My featured artist today is one who produced many paintings of differing genres, such as history paintings, landscape and seascape paintings and portraiture.
Hjalmar Eilif Emanuel Peterssen was born on September 4th, 1852 in Christiania, (known as Oslo since 1925), and spent his early life in the Christiania borough of Frogner. He attended the local schools and at the age of seventeen enrolled at the city’s Johan Fredrik Eckersberg School of Painting. This painting school, on Lille Grensen in Christiania, had been established in 1859 by the Norwegian artist, Johan Fredrik Eckersberg. After Eckersberg’s death in 1870, the running of the school was taken over by two Norwegian painters Knud Bergslien and Morten Müller.
From there, in 1871, Peterssen went to Denmark and studied briefly at the Art Academy in Copenhagen. Later that year, Peterssen travelled to the German city of Karlsruhe where he attended the Academy of Fine Arts and was student of Ludwig des Coudres, the German history and portrait painter and first director of the academy, and the German landscape painter, Wilhelm Riefstahl. Also resident professor at the Academy was Hans Gude, who was considered to be one of Norway’s foremost landscape painters. Another painter who influenced Peterssen during his stay in Karlsruhe was the history painter Carl Friedrich Lessings and his richly landscaped landscapes with historical scenes. Lessings was a director at the Academy.
In the Autumn of 1873, Peterssen moved to Munich he became a pupil at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts and one of his tutors was Wilhelm von Diez, the German painter and illustrator of the Munich School. He also spent time studying under Franz von Lenbach.
Every successful artist needs to have had a breakthrough painting, one which announces his arrival on the art scene. For Peterssen his breakthrough work was an historical painting he completed in 1876 entitled Christian II Signing the Death Warrant of Torben Oxe. The story behind the depiction is from sixteenth century history of the Nordic countries. Christian II was the last Roman Catholic king of Denmark and Torben Oxe was a noble who was appointed Governor of Copenhagen Castle. In the summer of 1517, Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, the king’s mistress, fell ill and died and Torben Oxe was accused by Dyveke’s mother of her daughter’s murder by poisoning her through a box of cherries. Christian II believed the accusation and condemned his friend Oxe to death. In the painting we see Christian, unmoved by the momentous event, signing the death warrant. His wife, is at her husband’s left and is seen pleading with her husband for Oxe’s life. Oxe was beheaded, and his body burned.
Eilif Peterssen’s portraiture had become very popular and besides his commissioned works he would paint many un-commissioned portraits of people. In my Daily Art Display of March 1st, 2011, I showcased an oil on mahogany masterpiece by the acclaimed German realist artist Wilhelm Liebl entitled Three Women in a Church. He started the work in October 1878 and did not complete it until December 1881. It is a depiction of three women of three different generations, dressed in regional costumes, sitting in a church.
In 1878 Peterssen completed a very similar depiction, Under Salmesangen (In the Church). Again, like Liebl’s work, Peterssen has depicted three women of different generations sitting together. The old lady, dressed in widow’s garb is seated in the centre with her hands clasped in prayer and rosary beads dangling from her wrists. She looks upwards as she prays. Maybe she is asking for divine strength to carry on with life. To her right sits a young girl, curls of her red hair lay across her forehead and to the old lady’s left sits a young woman, who with folded hands, demurely peruses her hymn book. I like the way Peterssen has depicted the facial expression of the young woman – shy and demure, and lost in thought.
In the same year he painted a religious work entitled Judas Iskariot which is housed in the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum in Tromso. The light from the lamp that Judas is carrying lights up the face of Christ. I am fascinated by Peterssen’s depiction of Christ’s facial expression in the painting.
The previous year, 1877, Peterssen was invited to participate in a competition to produce an altarpiece for the newly built church of St Johannes in Oslo. He was then commissioned to paint a crucifixion scene part of which would be his depiction of the Virgin Mary entitled Mary, Christ’s Mother. The brown and red tones he used in this portrait were similar to the ones he used in his depiction of Judas Iscariot and was influenced by the brownish palette of the Munich School painters.
In 1879, aged twenty-seven, Eilif Peterssen married Nicoline Gram, the daughter of Major General Johan Georg Boll Gram, the Court Marshal.
Peterssen and his wife Nicoline visited Sora, a town in the Italian commune of Lazio, in 1880 together with the Danish painter Peder Severin Krøyer, and this was captured in Krøyer’s painting Breakfast in Sora which depicted himself with Nicoline and Eilif Peterssen, and the painter Christian Meyer Ross.
Peterssen also documented his stay to the mountain village of Sora with his 1880 painting set in an Osteria, a place for serving wine and simple food, Siesta in an Osteria in Sora.
Sadly, the Peterssen’s marriage to Nicoline lasted just three years as Nicoline died in 1882, aged thirty-two. Eilif painted a picture of his wife entitled Kunstnerens hustru Nicoline Peterssen, født Gram (The Artist’s Wife Nicoline Peterssen, born Gram). I think it is a somewhat unflattering depiction of his wife.
A year after his wife’s death, Peterssen went to the Danish artist colony of Skagen in the summer of 1883. Since the 1870’s, the Northern Danish coastal village of Skagen was a summer meeting place for a group of Scandinavian artists, such as the husband and wife pair, Michael and Anna Ancher, Christian Krohg and Peder Severin Krøyer. The area around the village attracted the plein air artists because of its scenic delight and the quality of light. It was often compared to what the Barbizon School of painters found in and around the Forest of Fontainebleau. One painting completed during his stay at Skagen was his moonscape, Moonrise over the Dunes.
Petersen travelled around Europe, visiting France and Italy during the next couple of years including visiting Venice in 1885 accompanied by Frits Thaulow. Whilst visiting Paris in 1884 he completed a beautiful landscape work entitled Landscape from Meudon, France which is a depiction of the Seine riverside by the town of Meudon, a municipality in the southwestern suburbs of Paris.
Peterssen eventually returned to Norway in 1886 and established himself as a skilful portrait artist.
Portrait of Norwegian Author Henrik Ibsen by Eilif Peterssen (1895)
Two well-known Norwegian personalities featured in portraits by Peterssen, the composer Edvard Grieg and the writer Hendrik Ibsen.
It was in 1886 that Peterssen completed his most famous work and one which caught my eye and one that made me research into his life and other works. The oil on canvas painting was entitled Sommernatt (Summer Night), which is housed in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design – The National Gallery, Oslo, came about when Peterssen along with a group of artist friends, including Norwegian painters Christian Skredsvig, Gerhard Munthe, Kitty Kielland, Harriet Backer, and Erik Werenskiold, some of whom he had met whilst a student in Munich stayed at a farmstead in Fleskum, just outside of Oslo which was owned by painter and writer, Christian Skredsvig, who like Peterssen was a pupil at the Eckersberg drawing and paint school in Christiania and a student at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. In the history of Norwegian art, the Fleskum artists’ colony was a significant breakthrough of plein-air painting in Norway and heralded the arrival of Neo-Romanticism in Norway. Peterssen’s Summer Night was the most important to come out from that 1886 Fleskum gathering. As observers we stare down at the still water of the lake during the last light of a summer’s day. Strangely, there is little shown of the sky, but the reflection of the crescent moon is a reminder of the clear sky above. Some have suggested at a hint of symbolism with this painting with the contrast between the sturdy upright tree in the right foreground and the dead birch tree, to the left, which has died and rotting, having fallen lifelessly into the lake. Is this symbolic of life itself, from sturdy youthful growth to inevitable death?
The following year, 1887, Peterssen completed his painting Nocturne, which was the same view of the lake as in his Summer Night painting, but this time he has added some flowers, and a nude.
In 1888, six years after his first wife died, Peterssen re-married. His second wife was Frederikke Magdalene (“Magda”) Kielland, daughter of Lieutenant Commander Jacob Kielland.
Like many painters in the late nineteenth century Peterssen was aware of the work of the French Impressionists. One of his works which is often likened to Impressionism style, with its broad-brush strokes used to depict the foliage, was his 1891 work entitled Sunshine Kalvøya, which is one he painted whilst he and his wife were on the island of Kalvøya, which lies off the town of Sandvika, about twenty miles west of Oslo. This is a depiction of Peterssen’s second wife and so the painting is often referred to as Magda Sewing. We see her absorbed in her needlework surrounded by a lush green landscape, lit up by the full summer sun. It is a veritable depiction of peace, tranquillity, and contentment
One of Peterssen’s favourite haunts was Sele on the west coast of Norway and the views of the many small islands separated by the branchlike Inner Leads which separate the small islands. His 1894 painting, From the Norwegian Archipelago, depicts a view of these inner leads. In the right foreground of this exquisite work we see a woman standing amongst the low vegetation. She is wearing traditional clothes and is busy with her knitting. She leans back against a low multi-coloured dry-stone wall. On the other side of the lead we see several red roofed houses and crofts. A sailing boat in full-sail goes past, navigating the blue waters.
Another painting completed by Peterssen in 1896 was set in Sele. It is entitled Kveld, Sele (Gedine på haugen) – Evening, Sele (Gedine on a Hillock). The painting takes in the beautiful colours brought on by the setting of the sun at dusk. In the foreground we see a young girl, Gedine, a friend of Peterssen sitting on a hillock made of large grey stones. She is lost in contemplation as she gazes out across the flat landscape towards the sea.
A third painting completed by Peterssen and set on Sele which I really like, is his 1889 work entitled On the Look-out. In the painting we see five men, four lying on the sand and one seated, all gazing seawards, almost certainly trying to catch a glimpse of the returning fishing fleet.
Eilif Peterssen, during his lifetime, made several trips to France and Italy. In 1896 he went to Arques-la-Bataille, a small commune in the Seine-Maritime department of Normandy, a few miles south of Dieppe. It is a beautiful area where three rivers, Eaulne, Varenne and Béthune converge and in close proximity of the Forest of Arques. It was during his time here that he completed several landscape paintings including Old House in Normandy.
At the start of the twentieth century Peterssen became interested in Symbolism and was influenced by the colourful work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Around this time, he completed a number of works focused on French medieval legends. Even during his later life Peterssen continued to travel tirelessly around his own country and even though a few years from his seventieth birthday he was still able to make the long journey to the South of France visiting the small towns of Cagnes and St Paul in Provence.
Hjalmar Eilif Emanuel Peterssen died in Lysaker, a town close to Oslo, on December 29th 1928, aged 76.