The Nordic Peasant Vision
In a period of unrest in Norway in the nineteenth century, artists were searching for a national art to reclaim the country’s sense of identity. A group known as the Lysaker Circle found a solution in uplifting the Norwegian peasant, the landscape, and the “primitive,” categorized as the “truly” Norwegian, untainted by foreign influences and highlighting the strength and originality of the Norwegian people. Members of the Lysaker Circle included playwright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910), journal editor Gerhard Gran (1856-1925), composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), composter Thorvald Lammers (1841-1922), historian Ernst Sars (1835-1917), explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), folklorist Moltke Moe (1859-1913), and art critic and historian Andreas Aubert (1851-1913). The visual artists of the group included Christian Skredsvig (1854-1924), Erik Werenskiold (1855-1938), Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929), Kitty Kielland (1843-1914), Eilif Peterssen (1852-1928), and Harriet Backer (1845-1932). This thesis concentrates on the art surrounding the Norwegian struggle for independence from Sweden. Norway and Sweden shared a dual monarch from 1814-1905, after four hundred years of joint rulership under Denmark. In essence, the Norwegian people did not have their own independent rulership since the medieval era. From the 14th century, Norway was a part of the Kalmar Union between Sweden, Norway, and Denmark until the 16th century, when it was incorporated into Denmark alone, under whose rule it remained until 1814, when Denmark ceded Norway to Sweden in the Treaty of Kiel in 1814. During this union between Norway and Sweden, a period of self-discovery, the Norwegian people strove to find a culture and identity that was uniquely their own and free from the influences of its neighbors. In order to find and uplift a truly Norwegian culture, they turned to a time before the 14th century when Norway was an independent territory. In that process of looking back for a signifier of the future, Norwegians of the nineteenth century found a fascination with the peasant. The peasant embodied the characteristics Norwegians sought to promote and attributed to their society at its core: hardworking, humble, patriotic, and overall unique. This thesis examines a culmination of artists involved in a nationalist movement to create a Norwegian response to modernist trends, beginning in 1814 and ending in 1905, when Norway was granted independence. The Lysaker Circle was an artist’s commune of sorts, beginning in the 1890s. They lived on the outskirts of Oslo in the village of Lysaker, close enough to the city to partake in the events of the urban intelligentsia while still living in the idyllic setting of the countryside where they could collaborate within their small community and paint the distinctly Norwegian countryside. The art produced by the Lysaker artists holds striking Norwegian qualities. Gehard Munthe was one of the leading artists of the group, mostly because of his innovations in the decorative arts and subsequent international recognition. Munthe’s interest in peasant craft and the “lower” or decorative arts of weaving is indicative of his search for a national and truly Norwegian modern art. The artists of the Lysaker Circle sought to uplift this version of the peasant and the land the peasant lived on and the stories the peasant told. In their secluded rural oasis of Lysaker, they created works that were well received by critics in the big city, although they were at odds with the urban artists who were in favor of adopting broader European styles of art. The Lysaker Circle artists were even well received abroad when they exhibited in the 1900 Paris Exhibition. Throughout the nineteenth century in Norway, there is gradual shift from the National Romantic, that is a nostalgic art focusing on nature and national identity, to a New Romantic art, or nyromantik, which carried over the same sense of search for national identity but as a reaction against naturalism, towards the medieval and symbolism, and ultimately a shift toward the decorative. The Lysaker Circle was responding to the discoveries of the avant-garde, and deserve recognition as an important strain of Norwegian modernism.