European painted narratives have been dominated by stories from the classical Greek and Roman canons. Until the 1800s, very few narrative painters tackled myths from other cultures. One early specialist in Norse myths and history was Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892).
Born in Drammen, Norway, he trained first in Copenhagen, then in the Düsseldorf Academy, before returning to Norway in 1861. From 1863 to 1871 he worked most of the time in Paris, but spent much of the remainder of his career in his native Norway. He was an accomplished and successful painter and illustrator (mainly for history books on Norway). His paintings are in many galleries throughout Norway and Sweden, with a particular concentration in his family home in Drammen, 25 miles south-east of Oslo.
Valkyries and Norse Myths
One of the best-known segments of Norse mythology is of the Valkyries, a group of female horse-riders, often portrayed as warriors, who decide which soldiers die in battle, and which survive. They then bear the bodies of the dead warriors on their horses to the hall of the slain, Valhalla.
Along with other stories from Norse sagas and epic poetry, they were modified to form the narrative in Wagner’s operatic sequence The Ring of the Nibelung; The Valkyries is the second of the four operas, and was first performed in 1870, the year in which the Franco-Prussian War started.
Ever since, the Valkyries have been unfortunately strongly associated with German nationalism, particularly in the years prior to the Second World War, which is a strange turn for Norse myths! In more recent years, the musical association has become even more strained, following the use of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic movie set in the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now (1979).
Valkyrie (1864), now at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, is the earlier of Arbo’s two paintings of this subject. He painted it in Paris, but it was first shown in Stockholm in 1866.
Five years later, Arbo painted a second version, Valkyrie (1869), which has been retained in Norway’s Nasjonalgalleriet in Oslo. Both follow normal conventions in showing warrior-like women, with chain mail armour, shields, helmets, and spears. With them fly their accompanying ravens.
Åsgårdsreien (Åsgård’s Ride, The Wild Hunt) (1872) is drawn from a more general European folk myth, which is specifically including in the Norse canon, of a group of ghostly huntsmen passing in wild pursuit. Seeing the Wild Hunt was the harbinger of major catastrophe, usually a battle with many deaths. The riders could also snatch humans up and abduct them, perhaps to Valhalla, as Arbo shows in this powerful painting.
Dagr (1874) shows the Norse deity of the day (as opposed to night), the son of the god Dellingr, and the rider of the bright-maned horse Skinfaxi. Together they bring day and its light to mankind, much in the way that Apollo’s sun chariot crossed the sky for the civilisations of the Mediterranean. Arbo again shows a classical depiction drawn from the Norse myths, with Dagr’s right hand bearing a burning brand.
Nótt riding Hrímfaxi (1887) shows the dark side, the night. Nótt is given as the daughter of Nörvi; her third marriage was to Dellingr, the issue of which was Dagr. Interestingly, although Norse myth accounted for both day and night with gods, Greek myth had a much less prominent goddess of the night, Nyx (Roman Nox).
Hervör’s Death (1880) shows this shieldmaiden – who in many respects resembles a Valkyrie in her dress – dying in an inheritance conflict. She was leading an army against an assault of a much larger army of Huns. The conflict arose between her brothers, Hlöd and Angantýr, and it has been suggested that the men shown represent her foster father Ormar, and brother Angantýr. This appears to be a variation on the accounts of the Poetic Edda, where she is mourned by those men in Árheimar rather than on the battlefield as shown.
Times Past (date not known) uses a very similar composition to that of Hervör’s Death to show the aftermath of another Norse battle.
Håkon the Good and the Farmers at the Sacrifice of Mære (1860) shows King Håkon Haraldsson (c 920–961) winning over landowners and promoting the conversion of the Norwegian people to Christianity. As the younger son of King Harald Fairhair, he was sent for safety to the court of King Athelstan in England, where he was converted to Christianity. On his father’s death, he returned to Norway with an expeditionary force, won the support of the landowners, and assumed the throne in 631. Mære was one of the most sacred pagan places in Norway, where sacrifices were made.
Saint Olaf’s Fall in the Battle of Stiklestad (c 1859) is a watercolor made for a print which appeared in the book Billeder af Norges Historie (Pictures of Norway’s History), published by Christian Tønsberg in 1860. This scene shows Tore Hund, at the right, killing King Olaf II of Norway with his spear, in the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. The King was later canonised. Olaf’s younger half-brother, Harald Sigurdsson, survived the battle to succeed Olaf, only to die at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge (1870) shows a battle between Norwegian (‘Viking’) forces and an English army in Yorkshire, during the fateful year in which England was invaded by Normans. Although there were some smaller subsequent campaigns by Norse invaders, this is generally taken to mark the end of the ‘Viking Age’ in northern England.
The Norwegian force was led by King Harald Hardrada and the English king’s brother, Tostig Godwinson. The English force was led by the King of England, Harold Godwinson, who died less than three weeks later at the Battle of Hastings, and so yielded his throne to William, a Norman. On 25 September 1066, King Harald Hardrada was killed when he was hit in the neck by an arrow, as shown in the centre of Arbo’s atmospheric painting. Tostig Godwinson and most of the Norwegian army were also killed.
King Sverre’s Escape over Voss Mountains (1862) shows another Norwegian King’s struggle – this time against the weather and mountains – when trying to take control of the country. Sverre Sigurdsson (c 1145/51-1202) was proclaimed king in 1177, but then had the difficult task of enforcing his authority. With his supporting force of Birkebeiners, he moved south, was driven north, and then tried to move west to take Bergen by surprise.
However, when he reached Voss, in the mountains, he was ambushed by locals. His small force of Birkebeiners fought off the attack, but he had lost the element of surprise. He therefore moved east, into the Voss mountains, in harsh winter conditions, as shown here, before overwintering in Østerdal. His route is still known as Sverresgong. His rival to the throne, Magnus Erlingsson, fell at the Battle of Fimreite in 1184, leaving Sverre’s authority unchallenged.
Liden Gunvor and the Merman (1874-1880) is drawn from an opera The Fishers, by Johannes Ewald and Johann Hartmann, which was first performed in Copenhagen in 1780. Liden Gunver or Gunvor is taken to sea by an alluring but deceptive merman (the male counterpart of mermaid). Mermen were a common feature in Greek, Finnish, Irish, and Norse myths, but appear much less frequently in paintings than mermaids.
Arbo also painted in other genres. In case he appears to be hidebound to ‘Salon’ style, this very painterly, perhaps fully Impressionist, landscape of a View of Frognerslot from Skovveien (1890) shows how comfortable he was sketching his native country.
Other arts – literature and music in particular – are generally more international and cross-cultural in the narratives which they use. In many cases, readers and audiences prefer a wide range of stories and mythologies. Those which form the basis of narrative paintings have been drawn from a much narrower range of sources, notably Greek and Roman myths, the Bible, and some key events in European history.
The reasons for this narrowness in sources may derive from the need for the viewer to already be familiar with the story being portrayed; the classics and the Bible are among the few which have been common across much of Europe. It is a shame that few painters have seen the opportunity to broaden their story base, and that other mythologies are seen as local, and thus of little general appeal.
I will consider this further in a future article looking at depictions of the Finnish epic, the Kalevala.