I suppose if you are a landscape or seascape artist it is ideal to be living amongst glorious scenery or rugged coastlines which inspire you to paint and is much better than having to move to an artist colony in some idyllic area to find inspiration. The artist I am featuring today was fortunate enough to come from a country of amazing natural beauty which he often depicted in his works of art. Today let me introduce you to the nineteenth century Norwegian painter, Peder Balke, who specialised in landscape and seascape paintings with a romantic and dramatic connotation.
Peder Balke was the younger son of Anders Thoresen and Pernille Pedersdatter and born August 28th 1804. He was christened Peder Andersen on November 4th. Information about his early years was given by Balke in a dictated version of his life story, seventy years later. He reminisced:
“… I was born on the island of Helgøya, in Nes in the country of Hedmark on 4 November 1804 in poverty, my situation in life being therefore less than enviable. Yet the nearly influence of an affectionate and conscientious mother with constant good advice and exemplary admonitions was of the greatest benefit to my youthful and perhaps exceptionally lively temperament – for it is in these years of one’s development that the seeds are sown of both good and evil, though only later in life does one value their significance correctly…”
He did not have an easy start to life his family being part of the lowest ranks of the peasant society. His parents were simple farm labourers working on a farm called Svennerud on the island of Helgøya, which lies in the middle of Lake Mjøsa, , some 60 kilometres north of Christiania (now Oslo) and is Norway’s largest and one of the deepest lakes in the country. The family owned nothing. They had no lands to grow their own crops. They were simply impoverished land-less servants of the farmer. The family predicament was one his father could not tolerate and when Peder was young, he abandoned the family and is never mentioned in his son’s dictated autobiography. In 1812, when Peder was eight years old, because Norway and Denmark were in an alliance with France, their ports were blockaded by the British, as part of Britain’s war against Napoleon. This prevented much needed corn from entering the country and this, along with a severe and early frost of 1812 which destroyed the Norwegian corn harvest, meant that for the next two years the country suffered a terrible famine. This severe time was remembered well by Balke who wrote:
“….wretched times, when war and years of hardship oppressed people and it goes without saying that this suffering and national scourge affected the poor most severely. My mother, who had to look after herself and two children- for I had a brother who was seven years older than me ……like so many others we had therefore to resort to substitutes which are less easy for humans to digest, and I and my brother went into the forest to remove bark from the trees, which was dried and ground and Mother baked bread with it. It goes without saying that food of this kind resulted in disease such as dysentery etc…”
Being from such a peasant class there was no possibility of schooling for Balke but his mother taught him to read and write. When he was old enough he would try to earn some money for the family by helping out on the neighbourhood farms, but pay was poor, and he would also go fishing to bring food to the table.
It was thought Peder’s maternal grandfather was an painter/decorator and that was the first influence on him. Another relative, Anders Skraedderstuen, who had a nearby smallholding was also a painter and took on seventeen year old Peder as an apprentice for two years. Peder was employed to paint but also learn the skills involved in fine interior decorations. There was always work for him as the farm owners were becoming richer and building themselves large homes which they needed decorating. Peder travelled extensively from farm to farm to carry out commissions. One such farm was the Vestre Balke farm at Toten which was owned by Anders Balke. The Balke family took to Peder and soon he was not just looked upon as a workman but as a son. This close tie pleased Peder and it was at this time that he changed his surname to Balke. Although now living with his “new family” he always remembered to go back and visit his mother and help her out financially.
In winter there were no commissions to be had so it was then that Balke travelled to Christiania to buy paints, stencils and the latest in ornaments ready for the following summer. At this time there was no place in the capital where Balke could study art but he did manage to find rooms in a house owned by Ole Nielsen in Gudbrandsdalen. Nielsen was a talented painter and over a period of seven months he taught Balke the fundamentals of drawing and painting. Balke recalled the time later in his autobiographical notes:
“…From this kind man I received many tips hitherto unknown to me that had an appreciable effect on my later evolution in the profession of painter…”
Life and business were good for Peder Balke, so much so, he employed several apprentices but as in life itself there were always ups and downs and the “down” at this time was the threat of military service. Balke did not want anything to do with this and tried all sorts of ploys to get himself out of fighting for his country. His eventual get-out was by becoming a qualified craftsman and seeking citizenship in Christiania. So, in 1826, aged twenty-two, Balke left Toten and moved to the capital and was accepted as a journeyman by the Lubeck-born painter and engraver, Heinrich August Grosch and studied to become a master painter of the town, thus acquiring citizenship and best of all, be exempt from military service providing he completed his two year course to the satisfaction of Grosch. Balke tired of working for Grosch switched to working for Jens Funch. In 1827, with the money he had saved, he enrolled in an elementary drawing class at the Royal School of Drawing and received tuition at the Kongelige Tegneskole from the former military officer and painter Captain Jacob Munch, who was pleased with Balke’s progress. With his savings almost gone, Balke returned to Toten and asked his benefactor Anders Balke for some financial help. Anders and two other farm owners decide to financially back Balke, in the form of a letter of guarantee for a sum of money which Balke needed to continue his studies and in return he promised to decorate their farm buildings.
Balke returned to Christiania and with the letter of guarantee met with Professor Jens Rathke a renowned natural scientist and professor at the university who was well known for his generosity. He agreed to take the letter of guarantee and lend Balke the funds he needed. Balke was to late recall that he was never asked to repay the sum he had borrowed and commented on Rathke’s invaluable support:
“… For that as well as for all the other kindnesses that man bestowed on me I have always been and always will be grateful to him…”
Jens Rathke also persuaded Balke to take a trip around large parts of central Norway in order to study nature. Balke first toured the Telemark area in the south east of the country an area which he later recalled had awakened his profound interest in Norway’s wonderful natural life, and the astonishing beauty it reveals in all directions. Later he explored central Norway and the Gudbransdalen Valley. He continually recorded his travels with a large number of sketches which he would later combine in his paintings.
In 1829, military service still loomed large as Balke had not managed to qualify as a painter-decorator within the prescribed two year period. His only course of action to avoid military service was to try and enrol at an academy and study landscape painting. Rathke advised Balke to apply to the Stockholm Academy and agreed to finance Balke’s application. Balke studied for a short time under the Swedish landscape painter, Carl Johan Fahlcrantz. Whilst in Stockholm Balke visited the summer residence of the country’s ruler Karl Johnan in Djurgärden where he viewed the king’s art collection and was much enamoured by a painting by the German landscape painter, Johan Christian Ezdorf. Ezdorf, who was also a student of Fahlcrantz, had a great love for the Nordic scenery and often depicted it in his works of art.
Balke was enjoying life in Stockholm and in his memoirs he wrote:
“…I used the time to pay frequent visits to the city’s art academy and art galleries, as well as a number of private collections of paintings where I was made welcome, and I also executed some small paintings which I had the satisfaction of selling…”
In my next blog I will continue to look at the life and works of Peder Balke and examine the reasons why he gave up being a professional artist in favour of politics.
I can recommend an excellent book about the artist and his work entitled Paintings by Peder Balke, from which I derived most of my information about this Norwegian painter.