Eilif Peterssen

Self portrait by Eilif Peterssen (1876)

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.

Eilif Peterssen by Peder Severin Kroyer (1883)

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.

Christian II signing the Death Warrant of Torben Oxe by Eilif Peterssen

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.

Three Women in Church by Wilhelm Leibl (1878-81)

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 the Church by Eilif Peterssen (1878)

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.

Judas Iskariot by Eilif Peterssen (1878)

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.

Mary, Christ’s Mother by Eilif Peterssen (1877)

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.

Breakfast in Sora by Peder Severin Krøyer (1880)

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.

Siesta i et osteria i Sora by Eilif Peterssen (1880)

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.

Kunstnerens hustru Nicoline Peterssen, født Gram (The Artist’s Wife Nicoline Peterssen, born Gram) by Eilif Peterssen

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.

Moonrise over the Dunes by Eilif Peterssen (1883)

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.

Landscape from Meudon, France (1884)

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.

Portrait of Edvard Grieg by Eilif Peterssen (1891)

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.

Summer Night by Eilif Peterssen (1886)

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?

Nocturne by Eilif Peterssen (1887)

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.

Sunshine, Kalvøya by Eilif Peterssen (1891)

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

From the Norwegian Archipelago by Eilif Peterssen (1894),

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.

Kveld, Sele (Gedine on a Hillock) by Eilif Peterssen (1896)

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.

On the Look-out by Eilif Peterssen (1889)

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.

Old House in Normandy by Eilif Peterssen (1896)

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.

The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake

The Ghost of a Flea by Wiliam Blake (c.1820)

In my previous blog I left off the story of William Blake with him still living in London.  Today I will conclude the short biography of the great man.

 In 1800, Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex and began to work on illustrations to go with the poetry of the poet William Hayley.  It was during his time in Felpham that Blake began to write his epic poem, Milton: a Poem and it was the preface to this work which includes a poem:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

The poem later became the words for the anthem, Jerusalem which was set to music quite emotively by the composer Hubert Parry in 1916.

Blake had always been radical and had, on a number of occasions, fell foul of authority.  His most serious run-in with the law came in 1803 when he and a drunken soldier, John Schofield, who was part of a troop which was billeted at the local pub.  The soldier had strayed into Blake’s cottage garden and the two had a physical altercation during which Schofield alleged that Blake had verbally damned King George III.  Blake was charged with voicing seditious and treasonous words against the monarch.  Blake on the other hand contested that the charges were a “fabricated perjury”.  A pre-trial hearing at the local quarter sessions in Petchworth found sufficient evidence to send Blake to stand trial in Chichester in the January of the following year but fortunately for the artist the jury found him not guilty.

In 1804 he left his Sussex home and returned to London where in the following years he was to illustrate many books including Milton’s Paradise Lost as well as illustrative work for bibles. Blake showed work at the exhibition of the Associated Painters in Water-Colours  in 1812 and exhibited some pictures at the Royal Academy of Arts, but these works were greeted with silence.  In 1809 and 1810 he organised a retrospective exhibition of his work in rooms above his brother’s hosiery shop in London.  The exhibition gave him the chance to show his Canterbury Illustrations, which were a set of illustrations he had done for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, along with some of his other works.  To accompany the exhibition he put together a prospectus, entitled Descriptive Catalogue,   which described and explained the works on display. 

The Descriptive Catalogue

His exhibition was not a success and only a few people saw the exhibits.  The journalist and art critic Robert Hunt wrote about the exhibits and the accompanying catalogue.   Of the display, Hunt said the pictures were “wretched” and of the write-up of them in the catalogue he said Blake’s words were “a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness and egregious vanity”.  It is interesting to note that the Descriptive Catalogue which received such bad reviews is now looked upon as a brilliant analysis of Chaucer’s work.   Robert Hunt concluded his review by saying that in his opinion Blake was “an unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement”.  More devastating reviews followed and Blake was shattered and began to withdraw more and more from public life.

Later in his life Blake began to sell a great number of his works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, his most important patron who saw Blake more as a friend than a man whose work held artistic merit; this was typical of the opinions held of Blake throughout his life.  The largest Blake collection ever formed, was assembled by Thomas Butts probably between 1799 and  1810, and between 1820 and  1827. It consisted of over 200 biblical temperas and watercolors, Milton illustrations, color-print drawings, illuminated books, illustrated books, and engravings.

 In 1818 Blake is introduced to the English landscape painter John Linnell who became one of his best friends and ardent patrons.  It was Linnell who gave Blake the two largest commissions he ever received for single series of designs.  He paid £150 for drawings and engravings of The Inventions to the Book of Job.  In 1826, the year before Blake’s death Linnell commissioned him to produce etchings and watercolours illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Although he never lived to complete the commission, the illustrations he produced of the poem were not viewed merely as accompanying works, but rather they were considered to be a critical revision of Dante’s masterpiece.  There was in his pictures a commentary on the particular spiritual and moral aspects of Dante’s text.

Blake died in August 1827.  According to the biography, Blake by Peter Ackroyd, on the day of his death, Blake worked tirelessly on Linnell’s Dante series commission. Completely exhausted, he stopped working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Looking at her, Blake said, “Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.”  Having completed this portrait which is now lost, Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses.  At six that evening, after promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died.

Throughout his life Blake spoke about visions he had.  They started at the age of four and carried on throughout his life.  These visions were often connected to beautiful religious themes and imagery, and probably inspired him to paint his spiritual works and God and Christianity were at the heart of all his writings.  He stuck to the belief that in some way he had been instructed to create his art works by the Archangels and that the works he completed were read and looked at by these heavenly bodies.

His attitude to life, his visions and his works leads one to believe that he was bordering on insanity and William Wordsworth said of him:

“…There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott…”

My Daily Art Display featured picture is entitled The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake, which he completed in 1820 and in some ways highlights how disturbed his mind was at this time.  It is a tempera heightened with gold on mahogany
support and is quite small measuring just 21cms x 16 cms.  The work can be seen at Tate Britain in London but unfortunately has degraded quite badly mainly due to the technique Blake used to create the work.

William Blake had been introduced to John Varley, an English watercolourist,  by his friend and patron John Linnell in 1818.  Varley was some thirty years Blake’s junior but notwithstanding this age difference, he and Blake became great friends and soon became one of Blake’s circle of admirers who had called themselves The Ancients.  As Varley believed strongly in astrology,  he was attracted to Blake’s visionary tales of heaven and angels and how he was able to converse with these heavenly creatures.  Blake would often call on Varley and the latter was energized by the spiritual portraits that Blake drew when they were together.  Often late in the evening when Blake was at Varley’s home they would take part in séances at which Varley would summon a long-dead historical person or mythological creature, describe his vision to Blake, who would quickly sketch it.  It was at one such séance in 1819 that Blake conjured up an image of a flea.  In George Bentley’s book The Stranger from Paradise, A Biography of William Blake, he quotes Varley’s account of what happened that evening:

“…As I was anxious to make the most correct investigation in my power, of the truth of these visions, on hearing of this spiritual apparition of a Flea, I asked him if he could draw for me the resemblance of what he saw: he instantly said, ‘I see him now before me.’ I therefore gave him paper and a pencil with which he drew the portrait… I felt convinced by his mode of proceeding, that he had a real image before him, for he left off, and began on another part of the paper, to make a separate drawing of the mouth of the Flea, which the spirit having opened, he was prevented from proceeding with the first sketch, till he had closed it…”

The imagery and Blake’s imagination which conjured up such a horrific image of the creature is both awesome and terrifying.  The flea depicted in this work is monstrous in size and muscular in body.  Its long voracious tongue slithers out from its mouth to lap up blood from the acorn-shaped bowl which is held in its left hand.  Its right hand is behind its back and the fingers of the hand grasp a thorn.  It appears part human, part reptilian and in the picture it moves from right to left past a set of heavy stage-like curtains as if on a stage.  Look at the upper part of the body.  Blake has given the creature a thick neck and a small scaly head with bulging and staring eyes.  It reminds me of a head of a gargoyle and one has to remember that Blake in his early days was sent around the Gothic churches of London to sketch and it could be some of the Gothic carvings he saw stuck in his mind.

On the back of the panel are the words:

“…The Vision of the Spirit that inhabits the body of a Flea, and which appeared to the late Mr. Blake, the Designer of the vignettes for Blair Grave and the Book of Job. The Visions first appeared to him in my presence, and after wards till he had finished this picture. The Flea drew blood on this…”

John Varley bought the work from William Blake in 1820 and in 1892 it was sold on to Graham Robertson, the William Blake collector for £10.50 at a Sotheby’s auction.   Graham Robertson’s collection of works by William Blake was  recognised as the most distinguished in existence. His purchases of the group of masterpieces had mainly come from the Butts family who were descendent of Blake’s friend and patron, Thomas Butts.  Robertson lent the work to the Tate in 1913 and eventually donated it to the gallery in 1948.

There is no doubt that this is an unsettling picture, dark in tone and yet has some shimmering golden tints.  There is no doubt that Blake, albeit looked upon as a genius, had throughout his life a very disturbed mind and one has to wonder whether the visions he constantly talked about were a comfort to him or gave him a nightmarish existence.