In 1885, Carl Larsson (1853–1919), his wife Karin and their infant daughter Suzanne moved from Grez-sur-Loing back to Sweden, where he had to establish himself in the art market and develop his style and career.
When Larsson first arrived back in Sweden, he appears to have been painting some works in almost Impressionist style, such as A Lady Reading a Newspaper (1886). This bright and painterly work uses Larsson’s favourite colour contrast of red (in the hat, shoe, and watering can) against the green of the grass.
Open-Air Painter. Winter Motif from Åsögatan 145, Stockholm (1886) is an oil painting presumably started en plein air, or composed from sketches made in front of the motif. It shows a painter, presumably a friend, painting en plein air in the snow-covered spaces of a Stockholm suburb.
The artist shown is painting the red horse-drawn sleigh at the right of this painting; the image seen on the canvas in the painting has been carefully adjusted to allow for the difference in view.
The Toy Corner (1887) is one of Larsson’s earlier paintings made inside the family home, which was to become such an important source for his paintings over the coming decade and longer. Here are all the trappings of his wife and children – her interior decor, the toys on the floor – but no figures.
Reflected in the window is a table with two candles. Outside it is night, a single star visible above the roof of the neighbouring buildings. This appears to be set in Stockholm.
In 1888, the Larssons inherited a house in Sundborn, a deeply rural hamlet to the north of Stockholm, which they initially used for living during the summer, returning to the capital for the cold and snowy winters each year. The following year, Larsson was awarded a second prize for designs for frescos for the Swedish National Museum, and a First Class medal at the World Exposition in Paris.
In 1890, Larsson started to assemble a series of watercolours which were to be published at the end of the century, in his best-selling book A Home (or Our Home).
In 1892 and 1894, Larsson travelled to Italy to study paintings from the Renaissance.
Although dated to the 1890s, I wonder if Larsson’s Girl by a Flowering Hawthorn Bush doesn’t come from a few years earlier. It is also reported to have been painted in oils, but looks suspiciously like a watercolour to me. The hawthorn bush almost disintegrates, with its branches scattered against the figure, who has surprisingly large hands.
In the early 1890s, Larsson progressively painted his watercolours in less painterly fashion, more strongly influenced by Japanese woodcut prints, perhaps. Maternal Thoughts (1893) shows his wife Karin with their baby daughter Brita at her breast, and is another step towards the look which became so distinctive of Larsson by the end of that decade. At this stage, though, the background is still quite loose and defocussed.
Larsson’s marvellous watercolour of his daughter under Apple Blossom (1894) shows his further development; once again he revels in the colour contrast between the earth red of the barns behind and the pink of the girl’s bonnet, against the rich green vegetation around her.
By the end of the 1890s, his watercolours had tightened up into almost illustrative views, such as A Pleasant Bathing-Place. This was one of the paintings which was reproduced in his book A Home, and must date from the late 1890s. Larsson brings together so many elements that typify home and family: children playing in the open air in the summer, the family’s pet dog, and mother sat nursing a baby.
A Home was hardly a typical Swedish home of the day. Larsson’s Open-Air Studio was in part a glimpse into the world of the professional artist, with strong influence from the ‘open air movement’ of the time. Karin Larsson is sat behind the nude model, sewing on a bench, an odd contrast in her heavy and sombre dress and hat. There are even a couple of subtle touches of red among the dense foliage towards the left.
In 1896, Larsson completed a set of frescos for the Swedish National Museum. The following year, the Larsson family, including six children, moved into a farm adjacent to their summer house in Sundborn, which Carl had purchased. This included quite extensive land, and provided them with pasture, woodland, and riverbank, and its own studio.
Larsson continued to paint looser watercolours which were not destined for print. Nap in the Green (1897) is a touching and intimate glimpse into childhood, with one of his younger children crashed out under the shade of some birch and other trees in a quiet corner of the family garden.
In the Hawthorn Hedge (1897) is another more painterly work in which Larsson again uses the colour contrast of red against green.
More typical of his published work from this period is the richly detailed Catching Crayfish (1897), which was shortly to be published in A Home. As with A Pleasant Bathing-Place above, the whole family is involved in catching, cooking, and feasting on the abundant crayfish. This is the perfect summer idyll, an aspiration for so many who bought Larsson’s books.
Homework (1898) shows two of the Larsson children working in the evening by the light of a kerosene lamp.
In little more than a decade, Larsson’s style and motifs had changed dramatically from those in France. He was already successful, and was poised to take his paintings into tens of thousands of homes across northern Europe, as the Larsson’s ideal home became as familiar to many as their own.
Puvogel, Renate (1994, 2003) Carl Larsson, Watercolours and Drawings, Taschen. ISBN 978 3 822 88572 7.