. At age 30 my wife gave me a fine set of them. A few years later we gave them to friends when we went to Africa as missionaries. Now, years later, we are back and I’m looking for another set. They are getting hard to find. Thanks for the background info.

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