Peder Balke

Peder Balke
(Hedemarken, Norway 1804 - 1887 Oslo)

Mount Stetind, Swathed in Fog, early 1860s

Oil on canvas, 37.3 x 29.5 cm
Signed lower right Balke

Provenance:
Ingar H. Nielsen, Oslo (1885-1963) [1]
Rolf Saxholm (until the 1990s)
Øystein Hjort, Copenhagen (1938-2014), nephew of Saxholm [2]
Thence by descent

Exhibited:
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (on permanent loan from January 2015 until April 2017)

 

The work of the Norwegian artist Peder Balke occupies a somewhat unique position in nineteenth-century painting. With hindsight, it is not simply the striking modernity of his work and his unprecedented technical inventiveness that are so remarkable – his dramatic perception of Norwegian landscape also reflects national aspirations – namely the setting-up of an independent Norwegian nation state. This adds a significant political dimension to his work. A number of modern art historians have drawn important parallels with the work of Caspar David Friedrich and JMW Turner.

Balke’s work has been rediscovered in recent years. His achievement is now widely recognized and he has been honored with a number of solo exhibitions, the first of which was staged in Scandinavia at the Northern Norway Art Museum in Tromsø. This was followed by a major exhibition at the National Gallery in London held in 2014-15. A third exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York only recently closed its doors.[3]

Balke’s landscapes draw their inspiration from the rugged scenery of northern Norway. This he first experienced on a trip to Finnmark, an area he explored from spring through fall 1832. The journey took him from Trondheim to Vardø and Vadsø in the extreme east, via the North Cape.[4] This sketching trip was of central importance to his further development. The observation of landscapes and the motifs he accumulated on his travels recur continually in his later work. Topographical accuracy and descriptive truth were not his objectives. His interest lay in eloquent single subjects – starkly exaggerated images of the uncontrollable forces of nature as they affect the lives of the population. His motifs – the North Cape, Stetind and the lighthouses – were used to produce powerfully dramatic images which, like national icons, were intended to shape the identity of the nascent Norwegian nation state.

Balke’s fellow countryman, the painter Johan Christian Dahl, shared similar aspirations for a sense of national identity, although his endeavors focused on Norwegian customs and the preservation of Norse architectural tradition, particularly the historic wooden architecture of the stave churches. He played an important role in the founding of the Norwegian National Gallery and helped set up a large number of the country’s art associations.[5]

Similar artistic developments accompany the emergence of other European nation states. Here, the cradle of the nation was usually sought within national mythology, history and ancient heritage. Balke, however, exploited the grandeur of the Norwegian landscape to promote a sense of national identity.

Today, Stetind – a distinctively shaped natural landmark – is known as Norway’s legendary ‘national mountain’. For Balke, Stetind and the North Cape were symbols of the dramatic nature of the Nordic landscape[6]. In the present painting the tall, obelisk-like peak of Stetind rises almost surrealistically from thick swathes of fog, an apparition from the realm of the extra-human. ‘Shipwreck awaits whoever ventures here’ is the message this conveys; human attempts to outmaneuver the powerful processes of nature will come to grief, despite the benefits of technological advance – in this case, in the form of a steamship.

Balke’s late work, of which this painting is a fine example, clearly establishes his reputation as a pioneer of modernism. In the late 1850s he began to dispense with detail and to adopt highly unconventional techniques which he had learnt during his apprenticeship as a theatre painter and decorator. He developed compositions which, to a modern viewer, appear almost abstract in style, combining radical simplification with an iconography reduced to a limited vocabulary of eloquent, single motifs. He would apply open areas of transparent brushwork, often rubbing diluted paints onto the surface of the image with a sponge or the tips of his fingers.
Balke was also influenced by Japanese woodblock prints which had gradually begun to circulate in Europe in the 1830s. He may have had an opportunity to study them in the original or in reproduction on visits to Paris and London. It is precisely this radical late work that has earned him the admiration of modern artists such as Per Kirkeby.

Reflecting on his travels in the far north of Norway, Balke wrote: [...] the grandiose and enchanting impression made on the eye and the mind by the wealth of natural beauty and the incomparable situations, an impression that not only overwhelmed me, then and there, in the intoxication of the moment, but also exerted a decisive influence on my entire later life [...], for in these northerly parts it is the beauty of nature that takes the leading role, whereas nature’s living children, human beings, merely occupy a position subordinate to them.[7] The absence of an art academy in Norway gave Balke good reason to leave the country in 1828 and to enrol at the Stockholm Academy of Art. In 1830, he visited Copenhagen where the paintings of Johan Christian Dahl impressed him greatly. In the summers he continued to travel extensively in Norway and in 1832 embarked on his first journey to northern Norway. In 1835, he stayed in Dresden for several months with Dahl and Caspar David Friedrich.[8] He travelled on to Paris where he came into contact with the Norwegian landscapist Thomas Fearnley.

Back in Norway in the early 1840s, he began to produce the first of his major works, although public recognition was largely lacking. Commissions were in short supply and in 1844 he resolved to leave Norway for Paris. He managed to obtain an audience with King Louis-Philippe who was eager to meet him – he had visited the north of Norway as a young man after the Revolution. Balke showed him the oil sketches of northern Norway he had brought with him to Paris. Louis-Philippe, impressed by their quality, selected a group to be worked up as large-format paintings. Twenty-six of these sketches are preserved and are now on permanent exhibition at the Louvre. Balke’s future as an artist seemed secure, but events in the run-up to the 1848 Revolution intervened. The King was forced to abdicate and this important commission was never brought to fruition. In late 1847, Balke was compelled to leave Paris. He returned briefly to Dresden, but decided to travel to London in the spring of 1849. Here, he was able to study the work of JMW Turner. This influence was almost certainly a major contributing factor to the growing radical tendencies in Balke’s style.[9]

Balke settled in Norway permanently in 1850. He joined a socialist workers’ movement and took on a number of social and political commitments. He engaged in social projects and was involved in founding a community based on utopian ideals. Despite the persistent lack of public recognition, he continued to paint, producing the important body of work on which his reputation now rests.[10]


[1] Ingar H. Nielsen was an Olympic gold medalist in sailing at the 1920 and 1924 Summer Games.

[2] Øystein Hjort was an art historian and specialist in Early Christian and Byzantine art. He taught at the University of Copenhagen from 1995 to 2005. See <http://denstoredanske.dk/Kunst_og_kultur/Billedkunst/Kunsthistorie,_kunstkritik_og_teori/Kunsthistorikere_-_Danmark/%C3%98ystein_Hjort> (accessed 13 June 2017).

[3] Peder Balke: Painter of Northern Light, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 10 April - 9 July 2017. See <http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2017/peder-balke> (accessed 13 July 2017).

[4] See Paintings by Peder Balke, exhib. cat., London, National Gallery and Tromsø, Northern Norway Art Museum, London 2014, p. 64.

[5] See Knut Ormhaug,‛Johan Christian Dahl und die norwegische Kultur: Denkmalpflege, Nationalgalerie, Kunstvereine’, in Herwig Guratzsch (ed.), Johan Christian Dahl. Der Freund Caspar David Friedrichs, Cologne 2002, pp. 137-44.

[6] Peder Balke. Ein Pionier der Moderne, exhib. cat., Kunsthalle Krems and Copenhagen, Ordrupgaard, Krems/Vienna/Bonn 2008, p. 10.

[7] Cited after Peder Balke. Ein Pionier der Moderne, op. cit., p. 10.

[8] In Dresden, Balke came under the influence of Friedrich and Dahl. Dahl was a fellow countryman and shared lodgings with Friedrich. Balke was drawn to Friedrich’s handling of nature and this was to have a lasting influence on his work. See Knut Ljøgodt, ‘In Quest of the Sublime: Peder Balke and the Romantic Discovery of the North’, in Paintings by Peder Balke, op. cit., p. 52.

[9] The first solo exhibition of Balke’s work in Britain was staged by the National Gallery in London and ran from 14 November 2014 to 15 April 2015.

[10] See Marit Ingeborg Lange, ‘Peder Balke: Vision and Revolution’, in Paintings by Peder Balke Paintings by Peder Balke, op. cit., pp. 6-41.

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