The Nordic countries don’t produce many masters, but when they do, they often take Europe by storm. I think here of artists like Edvard Munch, whose paintings must be as big an attraction to visitors to Norway as its spectacular scenery. When Munch was pushing the boundaries of painting, a more revered Swedish artist was locked in a dispute which wasn’t resolved for nearly eighty years after his death.
Carl Larsson’s watercolours had reached into hundreds of thousands of homes across Europe. From 1895 onwards, his books were best-sellers throughout the Nordic countries and Germany. The House in the Sun sold forty thousand copies in the first three months after its publication, and since then there have been more than forty printings, well into the twenty-first century.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
His 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.
His richly detailed Catching Crayfish (1897) was featured in his book 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.
At the same time, Larsson continued painting academic works, and was commissioned to produce a set of monumental murals for the walls of the central staircase in the National Museum in Stockholm. These depicted motifs from Swedish history, the first of which he completed in 1896.
In 1907, he completed that of Gustav Vasa’s procession into Stockholm, 1523 which celebrated the accession to the throne of King Gustav I, who reigned until 1560. Gustav had led a rebel movement against King Christian II of Denmark, who had ruled Sweden as part of the Kalmar Union. Eleven days after being elected to lead the independent Sweden, Gustav’s entry into Stockholm marked the birth of the nation.
The last, and what he intended to be his greatest, mural is drawn from the mythical sagas of the Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, with additional material from Adam of Bremen. Larsson wanted it to form a contrast with the other murals which he had already painted.
It shows a dramatic scene which does not have any parallel in official Swedish history, of the sacrifice of the mythical King Domalde. According to Snorri Sturluson, there had been many years of crop failures, and the gods had demanded pagan sacrifice to appease them and ease the suffering of the people.
For this, Midvinterblot (Midwinter’s Sacrifice), he had painted a series of studies which had proved controversial, and were successively rejected, requiring many changes. This is his third and final study, to which he had returned after resigning from the task in acrimony in 1914. However, the controversy which his earlier studies had generated had not settled. Debate continued in the newspapers, even involving government ministers.
More recently it has been proposed that the underlying problem with Larsson’s painting was that it failed to meet the modernist ideals of Sweden in the early twentieth century.
Larsson completed the massive painting (above), and it was exhibited where it was intended to go in June 1915, before being finally rejected and removed.
Here, in the midwinter, the king has been dragged on a gilded sled in front of a temple in ancient Uppsala. The high priest who is to perform the sacrifice conceals the knife behind his back, as the king is about to step off the sled onto the altar.
At the far left, women are in religious ecstasy, behind priests who blow ritual horns. Beside them is a miniature earthly Yggdrasil, which Adam of Bremen reported was evergreen. At the far right are the king’s warrior chiefs, following the sled.
Larsson retreated into writing his autobiography, which he completed shortly before his death on 22 January 1919. His final masterpiece had still not been accepted, and he was bitter to the end.
His painting was shown again at the National Museum between 1925-1933, then removed. In 1983-4, the painting was exhibited in the Museum of National Antiquities. It was first offered to the National Museum, which again declined, and the Museum of National Antiquities was unable to pay the asking price for it.
It was sold from auction at Sotheby’s to a private collector in Japan in 1987, only to be loaned back for the National Museum’s bicentennial celebrations in 1992. Since then it has remained there, at first on loan, but in 1997 it was finally purchased by the museum and installed where it had originally been intended. By then, the painting was over eighty years old, and its artist had been dead for seventy-eight of those.