Portrait of an Eidsvoll man
Reflections on a famous painting
MARY JO THORSHEIM
The reason that Syttende mai is celebrated by Norwegians is well known. On May 17, 1814, the Norwegian people adopted their own Norwegian Constitution and formalized the separation from the union with Denmark.
The Constitution was primarily based on the American Declaration of Independence from 1776. A National Constitutional Assembly of elected representatives from all over Norway met from April to June, 1814, at a manor house at Eidsvoll, Norway. Scholars have studied the Norwegian and American constitutions, including Dr. Knut Gundersen, whose doctoral dissertation compared them. (Many Luther College graduates remember Professor Gundersen.)
Oscar Wergeland’s (1844-1910) painting of the National Assembly representatives is a remarkable, detailed portrayal of the scene. This is his most famous work, although he is represented in the National Gallery of Norway by two others. He probably began the piece in 1852, and it was completed in 1855. During that time, he painted individual portraits of many of the 55 men included in the painting. Its permanent home is a prime location in the Storting, where it reminds viewers of the importance of the Assembly at Eidsvoll and the historic accomplishments of the 112 representatives.
Who were these men? What were their occupations and records of public involvement that qualified them to be elected to participate in such an important assembly?
In Wergeland’s painting, we can focus on one representative: Asgaut Olsen Regelstad (1761-1847). He is shown standing in the back of the room, in front of the window, wearing a red jacket or coat. He is in conversation with two other men. The others are probably the prominent Pastor Lars Andreas Oftedahl, who represented Stavanger, and Christen Mølbach, a merchant from Egersund. These three represented all of Stavanger/Rogaland. A fourth man represented Stavanger: Peder Valentin Rosenkilde, a merchant.
Regelstad (aka Reilstad) was from Reilstad on the idyllic island of Finnøy, 15 miles northeast of Stavanger. Although his major occupation was farming, he also served as sheriff, judge, assistant to the pastor, on the school board, and was involved in many projects, including those helping the poor.
Overall, he must have had quite an experience in 1814. We can imagine what the travel entailed. Getting to Eidsvoll from his home farm Reilstad on the end of the island to the wharf at Judaberg was the first step. Then, the journey took him on a sailboat from Stavanger around southern Norway to Oslo. From there, he would have gone on to Eidsvoll to meet with the National Assembly.
Finnøy is a grassy island with sparse trees. It is flatter than most places in Norway and not as rocky as islands that lie farther out in the North Sea. Today, a tunnel connects with the neighboring island of Talgje, but ferries regularly shuttle from Stavanger to the islands. Tomato production has thrived since after World War II, and tourism has grown.
Tourists can visit the memorial obelisk that honors Regelstad. It is located at the Hesby Church on Finnøy.
The first map of Norway by the famous Dutch mapmaker Joan Blaeu in 1638 shows the island. (See The Norwegian American, Feb. 7, 2020, for the map in my article “The Birkebeiner.”)
Another notable person from Finnøy was the Norwegian-American artist Elmer Berge (1892-1956). In about 1910, he immigrated to Chicago, where he studied art. He returned to Norway stayed there from 1918 to1922 to study with the English painter Matthew Williams Thompson and paint Norwegian landscapes. He then moved back to America and settled in Minneapolis. His landscapes and marine paintings glow with the love of nature, as seen in the original oil painting “First Snow of the Season.” This fine example of his work is offered by Norway Art for acquisition.
Berge and other people who grew up on Finnøy were probably well-versed in the history of Syttende mai and their special connection to it through Regelstad. Today, there are many descendants of Eidsvoll men—and their wives—and I am proud to share that I am in the family tree of Asgaut Olsen Regelstad!
HURRA FOR SYTTENDE MAI!
This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.