Norwegian artists paint the Arctic

What a tour!

Nordland art

Image: Wikimedia Commons
“Svolvær Harbor” (date unknown), oil on canvas, Gunnar Berg.

Mary Jo Thorsheim
Norway Art

The remarkable scenery of northern Norway has been viewed and photographed by a huge number of tourists over the years, for example, passengers on coastal voyages calling at Stamsund, or people experiencing staying in “rorbuer” (formerly fishermen’s cabins on stilts near the water) at Reine. Visitors marvel at the beauty of the mountains and seascapes.

Many artists have been drawn from other places to Nordland (North Norway) to represent its special character in paintings; local artists also have been inspired to record it. Probably the most successful was a talented young man from the region whose work was the most famous of all the artists who portrayed Nordland: Gunnar Berg.  Sadly, he died at age 30 of pneumonia after suffering from cancer and the amputation of one of his legs.

Berg (1863-1893) was born at Svolvær on Lofoten in Nordland, the oldest of 12 siblings. His education included the Cathedral School in Trondheim, and art studies in Düsseldorf and Berlin, Germany. He continued to work in Germany but spent fishing seasons at home in Svolvær, where he painted scenes of the fishing life, seascapes, and landscapes. His style of painting was associated with the “Düsseldorf School” approach favored by numerous other Norwegian painters who studied, taught art, or worked there.

Berg’s portrayal of harbors and typical boats of Nordland, set in a mountain-ringed scene, are legendary. He contrasted bright blue sky with snowy mountains in a dramatic fashion. For many years, Norway Art has imported Norwegian prints of two of his most famous paintings: “Svolvær Harbor” and “From Lofoten.”

Painters of northern Norway subjects include the North Trøndelag-born Zacharias Martin Aagaard (1863-1913). “Martin,” as he was usually called, spent time in Lofoten and Finnmark following his art studies in Trondheim and Oslo. Referring to his last name, it is probable that he had heritage from “Aa” in Lofoten, the locale of his original oil painting.

Nordland art

Image courtesy of Norway Art
“The Sámi Encampment” (1938), oil on canvas, H. Bjardam (Mark Osman Curtis).

The Sámi culture is an important part of Nordland’s history, past and present. Norway Art has a fascinating oil painting by a Scotsman who moved to Denmark and painted in Norway, among other places. It was created by Mark Osman Curtis (1879-1959) and signed H. Bjordam, one of the aliases that Curtis used. It is dated 1938. Entitled “The Sámi Encampment,” it shows a couple in native Sámi dress, near their “Lavvu” (tent similar to the “tipi” of American Plains Indians). Smoke rises from an open fire. Is it almost suppertime? The kneeling male figure is working on the ground near the shore. He appears to be cleaning fish.

Artists have been drawn to the beauty of northern Norway for years. Bjordam (Curtis) was from Scotland, for example, but painters from around Norway also found inspiration in the Arctic. One of them was Sigvart Simensen (1865-1933). He was born in Lillehammer and died in Bærum near Oslo, but he was well known for painting in western and northern Norway.

It is interesting to zoom in on the fishing boats in the Simensen painting to see their detail and the busy activity of returning from fishing. Commercial fishing trips often lasted for several weeks or even months, so return from the sea was an exciting event both for the fishermen and for the community.

Nordland fishing boats have their own special design. Nordland boats were especially well suited for commercial fishermen and for sailing in the open sea. With their turned-up prows and sterns, and wide hulls, one is reminded of ancient Viking ships. Painters of Nordland scenes have faithfully included the authentic details of Nordland boats, as seen in the images included here.

Fast forward to the present, and the important work of Karl Erik Harr (born 1940) should be recognized. Harr was born in Kvæfjord in Troms. He studied art at the National Handwork and Art School under Aage Storstein and Per Palle Storm from 1962 to 1964. He has distinguished himself as one of Norway’s most popular and well-known artists, both in illustration work and painting.

Nordland art

Image courtesy of Norway Art
“Reflections on a Norwegian Lake” (1972 ), oil on canvas, Karl Erik Harr.

His paintings represent a Neo-romantic style that emerged during the 1960s. Motifs are often drawn from the Nordland’s landscape, particularly Kjerringøy, Hamarøy, Helgeland, and Lofoten. He has had many one-man shows in Norway, numerous European countries, and in Asia. Museums own his work, and it can be seen on Hurtigruten’s ship Richard With, among other places. Norway Art is offering a beautiful oil painting by Harr that takes its blues and greens from Norwegian nature.

In this article, selected artists from the Norway Art collection represent some of the gorgeous scenery of Nordland. What a tour!

This article originally appeared in the March 6, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Mary Jo Thorsheim

Mary Jo Thorsheim (1937-2023) was the owner of the Norway Art® importing business for 40 years and a regular contributor to The Norwegian American.