In the middle of the nineteenth century, painting in Sweden was something of a backwater. It was then that several artists tried to create a national Swedish art, forming an Artists’ Guild in 1846. Among them was Nils Jakob Blommér (1816-1853), whose tragically brief life and career I consider in this article and its sequel next week. Central to Blommér’s work are many paintings of Norse mythology, which I cover here; the second article will examine his career more generally, including his landscape paintings.
Blommér started as an apprentice in Lund, in the south of Sweden, before training at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts. From there he went to study in Paris from 1847, where he painted most of his works showing Norse mythology. These were in part inspired by the Romantic paintings of the Austrian artist Moritz von Schwind, but Blommér’s myths are rooted firmly in Swedish accounts of Norse myths.
Before he went to Paris, Blommér painted Idun and Brage in 1846. This shows two of the more interesting minor deities. Bragi is the skaldic (Viking court) god of poetry, renowned for his wisdom and fluent speech. He sits playing a harp, in a parallel with southern myths, while his wife Iðunn stands behind, holding the apples of her youth, her normal associations as a goddess.
Several of his surviving paintings show scenes from the myths of Freyja, the Norse goddess associated with love, beauty, fertility and sex.
His undated painting of Freyja Seeking her Husband shows the goddess in her chariot drawn by two cats, and wearing her golden necklace Brisingamen. As she rides through clouds she’s surrounded by winged cupids, borrowed perhaps from more Roman influences.
Freyja’s necklace Brisingamen features in several of her myths, notably when Loki steals it from Freyja’s neck while she’s asleep, on the instructions of Odin. It falls to the god Heimdall to recover the necklace and return it to its owner.
Blommér’s undated sketch of Heimdall and Freyja seems to be an early idea for telling this story, which he then developed into his finished painting in 1846.
Heimdall returns Brisingamen to Freyja (1846) is that finished account. Heimdall keeps watch for invaders and the start of Ragnarök, and here wears his horn Gjallarhorn, with which he announces events. He and Loki are antagonists, and are foretold to kill one another during Ragnarök.
In 1849-50, when he was still in Paris, Blommér started work on a cycle of the seasons based on Norse mythology. Although at least two of these paintings were completed, it appears that he didn’t finish the whole cycle.
Ängsälvor, which are Meadow Elves, shows fairies dancing in their diaphanous gowns in a meadow at twilight, representing Spring in the cycle. The distant buildings have been identified as Gripsholm Castle, which is to the west of Stockholm and was built in the sixteenth century for the Swedish crown.
Summer is represented by Älvdrömmen, or Elf Dreams, which I have been unable to locate.
Autumn is Blommér’s The Water-Sprite and Ägir’s Daughters (1850). Known in English as Ægir, this Norse jötunn is the personification of the sea, and is associated with the brewing of beer. He and his wife Rán, who also personifies the sea, have nine daughters who personify waves.
I have only been able to find this study from 1849 for Blommér’s painting representing winter, Asgårdsreia, The Ride of Asgård or most popularly known in English as The Wild Hunt. This takes us beyond Norse myth, to a folk myth which extends across much of Northern, Western, and Central Europe, and was first documented fully by Jacob Grimm. In this a supernatural group of hunters pass an observer, in wild pursuit of unseen quarry. The hunters can be spirits of the dead, or mythical figures such as elves, fairies, or Valkyrie-like horsewomen/men.
The leader of this wild hunt is often an Odin-like individual, although different cultures vary this by citing semi-historical or legendary heroes. When people see the Wild Hunt pass by, it’s supposed to be the harbinger of some catastrophe, or a portent of the death of those who witness it. In its Norse variant, Valkyries and dead heroes ride out from Valhalla, snatching up living people to carry off on their black horses.
Blommér’s undated Nymphs is an oil sketch for another in his paintings of Norse mythology.