Restful, beautiful marine paintings by a Norwegian-American artist
MARY JO THORSHEIM
In these restless and difficult times, paintings by Jonas Lie (1880 – 1940) are like a breath of fresh air.
Lie grew up in Norway, where he would have been accustomed to the pure air of seaside breezes and clear vistas. After immigrating to America in 1893, Lie’s peaceful coastal scenes from New England and eastern Canada became some of his most important works, especially after 1910. He never lived far from water, first in Plainfield, N.J., and then in New York City. Summers were often spent on Cape Ann, Mass.
His paintings of harbors impart a sense of calm. This tranquil mood is represented by two oil paintings now owned by Norway Art: “Gloucester Harbor, Rocky Neck, Midday” (to be auctioned by Skinners Boston, May 21) and “The Quiet Cove.”
The artist was known for his exceptional skill in capturing the light on a scene at different times of day and seasons. Bright, midday sunshine at the Gloucester Harbor is reflected in sun-washed colors; shadows of buildings are minimal. In contrast, in the Quiet Cove painting, Lie used more intense, saturated color to illuminate the boats and the surrounding area in the early evening hours of summer.
From Norway to America
Lie was a talented and versatile artist, who was known as an impressionist and a realist. He studied with Christian Skredsvig (1854–1924) in Norway; he continued his art studies in Paris and New York.
Although he did paint in Norway, he is better known in America. His ability to portray different kinds of settings, such as the New York harbor, the scene after a famous flood in Plainfield New Jersey, and the construction of the Panama Canal (commissioned by the U.S. Army, Lie’s 12 historic paintings are held by the West Point Museum in New York). He also painted woods, mountains, streams and lakes, and quiet villages.
Lie was born in 1880 in Moss, Norway, near Eidsvoll, where Norway’s Constitution was drafted in 1814. His father was Norwegian, and his mother was American. The family included prominent artistic and literary people. One of them was Lie’s uncle, the famous Norwegian author Jonas Lie, for whom young Jonas was named.
When Jonas left his “day job” in 1906, he traveled to Paris and Norway. After returning to New York City in 1910, he focused on painting along the New England coast. (Later, the Adirondacks were featured in his paintings from the Saranac area, but that is another story, for another time.)
He married and settled in New York City. Like many other artists who lived there, Jonas and his wife, Inga Sontum, a well-known Norwegian ballet dancer from Oslo, continued to be attracted to the magic of the sea and seaside towns. Although he also painted there in winter, getting away from the summer-hot city to fresh-air by the sea would have been attractive. Most of all, Jonas apparently loved painting the boats and coves and harbors, in differing qualities of light. And the atmosphere probably reminded him of Norway!
Friends, clients, and peers
Art aficionados began to stream to Lie’s studio on the Upper East Side of New York City after it was moved there from 60 Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Among them were prominent figures, including Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Roosevelts and Lies became very good friends.
Jonas Lie was no stranger to celebrities because of his uncle’s circle that included the famous Norwegians Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and Edvard Grieg; young Jonas met them during his extended stay with his uncle in Paris, following the death of his father in 1892.
Nevertheless, it is amazing to think of Lie’s successful experience after immigrating at age 13. He rose from helping to support his mother and his sisters by holding a routine day job as a designer of material for men’s shirts (1897 – 1906), to becoming a full-time, recognized artist, who knew influential and important Americans.
He seemed to have a unique ability to relate to people, as shown in his personal contacts and eventual leadership of American art organizations and the New York art community, with its national and international influence. Lie’s peers considered him a master. Examples of his stature and connections: Lie, Stuart Davis, and Eugene Speicher were charged with the selection of paintings as members of the Central Arts Committee for the legendary exhibit, American Art Today at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Eleanor Roosevelt was photographed with Lie and two others when he was a judge for a national WPA poster contest.
The Roosevelt-Lie friendship is fascinating. In the early 1930s, the two couples even spent time together at Campobello, mostly sailing. Perhaps the disabilities of both Jonas and FDR provided a special connection between them? FDR’s paralyzed legs resulting from polio, and Lie had a disability of his left arm at birth.
It is easy to imagine the freedom they would have felt when the water and winds lifted the sails and buoyed their spirits as they enjoyed the exciting mobility that the boats provided. Sailing was the major recreation at Campobello, and FDR loved his boats. Lie’s painting of FDR’s favorite boat, the Amber Jack was displayed in the Oval Office of the White House throughout FDR’s presidency.
Jonas Lie had another important friend, although they never met: the late Marion Nelson of Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa, who is remembered for his art scholarship and Scandinavian leadership. Nelson stated: “Lie was the most prominent of all the Norwegian immigrant artists.”
Indeed, Lie is called one of America’s best painters, and his work is proudly held in prestigious museum and private collections. For more details on the Lie paintings mentioned in this article, please see www.norwayartoriginals.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.