Celebrating Norwegian landscapes
Plein air sketching in the north
What could be more wonderful than immersing yourself in the landscape you are sketching? Many artists from Scandinavia and Germany headed south, beginning in the mid-19th century, where they depicted their surroundings with the specific technique of using oil paint on paper. This method allowed artists to hone their craft and travel with some freedom, utilizing a material less expense and cumbersome than canvas.
As the exhibit text of the Morgan Library & Museum’s “Plein Air Sketching in the North” explains, “When these artists returned home, they brought with them the practice of working outdoors… seeking to capture the landscape and the ephemeral effects of light and weather conditions.”
When they returned to their Northern homelands, they explored, studied, and lovingly captured their unique and little-known (to the rest of the world) environments. Leaving home in this way furthered Norwegian Romantic Nationalism, a movement driven by a desire to assert a Norwegian identity that had been subsumed by Danish and Swedish rule for 500 years.
Works by two Norwegian artists are on view in the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 25. The first is Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857), who had been a teacher at the Dresden Academy for a time, and the second is one of his students, Thomas Fearnley.
Five images by Dahl are included: “View of Dresden by Moonlight,” “Birch Tree in a Storm” (1849), “Cloud Study” (1828), and two more cloud studies that are not dated. Although a small sampling, this is an interesting mix. You see Dahl’s work from at home and abroad, while comparing three images that observe one subject, clouds.
The moonlight work has a murky palette. Dahl captures the moonlight perfectly. Its beam goes from source to sky, bridge, water, and lastly land, revealing a lone person admiring this quiet brilliance. “Birch Tree in a Storm” highlights Dahl’s ability to capture subtleties in color and detail; it finds a world in one chunk of Norway’s fiercely beautiful landscape.
Fearnley (1802-1842) has two paintings in the show. The first, “Monolith and Trees,” brings a Norwegian rock to life. You can see how Norway’s troll mythology was born from its terrain. The other, “Escarpment with Tree Stumps, Romsdal,” crops the landscape in a very unusual way, so the tree tops are hacked off and the stump—the remains—becomes a thing of beauty in form, with a coverlet of soft verdant moss.
This is the third time I have come across Scandinavian pieces from the Thaw Collection exhibited in New York museums. Eugene Thaw, a New York art dealer and collector, lived and breathed art. He once told The New York Times, “I can’t create the objects I crave to look at, so I collect them.” He became a gallery owner collecting along the way. His philosophy was that “great art collecting need not be based on a great fortune; education, experience, and eye are more important.”
As a result, he had eclectic taste and his extensive collection included Scandinavian artists, European masters, Jackson Pollock, and Native-American works. His extensive drawings were gifted to The Morgan while he was still alive. “After I’ve owned them and learned about them, I don’t need them anymore,” he told The New York Times in 1994. “They’re with me, and I can give them away.”
How fortuitous that Thaw had an eye to also see the value of northern artists. The Morgan Library and Museum and the Metropolitan Museum, who jointly own their works, have chosen to celebrate them on several occasions, curating new stories that include Scandinavian works of little-known artists, giving them a platform and the merit they deserve.
This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.