A fisher boy’s story
Isak Ræfsnes painted West Norway’s marine scenes
MARY JO THORSHEIM
Isak Ræfsnes (1852-1928) painted “Celebration at Lindås 1925,” a beautiful scene from Lindås, Norway, which shows boats gathering in the harbor there. First, we’ll look at the original oil painting and then describe the interesting life story of the artist.
Where in the world is Lindås?
Lindås is located north of Bergen, surrounded by water on three sides and mountains on the fourth side. This community and area north of Bergen, with its abundant ancient history, is in Nordhordland, Hordaland (as of January 2020, Hordaland merged with Sogn og Fjordane county to become Vestland county, but most of us know the old name best). There were Viking settlements there. Seim in Lindås is the site of the burial mound of King Håkon the Good, third king of Norway. Today, Mongstad, in the northern part of Lindås, has one of the largest oil refineries and seaports in Norway.
In former times, there were few road connections to Lindås, but two bridges and a tunnel provide easier access today. (My early trips to visit my roots on Thorsheim at Seim near Lindås involved at least two ferries. We transferred from one to another at Radøy. But this story is about Isak and one of his paintings, and not about me.)
Like with our Hans Dahl painting featured in the Sept. 17 issue of The Norwegian American, we can only speculate about the type of celebration that Ræfsnes portrayed in the painting shown here. What was the event attracting attention and visitors? Were the fishing boats at Lindås celebrating a big catch, and had they come from other places? Was there an observance in Lindås that marked the centennial of the Norwegian immigration to the United States in 1825, when the Restauration brought the first Norwegian immigrants to America? Were Syttende Mai or Midtsommer festivities happening in Lindås?
The details included in this painting are faithful to the actual Lindås 1925 scene, with its utilitarian buildings, broad harbor, and its fishing boats typical of the 1920s. In the luminous light that Ræfsnes captured, the focal point of the boats gives the painting energy, and the calm blue water provides a peaceful feeling.
Fiskergutt som ble maler—Fisher boy who became a painter
Isak Elias Aslaksen Refsnæs was born on the farm “Refsnes” at Ytre Stadlandet at the part of the peninsula that is farthest out in the sea. Where is Stadlandet, Norway? It is located north of Bergen, southwest of Ålesund in northwest Nordfjord in Vestland. The quickest way to get to Ålesund from Stadlandet is a quick two-hour trip by ferry, northward along the coast. Stadlandet is a peninsula, and it is the dividing point between the Norwegian Sea to the north and the North Sea to the south. Extending northwest from the mainland into the sea, it is surrounded by water on three sides.
Ræfsnes was born and grew up and lived all his life near the sea. Fishing from an open boat as an impressionable youth gave him the opportunity to observe and appreciate marine life: boats, ships, the sea, nature and coastal scenes that probably gave him important perspectives to capture in his paintings later in life. (“Fishing” was commercial fishing to harvest fish for the local market and for export, not recreational fishing.)
When Ræfsnes was of school age, he received instruction from itinerant teachers who traveled from town to town and held classes at each farm for the children who lived there. After the new education law of 1860 when he was 8 years old, every student had the right to eight weeks of school per year.
He entered military officers’ school in Bergen when he was 20. He graduated in 1874 and then worked for a few years in an office. After learning about photography, he had positions with two studios in Bergen. The whole time his interest in drawing and painting grew and he spent much of his free time in those pursuits. He completed two years in technical school in the evenings, but finances prevented more education or art study abroad. For that reason, he became mostly self-taught from then on, and he favored subjects that he knew well: the sea, coastal landscapes, boats, and ships.
In 1880, Ræfsnes married. He and his wife had seven children. Providing for all of them was a financial challenge. He was forced to sell his art at low prices, and for that reason he compensated by creating many paintings. He painted a lot of portraits of people and also traveled around to different towns in western Norway to paint portraits of ships for shipping firms there. In addition to producing paintings of fleets of ships for big steamship companies, he created altar paintings for churches and school banner designs (like those that schoolchildren carry in Syttende Mai parades in Norway today).
Ræfsnes visited Ålesund several times where he stayed with a brother. Many of his paintings from that period exist in Ålesund and the Ålesund district. Among them is a collection at the Ålesund Museum. On Dec. 9, 1928, after a productive life of 76 years, Ræfsnes died in Bergen.
In the end, Isak Refsnæs was best known for his marine paintings and interpretation of western Norway’s coastal nature and the sea. He was also a landscape and portrait painter. He might have been dubbed “son-of-the sea,” a fisher boy who became a recognized painter of subjects he knew so well.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.