In my quest for Symbolist paintings, I have this week come to an extremely unusual artist, who remains little-known outside the Nordic Countries, Eugène Jansson (1862–1915) from Sweden. Just at the time that the Norwegian Edvard Munch was painting his series of radical views over the city of Oslo, Jansson was painting his unique nocturnes of Stockholm.
This 1894 version of Munch’s Despair is similar to the first of this series from 1892. These evolved into one of the most famous paintings in the world, The Scream, over the next couple of years. But everyone has heard of Munch, and very few of Eugène Jansson.
Jansson came from a lower middle class family with aspirations for him and his younger brother. Sadly, as was common in the days before antibiotics, he suffered a bad bout of scarlet fever when he was fourteen, which left him with impaired eyesight and hearing, and chronic kidney disease.
Although Jansson was largely self-taught, he attended a private art school in the city of Stockholm run by Edvard Perséus, then in 1881 he started formal studies at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. Other able students there progressed to study in France, but Jansson’s family couldn’t afford to support him, so he remained in the city.
In 1891, he and his mother and brother moved into a flat in Södermalm, the southern part of Stockholm, which afforded a grand view, particularly over the large stretch of water which cuts right into the heart of the city, Riddarfjärden. Jansson soon began to paint views from their flat.
He developed a technique in which he painted almost entirely from memory, having studied a view intently with the aim of painting it. Although this may now seem unusual, it enjoyed some popularity in Europe during the nineteenth century, and several teachers established schools to train painters its techniques. It’s not actually particularly difficult (I have tried it with a complex landscape), and results can be amazingly faithful to the motif.
He started to paint these grand views at twilight, as in A Night in May from 1895. In the foreground is the waterside of Södermalm, and the shores are dotted with numerous gaslights. Although there are a couple of boats alongside, there is no sign of people, just the halflight, water and lights.
Sunset, also from 1895, affords more detail, with several sailing ships, a factory, warehouses, and other buildings along the quay. As with many of his works, the dominant colour is blue: he became known as the Blue Painter, although friends and other artists referred to him as Paraffin Jansson, as the light in his paintings reminded them of that from paraffin (kerosene) lamps, still widely used in houses at the time.
A couple of years later, Jansson’s Evening in Kornhamnstorg, Stockholm (1897) must have been based on a view down by the water’s edge, and shows the well-lit frontage of buildings as a strip across its dominant blue. This square is in the old town, where grain arrived for sale and storage in the past. The artist fills the sky and water with soft and apparently random curves and squiggles, and has scratched linear patterns into the hull of the sailing ship.
One of Jansson’s finest nocturnes is this seemingly infinite view from his studio on Mariaberget over Riddarfjärden, Stockholm, painted in 1898. As the last (or first) light of the day fades to pale red above the horizon, the waterfront of the old city is lit in white. In the foreground, the gaslights of the quay below form into small whirlpools of light, shown in the detail below.
Jansson painted Riddarfjärden. A Stockholm Study (1898) from his studio during the winter of the same year, with ice covering much of the water below.
My other favourite painting by Jansson is his Dawn Over Riddarfjärden from 1899. A slightly different angle of view, and possibly location as well, brings the spires, dark buildings and gaslights closer, as seen below in that detail. His soft squiggles of darker colour in the water become better defined in the sky, where they swirl calligraphically along the horizon.
Tomorrow I will show some of his later landscape views, which were to become more varied.