The paintings of Hans Dahl (1849-1937)
Jewels of West Norway
MARY JO THORSHEIM
Shimmering and sparkling in the Norwegian light, Hans Dahl’s paintings capture the life of the people who lived in rural western Norway in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Dahl’s palette of colors is reminiscent of clear rubies, aquamarines, sapphires, pearls, and jade—depicted in the red vests of bunads, blue water and sky, ivory clouds and the various shades of green in grassy meadows.
“Arriving for a Celebration” is a magnificent original oil painting by Hans Dahl—a rare jewel! It is lively, with action that takes place in a beautiful western Norway fjord setting. Boatloads of folks—many wearing regional bunads (folk costumes) are shown as they arrive for a celebration, probably in the Sognefjord village of Balestrand, where Dahl lived and painted. Travel by boat was the only form of practical transportation in that area at that time. The images of the typical western Norwegian boats are particularly interesting to wooden boat enthusiasts.
“Arriving for a Celebration” is distinctive among Dahl’s works, because it is one of only a few paintings that show many figures in one composition. Also, the composition includes men as well as women, in contrast to his usual subjects: young women, pictured alone or with just two or three others. In this painting, the many boats are carrying people of all ages, from young people to older men and women. An interesting intergenerational reference is the depiction of a younger woman who has jumped ashore and extends her strong young arm to help an elderly woman get out of the boat.
The guests in the procession of boats are on their way to attend a celebration of some kind. If it were May, it could have been a gathering to celebrate syttende mai. At any time of year, except perhaps for winter, a wedding, confirmation, or baptism would also draw a crowd of splendidly dressed folks in the bunads reserved for the most important events. Confirmations are usually observed in spring, but September is a frequent time for them as well.
Confirmation is an important religious tradition in Norway, as in many places in America. After boys and girls of about 14 years of age complete a course of special instruction, their church devotes part of a church service for them to affirm their commitment to the baptismal promises of their parents and sponsors when they were infants. It may also become a “rite of passage” for many, signaling the transition from childhood to adulthood. Today, some families prefer a more secular setting than the traditional church to celebrate that transition, but churches are still the choice of many in Norway. In either case, as for weddings, the ceremony is usually followed by a festive, celebratory dinner for bunad-clad family and friends.
Dahl’s style was realistic, colorful, and usually included figures in a landscape or seascape. The figures and the background complement each other to draw the interest of the viewer. Many of his paintings feature young women who are shown in typical duties of the day, such as the dairy maid with her wooden bucket who walks through a grassy field near the fjord. Or a young woman pictured with goats that she is tending. Another walks on a mountain path as she knits a sock. To view reproductions of the walking/knitting painting, see this link to Norway Art display in a video produced by Max Stevenson of Norway House: www.youtube.com/watch?v=9n4FEKTvb7Y.
The paintings have a romantic, nostalgic quality that appeals to many Norwegian Americans who can imagine their great-grandmother doing similar things at home before she emigrated from Norway. The paintings by Hans Dahl are immensely popular, and the interest in his work has been an important factor in making the Sognefjord village of Balestrand a favorite destination for tourists. Travel guru Rick Steves’ filming there has brought valuable, modern attention to the place. Dahl’s paintings were also popular in Germany where he spent part of each year for a number of years. He stayed in Berlin and then returned to Norway in the summer to sketch ideas for paintings he would create when back in Germany. His German connection was due to the patronage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, emperor, who made many trips to Balestrand, where he became acquainted with Dahl and his art.
Dahl’s art speaks to viewers who have Norwegian roots, as well as others who do not share the heritage but are drawn to the calming and interesting landscapes and detailed figures that characterize his style. Dahl created heartwarming scenes from our heritage in Norway. His keen eye of observation, his detailed presentation, and the ability to portray accurate scenes are amazing. Indeed, Hans Dahl was a unique jewel himself!
The first source of art from Norway in America, NORWAY ART®, Minn., has offered selected Hans Dahl reproductions since its founding in 1979. From time to time, we have been fortunate to obtain original Dahl paintings. Clients have purchased them for several reasons: to enjoy by having a scene from Norway that they have visited as tourists or in getting back to their roots; to gift as family heirlooms to be passed along to succeeding generations; or, to donate to an organization in honor or memory of a special person. “Arriving for a Celebration” is now available for purchase. Visit Norway Art’s website at www. norwayartonline.com, or feel free to contact Mary Jo for details, including price. Call (612) 339-7829 or email email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.