Eilif Peterssen (1852–1928) was a major Norwegian artist who painted in most genres, progressing from Salon-style realism through Impressionism, to Post-Impressionism.
Born and brought up in what is now Oslo, he started his studies there, moved to Copenhagen briefly, then in 1871 went on to Karlsruhe in Germany. In 1873 he became a pupil of Wilhelm von Diez in Munich, where he got to know Arnold Böcklin and others. He travelled extensively in Europe, painting in France and Italy, before returning to Norway in 1886, where he was an established portraitist, painting Henrik Ibsen (at least twice) and Edvard Grieg.
His first painting to achieve widespread recognition was Christian II Signing the Death Warrant of Torben Oxe (1875-6), which shows a scene from the troubled early history of the Nordic countries. Christian II was the last Roman Catholic king of Denmark, who seized control of Norway in 1506, became King of Denmark and Norway in 1513, and struggled to gain control of Sweden too.
Torben Oxe was a noble who was appointed Governor of Copenhagen Castle. In the summer of 1517, Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, the king’s mistress, fell ill and died. Her mother accused Oxe of poisoning her through a box of cherries. Christian II took the girl’s mother (the widow of a Dutch merchant who was acting as advisor to the king) at her word, and summarily condemned his friend Oxe to death.
The case was then reviewed by the State Council, which declared him innocent and rebuked the King, who responded by assembling a jury of peasants, who delivered the famous verdict “We do not condemn him, but his deeds condemn him.” Despite even the Queen’s pleas for Oxe’s life shown here (she is at the King’s left hand), Oxe was beheaded, and his body burned.
Peterssen’s Mountains near Innsbruck (1877) marked the beginning of his departure from the smooth-finished style of the Salon, and from history painting. An atmospheric oil sketch in very painterly style, its composition is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich‘s mountain paintings, with a lonely figure in the foreground facing enigmatically into the view.
With Peterssen’s portraits becoming popular, he painted perceptive depictions of people in uncommissioned work such as his Under Salmesangen (In the Church) (1878). Here he also traces the ages of woman, an unusual subject in comparison to those of man, with the furthest young girl, nearest young woman, and the older widow in between.
This may have influenced Wilhelm Leibl’s (1844-1900) Three Women in Church (1882) shown below, and Harriet Backer’s Barnedåp i Tanum Kirke (Christening in Tanum Church) (1892) shown in my article about her.
Peterssen travelled to Italy in 1879, where he concentrated on painting en plein air, and the following year visited again with PS Krøyer. Peterssen and Krøyer were central in the formation of the Danish Impressionists at Skagen in the 1880s. By the time that he visited Venice in 1885, his style was strongly Impressionist.
Peterssen returned to Norway in 1886, and that summer painted on Fleskum Farm in Bærum with Harriet Backer, Kitty Kielland, and others. One evening he started work on his view of the local lake, Dæhlivannet, which became one of his greatest landscape works, Summer Night (1886).
The following year, he took that same view, added some flowers, and worked in a nude to produce his Nocturne (1887), which was also widely acclaimed. The contrast in finish is marked, with the earlier painting very crisp in its detail, this version being much more painterly.
His naturalistic paintings of the Norwegian countryside and coast remained popular, being well received when shown at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. That summer he painted from the small village of Sele on the far west coast of Norway, including his From the Beach at Sele (1889). These show continuing influence from his summers at Skagen in Denmark.
On the Look-out (1889) is another of his paintings from that summer at Sele, showing a small group of men watching out to sea, presumably for the return of local fishing boats, much in the way that Winslow Homer’s women of Cullercoats had been doing just a few years before.
The summer of 1891 saw him back in Bærum, and painting the very impressionist Sunshine, Kalvøya (1891), which critics compared to the paintings of Berthe Morisot.
From the Norwegian Archipelago (1894) captures a typical view of the dissected islands around the Inner Leads of the west coast of Norway, an older and traditional woman propped against a low stone wall, with small crofts on the other side of the lead, and a fishing boat passing through. Although it is difficult to be certain, the woman appears to be knitting.
In 1896 he returned to Sele, and painted Kveld, Sele (Gedine på haugen) (Kveld, Sele (Gedine on a Hillock)) (1896). Taking advantage of the rich dusk light, he shows a friend, Gedine, seated on a rock hillock amid the flat and expansive landscape on the coast.
From Orre, Jæren (1897) is near Sele, to the south of Stavanger on the west coast of Norway. Peterssen found one of the working horses used on the flat land there, distant crofts, and the bright-lit cloud of a summer’s day.
From his early Impressionist paintings, Peterssen showed views in very low and night lighting. Coastal Landscape in Moonlight (1898) is one of the most successful of these, with its rich marks and impasto moon and reflection.
Over the following decade, Peterssen became interested in mediaeval legends, painting illustrations for a book based on French legends, and a series of works derived from Norwegian folk songs. Several of these later works were for large houses and churches. Sadly most of his paintings, particularly those of his latter years, appear to remain in private collections, and are consequently poorly documented and impossible to access.
Peterssen was a major Norwegian painter whose influence was substantial. At its best his work compares favourably with the best of the Skagen group and the French Impressionists. His influence extended to most contemporary Norwegian painters, including Harriet Backer, Kitty Kielland, Frits Thaulow, and most importantly Edvard Munch.
The great difficulty now is that, with so many of his paintings rendered inaccessible by virtue of being in private collections, it is impossible to view more than the select few which have remained in public ownership.
Harriet Backer’s work is covered in two articles on this blog, here and here.
Many of Peterssen’s best paintings are in Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo, and viewable online. The museum also has hundreds of his drawings and sketches.