The painter that art history never accepted
FRODE SKAG STORHEIM
“I was born on a grave, Store Grave, and so my life was destined to become a walk from one grave to another. Still, I was determined to make this walk as long as possible!” And this he did, the great Norwegian painter, Hans Dahl (1849-1937). An artist who was, and still is, widely loved by the audience, but has been quite unfairly judged by many a critic, especially in Norway.
In my work as a concert pianist and lecturer, I have a special affinity for the national Romantic lines: I love telling stories with music, art, and history combined, so I thought, “I must read the biography about Hans Dahl.” But after some searching, I understood that this book simply does not exist. After some thought, I understood that this task is something I just had to do myself.
Dahl was originally cut out for a military career: His father, Hans Andreas Dahl, was a captain in the army, and his mother came from a well-situated Bergen family, the Wallendahls. This meant that Hans Dahl came from the higher levels of society. He graduated as best in his class at Krigsskolen in Christiania (Oslo) in 1871. Nonetheless, while he attended the military academy, he used all his spare time on drawing and painting. He attended the Bergslien and Eckersberg painting school in Christiania, and we have a very nice testimonial from one of his fellow students, Christian Skredsvig. In a book, he wrote:
“A handsome smiling cadet attended the classes more often. He was also a student but drew in his spare hours. Should he not become a painter? He didn’t know. But his copies after (Alexandre) Calame were masterpieces, and big as roller blinders. Oh, yes, when one is so gifted, one could look happy. And he was speaking with this fine, singing voice. He was from Bergen, and his name was Hans Dahl.”
It is obvious that his companions recognized the young man’s formidable talent, and already in 1872, he packed his brushes and canvases, and headed south to the European continent, determined to become an artist.
Dahl was heading for the leading art city in Germany at the time, Munich, but on his way there, he stopped in Karlsruhe. There, he found a Norwegian colony studying with the great master Hans Gude, and Dahl settled there for one year, before he moved to Düsseldorf.
When Adolph Tidemand and Gude studied in Düsseldorf in the 1830s and ’40s, this was the leading art academy, but in the mid-1870s, it was passé. At this time, the French influence in both art and music was steaming ahead, and in Norway, the negative connotations toward Germany had been strengthened because of the German imperialism under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s rule.
This, in turn, led to the fact that art reviews from this era must be read as a sort of war correspondence. Art made by Norwegian artists who had studied in Germany was looked upon as inferior. The French outdoor painting, Naturalism and early Impressionism had wind in its sails, and at home in Norway the Francophile ideas were a landmark for what was good art and not.
“Norway must be painted in Norway” was the watchword, which referred to the idea that a naturalistic painting can only be painted outdoors on the spot. Taking sketches in Norway and fulfilling the work in a studio in Germany was considered somewhat false.
Outside of this stood Hans Dahl. He was a conservative Romantic idealist, who painted bright and sunny paintings, filled with happy people, hints of flirting and fun, and almost always with a somewhat anecdotal feature. He continued the folk life depiction from Tidemand but always with a bright and optimistic tone.
When and why Dahl settled in this circle of motifs is not known for certain, but there are theories: This was the era of increasing tourism. Norway was considered to be Europe’s pure locales and bourgeois tourists from industrialized countries found the Norwegian fjords to be the peaceful corner of the world. And these people also had money to buy Dahl’s paintings.
So either way, they saw them in a gallery on the continent and wanted to travel to Norway, or they bought them in Norway as a memory from this peaceful outpost, the result was the same: Dahl and painter Adelsteen Normann, became the leading marketers of Norway, and he earned huge amounts of money. Most people could not afford his works, so Dahl was very often reproduced as copper engravings or postcards.
But Dahl was so much more than just a remarkable painter. When he moved to Berlin in 1888, he was one of the founders of The Scandinavian Society. He also led this for many years. This was a playground for Scandinavian artists, musicians, composers, and connoisseurs, and his home was described as very hospitable, and his German wife, Helene, was a great host.
He also invented a speedometer used on boats, cars, and trains, and he invented a lightning conductor, a ski binding, and he founded societies working for public health and diet, and he was a big fan of using wool clothing. He meant that Europeans lost their healthy blood and vital strength, but that this could be recaptured through the right lifestyle. And this is essential to understanding Dahl’s art: A reactionary Romantic, yes, but he tried to paint the solutions for the people’s health issues. And everywhere in Dahl’s notes, diaries, and letters we find the verse (translated here), “Keep a cheerful temper, in storm and in sunny weather.”
Dahl built his beautiful dragon-style villa in Balestrand, Sogn, in 1893, and later he held his garden parties there with the German emperor as a guest. We can only guess what a remarkable view it must have been: The Sognefjord laying mirror bright surrounded by the mountains, the romantic fairy-tale villa with its dragon heads reaching for the skies, and society ladies in beautiful dresses dancing waltz and two step in the summer night. Dahl moved to Balestrand permanently in 1919, and the same year his son, Hans Andreas Dahl, who also was a painter in the same manner, died after Voksenkollen Sanatorium in Oslo caught fire. This was a devastating loss for Dahl.
But as a true military officer, he remained at his post, painting his bright and cheerful paintings. The modernistic ideas that were fast spreading made fun of his motives. The director of the Norwegian National Gallery, Jens Thiis, was particularly harsh with Dahl. In his encyclopaedia of artists, he writes, “Hans Dahl’s works do not fit the frame of this book. His ceaselessly repetitive laughing or smiling horny peasant maids have nothing to do with art or Norway. He is only mentioned here for the sake of it all.”
Dahl was never accepted at the Norwegian National Gallery. Huge boxes of unopened paintings were returned—the old professor was beside himself with grief. In a script by a local historian in Sogn, Anders Ohnstad, there is a description of Dahl and his home in 1929:
“I had the opportunity to meet this famous artist and walk through his beautiful home. It was packed with romantic paintings in Düsseldorf style everywhere. Dahl understood that I was interested, but he warned me: ‘Do not become a painter.’ The reason for this was how the critics handled him. French outdoor painting had wind in its sails.
“I thought it was horrible. Beautiful fjord landscapes, maids with the bucket on their arm, sailboats in sun and wind over blue-green waves. It was a world so full of light and life that I was speechless.”
Things have luckily changed a bit. There is more acceptance for the Romantic painters now, and the Norwegian National Gallery possesses two works by Hans Dahl. Also, other Romantic painters from that era have got their biographies, but now it is Dahl’s turn.
One of the most challenging things is that everything Dahl owned was auctioned in Balestrand in 1958: Paintings, drawings, sketches, furniture, photographs. Everything is now scattered all over. This makes the source hunt very difficult, also because public libraries and archives have very little. The only exception is KODE in Bergen.
Therefore, I am now reaching out to everyone who has source material that can help shed some light on this fantastic, but heavily neglected painter. Paintings, drawings, photos, diaries, virtually everything is interesting.
My aim is to bring Hans Dahl’s life and art into the light he deserves—the same light we find in his paintings.
If you have any information about Hans Dahl’s art and life, please email Frode Skag Storheim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.