Herbjorn Peter Egeli was the oldest of the three sons of Even Egeli (1874–1915) and Josefine Mathilde Wennerstrom (1875–1921). He had traditional schooling with additional art classes and wood-carving taught by his uncle, Hermann Ekeli (1885–1946) (the various family branches spelt the name either Ekeli or Egeli). Bjorn, who on his paternal grandfather's side descended from Haukeli in Vinje, county of Telemark, was not the first artist in his family. A great-great-uncle, Tor Sveinsen Øykjelie (1825–1882), was a well-known rosepainter who eventually emigrated to Wisconsin, USA.
Move to the United States
Egeli, who later dropped "Her" from his name, left Norway after the death of his father in 1915. It was the custom for young men to be on their own when coming to the confirmation age of 15 and so Egeli left to join the crew of a sailing ship out of Oslo.
After seven years at sea, during which time he painted maritime subjects and made ship models, he came to the United States in 1923 and entered Brooklyn Art School in New York. Later after another period at sea, in 1924, he entered the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC. There he studied under Richard S. Meryman, Eugene Weisz and S. Burtis Baker. From 1927-1929 he continued to study at the Corcoran where he won prizes and in 1932 he won the Corcoran Galley Biennial most popular picture award. Early in his studies, his teachers noted Egeli's ability. This recognition earned him commissions from members of the community who came to the Corcoran to purchase paintings. One of his earliest works was a mural in one of the early houses in Chevy Chase. Egeli did a painting of a medieval chase scene that showed the huntsmen leaving the castle, then pursuing a stag and finally, returning with it at the end of the day. Another project was a series of woodcuts for two books of poems (1932 & 1933) by Tom Sweeney.
The public quickly became aware of Egeli's talents, especially in portraiture. The list of commissions from the Washington area began to grow. Egeli at first used a room in the basement of the Corcoran as a studio.
In 1932 he returned to Norway to be united with his brothers and uncle for a short visit. His mother, Mathilde had died on May 17, 1921 At the time of his last visit to Norway, he considered America his home, having become a US citizen in 1921. Later that year he married Lois Baldwin, a fellow student at the Corcoran. They would eventually have five children, Peter Egeli, Cedric Egeli, Bjorn James Egeli, Mary Lois Ekroos, and Carolyn Egeli, all of whom pursued careers as professional artists.
Egeli's success at the Corcoran and his many successful commissions resulted in a one-man exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art in early 1936. The exhibit of 34 portraits launched his career. Over the next nearly fifty years he continued to paint portraits. This includes two U.S. Presidents (Richard M. Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Capitol Hill Club,) several Supreme Court Justices (Melville Weston Fuller & James Clark McReynolds), leaders in medicine (Mayo Brothers, Charles Horace Mayo and William James Mayo for the Mayo Clinic, and Paul Henry Streit for Walter Reed Army Institute of Research), industrialists (Lamont DuPont for DuPont, among others), military leaders (Adm. Jules James, Gen. Maxwell Taylor and Gen. Douglas MacArthur and others), political leaders (Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Thomas Hunter Lowe and others) and educators (Canon Albert H. Lucas, of St. Alban’s School in Washington, DC, and Pierre Samuel DuPont of the University of Delaware).
Late in his life, Egeli turned his attention again to the sea and resumed painting maritime subjects including some of the ships he had once sailed. Egeli died at his home in Valley Lee, Maryland on October 20, 1984 at the age of 83.
- Øykjelieslekta, a genealogical survey by Gunnlaug Haugarne Stølen, published in Bygdemellom, Sullamrei Historielag (Historical Society), 2002, pp. 5–19.
- Cf. the churchbook of Vestfold county, Horten, Parish register (official) nr. 5 (1896-1904), Birth and baptism records 1901, page 85, no. 2.
- SSDI, SSN 220-38-2719.
- Cf. the Norwegian national census 1910 (the youngest brother was born in 1911).
- Program from Smithsonian Exhibition in 1936 as well as newspaper interviews and family records.
- Cf. Øykjelieslekta, a genealogical survey by Gunnlaug Haugarne Stølen, published in Bygdemellom 2002, pp. 5-19.
- In addition to Øykjelieslekta: Norske Minnesmerker. Rosemaaling i Telemark, Vol. III, p. 42, 45 and 150, by Øystein Vesaas, Riksantikvariatet: Oslo, 1957.
- Cf. the churchbook of Vålerenga, Parish register (official) nr. 3 (1899-1930), Death and burial records 1915, page 162, no. 65.
- Cf. several ship lists at Ancestry.com.
- Collection of Elizabeth Egeli.
- Based on letters from Burke family members.
- Based on photographs and family material.
- Cf. the churchbook of Vålerenga, Parish register (official) nr. 3 (1899-1930), Death and burial records 1921, page 209, no. 19.
- US census 1930, Washington, District of Columbia; Roll: 294; Page: 8B; Enumeration District: 81; Image: 336.0. Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line].
- Based on family genealogical records.
- Letters to Bjorn Egeli from clients.