Peder Balke takes New York by storm
130 years after his death, the Norwegian artist’s landscape paintings light up The Met
When you enter the gallery, a large landscape draws you in offering clouds, rocks, waves, and a looming iceberg. The only living souls are many, many, soaring birds. You are exposed to the heavens and sea. Upon closer observation, the composition has an underlying cohesiveness, with the artist’s use of arcs and curves, seen in the waves, the formation of the birds’ flight, and the cloud patterns. The use of rosy-gold light on the tip of the iceberg is magical. Who is the creator of this masterpiece?
The artist’s name is Peder Balke, and he was born on Helgøya, an island of Mjøsa in Hedmark, Norway, in 1804, to a poor family. He later worked on the Balke farm in Toten, Oppland, where the locals (farmers) recognized his artistic talent and chipped in to fund his education. In return, Balke painted decorative designs in and on many of the farmers’ homes.
His education was eclectic and broad: serving as an apprentice to a Norwegian painter and Danish decorator, as well as studying at the Art Academy in Stockholm and with the marvelous Johan Christian Dahl who told him, “there is no other way to become a real painter than by painting from nature.”
Balke took these words to heart, but in fact Balke was a nature lover his entire life. He had the soul of a traveler, absorbing the Norwegian landscape along the way, as well as those of Sweden, Germany, London, Paris, and Russia. His work was so well received that the royal families of both Sweden and France purchased pieces. Perhaps the trip that most influenced Balke’s work was one he took in 1832, journeying along Norway’s west coast all the way to the North Cape, which at that time was believed to be the northernmost point of Europe. The north of Norway left such an imprint on his imagination that he was able to replicate this landscape 30 years after the visit.
The piece I first encountered is titled “The North Cape,” (1845) and is one of his 17 pieces on loan from private collections to display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of the artist. It is the first museum in the United States to feature the artist’s works in an exhibition titled “Peder Balke: Painter of Northern Light,” running through July 9, 2017. “This is a unique opportunity to explore the work of an artist who focused on those aspects of art and nature that inspire awe known as the Sublime,” writes The Met.
In addition to Balke’s works, the exhibition includes works from Norwegian contemporaries of Balke’s, including the incomparable Christian Johan Dahl. The other pieces, which come from a variety of Norwegian landscape artists, were garnered from The Met’s collection.
Highlights of Peder Balke’s work
In “The North Cape,” (1853), it is Balke’s use of light that is so beguiling. The moonlight falls upon fisherman in boats below; like a sailor’s beacon it envelopes them in serenity.
I was drawn to “Finnmark Landscape” because it represented a stark deep winter. Most delightful was the golden light emanating through the rocks blanketed in snow. In Balke’s own words when reflecting on his journey to the Northern climes of Norway, he wrote, “…I have never, either abroad or in other parts of the country, had occasion to see anything equally exalting and inspiring as that which I witnessed on this journey to Finnmark; for in these northern districts the beauty of nature takes the leading role while human beings, the children of nature, play only a secondary role.” His passion for this place brings the viewer along for the ride, bringing us as close as we get without actually being there.
Three small pieces, with painterly affects, that read more like sketches or etchings, are so intimate and intriguing that they draw the viewer in for a closer and more studied examination. Within this grouping is an amazing gem.
One sees the Northern Lights for their magnificent and unpredictable colors. What happens when you extract the color of Northern lights? You get one of the most interesting compositions in this exhibit. Balke’s “Northern Lights” is amazing not only for its lack of color but also for his technique. “To produce this striking image, Balke first applied a thin layer of paint for the sky and then a thicker one for the water. Subsequently, he removed paint with a serrated device to reveal the white ground layer, producing the effects of the lights. Finally, he added details such as the coastline and boats with a brush,” the exhibit text tells us. The auroras bleed into the water below. There is an elusive, visionary quality to this piece. When you drain the color, the shapes are emphasized and surprising revelations uncovered.
In 1855, Balke’s focus changed. Instead of centering his life around the artists in Oslo, he choose to create a community, Kunstnerlund (Artist’s Grove—later known as Balkeby), of artists and craftsmen, renting them homes on the outskirts of Oslo. According to the exhibit’s text, “This venture was an expression of the formerly landless peasant’s democratic ideals, which were galvanized by the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 and 1849.”
His altruism was not well received by all. In 1848 he was labeled a communist by Dahl, who stated that Balke was “more interested in politics than art.” By the late 1860s Balke discontinued being a professional artist, although he did paint for himself. Balke’s change in social circles was an impetus for experimentation. “Balke used increasingly craftsman-like materials—such as sections of wood planking for his supports—and a direct manner of painting that eschewed traditional fine-art methods,” says the exhibit text. The result upon his death was that his reputation as an artist was nonexistent, while he was respected as a citizen.
The last part of The Met’s exhibit shows Balke’s Norwegian contemporaries, with some pieces of Balke’s incorporated. This not only gives us a chance to see other wonderful 19th-century Norwegian landscape painters’ work but also allows us to draw visual parallels. For instance, there is a wonderful visual comparison in this show between the student Balke and his teacher Dahl; two paintings of towns bathed in moonlight and hung in juxtaposition; “Dresden” by Dahl and “Stockholm” by Balke.
Dahl’s “View Over Hallingdal” is a must see. It is worth a trip to the museum just to to experience this single work. There are depictions online, but they do not do justice to the subtlety of colors found in the slender sliver of sky or nuanced shades and textures formed in the rocks. In person one can almost touch the soft lichen clinging to the rough stone found in the foreground and delight in the blood orange flora poking though.
In this exhibit, I learned that the image of a single heroic Norwegian tree was first painted by a Dutch artist in the 17th century. The lone tree later became a symbol of the indomitable Norwegian spirit. There are several pieces in this section with this symbol (using either singular or a few trees). August Cappelen’s “Tree Study,” Christian Johann Dahl’s “Birch Tree in a Storm,” and Balke’s “Old Trees” allow you to compare the perspectives of several Norwegian artists’ renderings of the same theme.
In Thomas Fearnly’s “Monolith and Trees,” the trees, mostly pines, have been moved to the background, replaced by a huge boulder, which takes center stage. The exhibit text explains, “Northern Romantic artists were drawn to monoliths, [as they are antithesis of the] classical.” This point is very important because during this time, mid to late 1800s, Norwegian artists were asserting their own voice through their brushes, empowered by their first taste of independence after 400 years of foreign rule.
As a result they were emboldened to depict Norway in their own way and focus on what they felt was important. This was not a phenomenon limited to Norway. As stated in the exhibition text, “The forging of a link between landscape painting and national identity was a hallmark of nineteenth-century Norwegian art, just as it was for the Barbizon and Impressionist painters in France and the Hudson River School artists in the United States.”
Interestingly the last two pieces in this exhibit are two very large, meticulously and beautifully crafted maps of Norway, “Map of Southern Norway” and “Map of Northern Norway,” both drawn by artist Peter Andreas Munch. I think this is a perfect end to the exhibit, mainly because of Balke’s respect for craftsmen and artists. How often do we give the title “artist” to cartographers? I am sure Balke would have.
This exhibit will be on view through July 9. For those who cannot visit in person, there is a good overview of each piece in this exhibit at www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2017/peder-balke.
This article originally appeared in the June 30, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.