A Hard Reality: the paintings of Christian Krohg, 4 – sailors and models

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Reefing the Sails (1900), oil on canvas, 80.5 x 192.5 cm, Trondheim Kunstmuseum, Trondheim, Norway. The Athenaeum.

During the 1890s, Christian Krohg was kept busy as a journalist. He visited the Lofoten Islands in the north of Norway in the summer of 1896, and the following year visited the Netherlands and France. The year after, 1898, saw more travel, this time to Spain and France. He returned to Oslo in the late summer, where he remained until 1901.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), The Shoal (1898), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Bergen Kunstmuseum, Bergen, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

In the late 1890s, Krohg returned to painting maritime motifs. These included yachting, as in The Shoal of 1898, which shows a small wood-hulled cruising yacht sailing past a post mounted on a submerged pinnacle. In the depths below the post there are vague forms which suggest the hidden shoal. Unusually for Krohg, there is not a single figure to be seen, just the marker, the boat, and a choppy sea.

Judging by the number of Krohg’s paintings which feature small yachts, he would appear to have been an enthusiastic sailor, although I have not seen any mention of that.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Setting Sail (c 1900), oil on canvas, 75 x 59 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

In his Setting Sail (c 1900), Krohg has switched to a clinker-built fishing boat, as two of its crew haul on a line to raise one of its sails. His figures are rougher and more sketchy here, but are clearly the same weather-beaten working men which he had painted previously. His composition crops the boat, figures, and mast very closely, possibly influenced by photography – Krohg is believed to have become an enthusiastic photographer by the end of the nineteenth century.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Reefing the Sails (1900), oil on canvas, 80.5 x 192.5 cm, Trondheim Kunstmuseum, Trondheim, Norway. The Athenaeum.

Reefing the Sails (1900) is a more finished painting, probably made entirely in the studio, of two crew working at a height on a square-rigged sailing ship, another step up in scale. As they balance precariously to secure the sail to the spar, the sea far below them is white with breaking waves. Once again Krohg uses a close-cropped composition which may well be based on a photograph.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Evening Breeze (c 1900), oil on canvas, 57.5 x 61.5 cm, Nasjonalmuseet (purchased 1988), Oslo, Norway. Courtesy of Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.

Evening Breeze (c 1900) is in keeping with this maritime theme, but seems an odd, one-off painting among his work. A nude woman stands in front of the setting (or rising) sun, holding her long blonde tresses out at arm’s length. She appears unreal: pale, almost a vision rather than solid and substantial form, and seems slightly blurred too. I wonder if this was Krohg’s articulation of a new vision in his life.

In 1901, Krohg and his family moved to Paris. Although this was ostensibly to continue with his writing, he was soon taking on private pupils in art, and the following year returned to more serious painting when he started teaching at the Académie Colarossi in the city.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), The Umbrella (1902), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

The only painting of Christian Krohg’s which I have been able to find from this period is another strange one-off: The Umbrella (1902), which looks from its white picket fences as if it may have been painted in Norway. It is a view looking down, presumably from the window of a building, on a lone woman. She is walking up a rough earth track, strewn with rocks, in windy weather. The umbrella of the title has been blown out by the wind.

This reminds me of some of the optical explorations of Caillebotte’s paintings.

Oda Krohg (1860–1935), Portrait of Christian Krohg (c 1903), oil on canvas, 236.3 x 191 cm, Oslo Museum, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Christian’s wife Oda painted this wonderful Portrait of Christian Krohg in about 1903. Although made during their years in Paris, it shows the artist by the Grand Café on Karl Johan Street in the centre of Oslo, as a military band marches along the tramlines.

It wasn’t until 1909 that the Krohgs moved back to Norway, where Christian was appointed the first professor and director of the State Academy of Art (Statens kunstakademi), the latter post being held until the year of his death. The following year he ceased working as a journalist.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Toilet (1912), oil on canvas, 58 x 52.5 cm, Nasjonalmuseet (purchase from A. C. Houens fund 1914), Oslo, Norway. Courtesy of Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.

Krohg then tackled a new theme over a series of paintings. The first may be this Toilet (1912), in which a woman is seen in front of a full-length mirror. Although her clothing appears light and flimsy, as if it is underwear, she looks to be wearing a hat – at least in her reflection, where its brim stands proud of her head. Krohg’s facture is very rough, and the woman’s features are partially obscured in his marks.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), The Model (c 1913), oil on wood, 48 x 44 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

The Model (c 1913) is a very sketchy portrait of a nude woman, who is just turning the knob of a door to open it, perhaps at the end of a modelling session. Krohg painted others in this series.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Girl Tying her Garter (1914), oil on canvas, 119 x 44 cm, Malmö konstmuseum, Malmö, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Girl Tying her Garter (1914) might bring the series to a logical and temporal conclusion, as a model finishes dressing, ready to walk out of the studio. The strange object hanging at the top left appears to be an artist’s palette, although it could instead be a hat.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Albertine in the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room (1917), oil on canvas, 51 x 74.5 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

In his latter years, Krohg returned to his major theme of the fallen woman and prostitution. In 1917, he produced a new compositional sketch for his famous Albertine in the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room which he felt addressed the earlier painting’s theatricality.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Seamstress’s Christmas Eve (1921), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, Tromsø, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

He also painted an almost Dickensian narrative in his Seamstress’s Christmas Eve (1921). A young woman is in her garret bed-sit, where she has been toiling long hours at her sewing machine. An affluent couple – a relative or employer perhaps – has just arrived to give the young woman a Christmas tree, a large wicker basket of presents, and more.

The oil lamp on the sewing table casts only a weak light, making the scene appear almost monochrome, in keeping with the young woman toiling in poverty and squalor.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Five to Twelve (c 1924), oil on paperboard, 79 x 33 cm, Nasjonalmuseet (purchased 1990), Oslo, Norway. Courtesy of Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.

Five to Twelve (c 1924) was one of Krohg’s last paintings, and appears to be a self portrait. He is shown with a long white beard, and almost bald, asleep in a chair underneath a pendulum clock. The face of the clock is completely blank, but the title tells us the time: it is ten minutes to midnight, very late in his life.

In 1925, Krohg retired as the director of the State Academy of Art, and he died in Oslo a few months later, on 16 October. Although his paintings have been exhibited at many solo events in the Nordic countries, and alongside the works of others in many overseas exhibitions, he has not had a one-man show outside Scandinavia, as far as I am aware.


Excellent Kunsthistorie article (in Norwegian)
Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo, with the largest collection, including many superb drawings
Skagens Museum, Denmark

Øystein Sjåstad (2017) Christian Krohg’s Naturalism, U Washington Press. ISBN 978 0 295 74206 9.