Next week I will be commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the death of one of the twentieth century’s most popular artists, the Swedish painter Carl Larsson (1853-1919). From 1895 onwards, collections of his watercolours of life in his home were best-selling books throughout the Nordic countries and Germany. His book The House in the Sun sold forty thousand copies in the first three months after publication, and since then there have been more than forty printings, well into the twenty-first century.
In this article, and a second to appear next week, I will look briefly at his life and art.
You’d never suspect from his paintings, but Larsson was born to a feckless, hard-drinking and abusive father, and a mother who worked long hours as a laundress to try to feed her family. They lived in a succession of slums in Stockholm Old Town, and were evicted from at least one of them. Larsson later wrote:
As a rule, each room was home to three families; penury, filth and vice thrived there, leisurely seethed and smouldered, eaten-away and rotten bodies and souls. Such an environment is the natural breeding ground for cholera.
If they didn’t die during an outbreak of cholera or other infectious disease, many escaped by emigrating to America. Larsson’s opportunity to escape came when his talent for art was spotted as he was attending the local Poor School. He was encouraged to apply to the main school of the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, and succeeded. He proved an excellent student there, winning a medal for his life drawing, and he started to produce graphic work for newspapers.
Although his published caricatures and graphics enabled him to give money to his parents, Larsson aspired to become an academic painter, so in 1877 he moved to Paris. He spent two summers painting en plein air at Barbizon, and the first of his significant oil paintings come from that period.
Strömkarlen (The Musician) (1878) is one of his earliest surviving paintings, made while he was living in Paris. At this time he aspired to become a history painter, and remained detached from the changes being brought by the Impressionist movement.
Larsson did see value in learning to paint en plein air, as shown in this oil sketch of a Landscape Study from Barbizon (1878). He visited this area with Hjalmar Sandberg, his close friend who was a pure landscape painter. The two supported one another, and often painted side by side.
Larsson also started to paint some motifs drawn from popular tales, here of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the Forest (1881). These may have related to illustration work in which he was engaged.
In 1882, he joined the artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing, which was popular with Nordic artists at the time, as well as several notable Americans including John Singer Sargent. There he met, and later married, the artist Karin Bergöö, and became highly skilled in watercolours.
Larsson’s paintings from Grez appear to have been influenced by Jules Bastien-Lepage, who was to die unexpectedly in 1884. Larsson’s watercolour of The Old Man and the Nursery Garden (1883) shows similar muted colours, and a common rural theme.
The single figure in Larsson’s watercolour Autumn (1884) is dressed anachronistically in clothing from the previous century. This was most probably to please the Salon jury, as eighteenth century scenes were fashionable at the time. Its setting at Grez and his soft realism combine to make this one of his finest watercolours of this period.
In 1884, a year after they married, the Larssons had their first child, shown in this intimate pastel double-portrait of A Studio Idyll. The Artist’s Wife and their Daughter Suzanne from 1885. Mother and child are sitting in Larssen’s studio. A talented artist in her own right, after their wedding, Karin Larsson concentrated on interior design, and was responsible for most of the household interiors shown in Larsson’s later work.
Although Larsson never really embraced Impressionism, several of his works show its influence. In his watercolour The Bridge in Grez, Medieval (1885), he uses a combination of high chroma colours applied with generally loose brushwork. Coupled with the much more contemporary fashions shown, it appears far more modern.
Carl, Karin and Suzanne Larsson moved back to Sweden in 1885, where their first task was to find somewhere to live. Then Carl Larsson had to establish himself in the Swedish art market.
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 space 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 from 1887 is one of Larsson’s earlier paintings made inside the family home, which was to become such an important source for his work in the future. 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 as a summer retreat, returning to the capital for the cold and snowy winter. 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 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
In 1890, Larsson started to assemble a series of watercolours which were to be published in 1899, in his best-selling book A Home (or Our Home).
In 1892 and 1894, Larsson travelled to Italy to study Renaissance paintings.
In the early 1890s, Larsson progressively painted his watercolours less loosely, more strongly influenced by Japanese woodcut prints, perhaps. His paintings moved steadily towards the look which became so distinctive of Larsson by the end of that decade.
Larsson’s marvellous watercolour of his daughter under Apple Blossom (1894) shows this development; here he employs his favourite 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.
In 1896, Larsson completed his 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 they had purchased. This included quite extensive land, and provided them with pasture, woodland, and riverbank, and its own studio.
Typical of his published work from this period is the richly detailed Catching Crayfish (1897), which was featured in A Home two years later. 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 the many who bought his books.
Puvogel, Renate (1994, 2003) Carl Larsson, Watercolours and Drawings, Taschen. ISBN 978 3 822 88572 7.