The western part of Norway, with its immense fjords and ice-capped mountains, must be one of the best locations for any landscape painter to work. Nikolai Astrup (1880–1928) was born and lived there, and in the next few articles in this series, I hope to show you a selection of his paintings of life in the Norwegian countryside in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Astrup’s father was a Lutheran pastor, and when Nikolai was still an infant, the family moved to Ålhus on Jølstravatnet, Jølster Lake, a long fjord-like fresh water lake surrounded by rugged hills and mountains. At the end of the nineteenth century, rural life in Norway was still quite primitive, and the parsonage in which Astrup was brought up was in a poor state of repair. As a boy he suffered from asthma, which could only have been exacerbated by living conditions.
When he was fifteen, Astrup was sent off to school in Trondheim, a growing city much further north, in the hope that he might pursue a career in the church like his father. After a couple of years there, he flunked Latin, and returned home, where he wanted to become an artist – much against his family’s wishes. He finally left home to study at the Royal School of Drawing in Oslo (then known as Kristiania) in the autumn of 1899.
Kjerringa med lykta (Old Woman with Lantern) is one of his earliest surviving paintings, probably from before 1899, and was painted on a home-made canvas prepared using a patch of cloth from a pair of trousers.
Astrup did not stay long at the Royal School of Drawing, and moved on to study at Harriet Backer‘s private art school in Oslo. Backer is one of Norway’s greatest painters, who trained in Munich and Paris, and for some years divided her time between France and Norway. She ran her school between 1890 and 1912.
Astrup had a broad training, which included figurative painting, as in his marvellous portrait Olaves (1900). Looking at its richly-textured surface, it makes me wonder what other portraits he might have painted had he not devoted most of his career to landscapes. He also learned print-making during this period in Oslo.
From the outset, though, he seems to have set his course to become a landscape painter. Vårkveld ved Jølstervannet (Spring evening by Jølster Lake) (1900) gives a very good idea of what must have been one of his primary motivations, with its broad view of the lake and hills which surrounded his home in the parsonage in Ålhus.
In 1901, Astrup was awarded a grant by Olaf Schou, a Norwegian industrialist who was also a painter himself and a patron of the arts. Schou had earlier studied with the great Norwegian landscape painter Hans Gude. Astrup left Norway at the end of the year for Germany, where he particularly admired the paintings of Böcklin, and arrived in Paris just in time for Christmas.
He studied at the Académie Colarossi, with Christian Krohg, where he was influenced by Maurice Denis and Henri ‘le Douanier’ Rousseau. He then returned to Norway in May, even more determined to paint landscapes around his home.
With his love of Rousseau, Astrup painted landscapes with an assumed naïvety, understating or omitting aerial perspective, and incorporating multiple perspective projections into the same image, as in his Farmstead in Jølster (1902). Two women, sheltering from the rain under black umbrellas, are walking up a muddy path which threads its way through the wooden farm buildings, guiding a young girl with them. Astrup delights in the colourful patches which make up each of the turf roofs, and the contrasting puddles on the grass.
Warmth Comes to the Ground (1903) shows a woman carrying a pail full of glowing embers beside a stream, in the early spring, as the ground thaws from the past winter. This illustrates a folk tale that the ground is thawed out using those embers, ready for the spring weather to complete the job.
Originally known as Dark Sunlight, Astrup’s Landscape with Children (c 1903) shows the bold colours typical of the early summer. Despite the naïve appearance of the countryside, he has constructed the large tree at the left according to taught anatomical principles.
Astrup made his first woodcut prints in 1904, and throughout the rest of career he created many woodcut prints, most based on his finished oil paintings.
Fjøsfrieri (Early Courting) (1904) is a complex and humorous painting showing an early phase in courting in the country. The young couple at the far left are engaged in ‘clothed courting’ in the unromantic surroundings of a cowshed. He has a bottle of drink in his pocket; whether that is to give him courage or to weaken the resistance of his girlfriend is unclear.
The couple have hidden themselves in the cowshed, out of everyone’s way, but the boyfriend appears unaware that they are being watched by someone from up in the rafters of the roof. From the apparent direction of gaze of the girlfriend, and the blush on her cheeks, she has just noticed the peeping tom (or watchful relative).
The setting is enhanced by the sunlight pouring through the far window, which illuminates two rows of the back-ends of cows. The wood floor between the cows appears decorated with small sketches, which are in fact piles of cow dung. Courting seems to have been a sensorily rich experience!
Going to the Mill (c 1900-05) is a complete essay on watermills, pictured in perfect rainy milling weather, with the streams in spate during the autumn/fall. A mill race, running down its wooden channel, feeds a small undershot paddle in the centre, used to turn a millstone for sharpening knives and tools. Water flow to that is regulated by the simple valve upstream, which is currently in the off position, shedding the water to either side.
The man and his son are taking a sack of grain up to another mill – possibly the small shed seen in the centre distance – to grind flour for the family’s baking.
Svanøybukta (before 1905) shows a sheltered bay (bukt) of Svanøy, one of the many islands which are scattered off the deeply-incut coast to the west of Ålhus. Astrup’s aerial perspective is gentle but effective here.
Storehouse in Jølster (1902-05) was originally titled Sad Autumn Day by Astrup, although there seems no explanation for that reading. It was certainly far from being a sad painting, as it was and remains one of his most acclaimed works.
In 1905, Astrup had his first one-man exhibition in Oslo. He achieved instant critical success, selling many of the works which he exhibited there, this canvas being purchased for the national collection. Fittingly, on 26 November, Norway gained its independence from Sweden.
Kollen, translated as The Barren Mountain, or simply The Fell, (1905-06) shows one of the huge rocky outcrops which tower over the coast of fjords and lakes in this part of Norway. This must have been painted during the late winter.
Carey, Frances, Dejardin, Ian AC, & Stevens, MaryAnne (2016) Painting Norway, Nikolai Astrup 1880-1928, Scala. ISBN 978 1 85759 988 6.