Peder Balke. Part 2 – The great Norwegian journey and disillusionment

Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, by Johan Christian Dahl  (1827)
Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, by Johan Christian Dahl (1827)

Balke returned to Christiania in 1830 and stayed with Professor Rathke and in that May travelled to Copenhagen and was fortunate to be able to view royal collections of art.  Of all the works he saw, Balke was most impressed by a winter landscape painted by Johan Christian Dahl, entitled Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, which he completed in 1827.  The large (173 x 205cms) work of art depicts a somewhat oppressive atmosphere with its undertones of death, symbolised by the dolmen behind the lifeless branches of the two oak trees. A dolmen is a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of two or more upright stones supporting a large flat horizontal capstone.  Nature is depicted in the form of its icy winter garb.  He wrote of the painting to Rathke saying that it was the most life-like painting he had ever seen.  The fact that he had managed to see the works of the great Masters at the royal collection, although influencing him, also depressed him somewhat as to his own ability.  He wrote:

“…I sometimes felt a certain heaviness of heart and lack of courage when I compared my own insignificance with these true masterpieces; quietly and I admit somewhat superficially I calculated how much I would have to learn and how many ordeals I would have to go through before I would be able to achieve a mere fraction of the perfection in aptitude and skill in execution exuded by these paintings…”

North Cape by Peder Balke (1945)
North Cape by Peder Balke (1945)

Balke was determined to succeed and in the summer of 1830 having returned to Norway from Copenhagen he set off on foot on an artistic journey through the Telemark region and over the mountains to western Norway and then north to Bergen returning to Christiania via the Naeroydalen valley and the town of Gudvangen.  He later recalled his short time spent in the area around Gudvangen, writing:

“.. I first arrived late at night, because I became so engrossed in admiring the sublime beauty of Naeroydalen that I hardly knew whether what surrounded me was real or supernatural.  So fascinating and uplifting did my youthful imagination, with its passion for the beauties of nature….”

From North Cape by Peder Balke (c.1860's)
From North Cape by Peder Balke (c.1860’s)

Two years later, in April 1832, Balke set off another artistic journey.  This time, setting off in his own carriage he went to Trondheim where he was to catch a boat to the north of the country.  His planned journey hit a snag when he arrived late in Trondheim and missed the boat.  He had to wait a further seven weeks for the next boat but spent the time sketching the town and the surrounding areas.  Peder Balke finally embarked on his northbound boat trip, passing the Lofoten Islands and arrived at Tromso.  From there the boat went further north to Hammerfest and then proceeded around the North Cape to Vardø and Vadsø.  He was the first Norwegian painter to record the harsh beauty of the northern landscape.  Eventually Balke and the boat returned to Trondheim.  During the long journey Balke had completed a large collection of sketches of the places he had seen and many were used in his many seascape and moonscape works of art which he worked on when he returned to Stockholm.  He sold many of his paintings to wealthy Norwegians and Swedes as well as members of the royal family.  In 1834, now, financially secure, Peder married Karen Eriksdatter, the woman he had been secretly engaged to for several years, but had been too poor to marry.

The Severn Sisters by Peder Balke (1847)
The Severn Sisters by Peder Balke (1847)

The couple settled in Christiania and Balke, now accepted, not simply as a decorator but as a landscape artist, tried to establish himself and sell his artworks.  However competition at the time was too great and the sales he had hoped for never materialised.  However, in 1835, he managed to sell another of his works to the king and with that money he decided on fulfilling his dream of travelling to Dresden and work with the Norwegian artist, J C Dahl.   Many Norwegian artists had trodden this path, including Thomas Fearnley (see My Daily Art Display November 24th & 28th 2012).  With help from a friend, Balke set off for Germany and reached Berlin in the winter of that year.  He remained in Berlin for several weeks and was able to visit the Royal Museum and whilst in the German city he saw paintings by the German romantic landscape painter, Casper David Friedrich.  It was this artist who was going to have a great and lasting influence on Balke.

Ship in Breaking Waves by Peder Balke (c.1849)
Ship in Breaking Waves by Peder Balke (c.1849)

Balke left Berlin and travelled to Dresden via Leipzig.  He received a great welcome from Johan Dahl who helped him find accommodation.  J C Dahl introduced Balke to Casper David Friedrich and Balke was able to watch the two great artists at work.  In a letter to Rathke, dated March 29th 1836, he wrote about watching J C Dahl at work:

“..to see Dahl paint, I know with which colours and have seen how he uses them, and though I at present cannot proceed successfully in the same manner I hope that with time I will also reap the benefit.  What I regret most is my lack of studies from nature.  Dahl certainly has several thousands of them, of all kinds.  He has told me there is no other way to become a real painter than by painting from nature, which admittedly has been my intention, and I shall now try to see whether I can make up for what I have hitherto neglected, in Norway, though not in Germany – there is no nature here…”

Sami with Reindeer Under the Midnight Sun by Peder Balke, (c.1850)
Sami with Reindeer Under the Midnight Sun by Peder Balke, (c.1850)

Balke left Dresden but returned in the 1840’s to work once again with J C Dahl.  Landscape art was popular in Norway and Balke managed to sell many of his works but things were to change when a number of young Norwegian landscape artists having returned from studying at the Dusseldorf Academy, which at the time was looked upon as the most modern art-educational institute.  The teaching of landscape art was more to do with what was termed “cautious Realism” rather than Balke’s Romantic landscapes which suddenly became less fashionable.  He had to endure much criticism with regards his work which had once been loved by his people.  In an article in a 1944 edition of Morgenbladet, the eminent art critic Emil Tidemand scathingly wrote about Balke’s paintings:

“… There is no question here of a grandiose, poetic perception: no not even the simplest technical demands of drawing, perspective, clarity, strength and depth of colour have been met……………….This is not a representation of nature – his whole production is merely the mark of a dirty palette handled without discrimination…”

Old Trees by Peder Balke (c.1849)
Old Trees by Peder Balke (c.1849)

Maybe it was the vitriolic criticism which made Balke realise that there would be no hope of becoming financially secure through his art sales in Norway and so in 1844 he, along with his pregnant wife and three young children, left their homeland and travelled to Paris via Copenhagen and Germany  There was also another reason to visit Paris and this was that Balke was well aware that the country’s ruler Louis-Philippe had, as a young prince in exile in 1795, travelled along the Norwegian coast from Trondheim to the North Cape just as he had done.  As Balke did not speak French he asked a friend to write a letter on his behalf to the king in which he reminded the king of his exile and his Norwegian journey and that his nine sketches of the area would remind the king of that journey.  Louis-Philippe was intrigued and summoned Balke to the palace.  Balke and the king immediately became close and the two would meet regularly and reminisce about their travels to the North Cape

A View of the Sarpsfoss Waterfalls, Norway by Peder Balke (c.1859)
A View of the Sarpsfoss Waterfalls, Norway by Peder Balke (c.1859)

Louis-Philippe commissioned a set of paintings derived from the sketches.  Balke’s financial future seemed to have been rescued and he set to work on the commission.  Alas fate was to take a hand in the form of the February Revolution of 1848 which saw the downfall of Louis-Philippe.  Balke realising the dangers of being close to the unpopular ruler decided in late 1847 that he and his family would have to hurriedly leave Paris which meant he had to abandon, what was to have been a very lucrative commission.  Balke moved back to Dresden.  Shortly after his arrival in the German city in 1848 his young son Johann died.  His death came around the same time that his wife gave birth to their daughter Frederikke.  Sales of his art in Dresden were hard to come by and so he decided to leave his family with a friend and head back to Christiania.  He managed to sell some of his work, one of which was The North Cape by Moonlight but still the Norwegian people favoured the Dusseldorf School of landscape painting and so Balke returned to his family in Dresden.  In the Spring of 1849 he and his family moved to London where Balke believed his art would be more appreciated.  London had fallen under the spell of Joseph Mallord William Turner and his marine paintings and so Balke believed his works of art would do well.  He was proved right and managed to sell more of his works of art.

Balkeby  1860-70
Balkeby
1860-70

In the autumn of 1850 Balke and his family moved back to Christiania.  In 1855 his good friend and benefactor Professor Rathke died and left Balke a sizeable amount of money which Balke used to buy eight acres of land just outside the city limits at a place known as Vestre Aker.  He virtually abandoned his career as an artist of large scale landscape works, concentrating on small scale paintings which he believed would be bought by the middle class.  He now concentrated on his property portfolio and in particular the development of housing for workers in his newly attained property in the suburb of Balkeby, He dabbled in local politics championing the cause of pensions for men and women, and also of grants for artists. His painting was now just a hobby and for his own pleasure.

The Old Bridge by Peder Balke (c.1869)
The Old Bridge by Peder Balke (c.1869)

Balke, as you may realise, was an unlucky man and more bad luck came in June 1879 when his beloved Balkeby went up in flames.  Nearly every house, including his own, was burnt to the ground.  Four years later Balke suffered a stroke, and he died in Christiania on February 15th 1887 aged 82.  The obituaries that followed after his death were all about his political work and little was said about Balke the artist.  Maybe his penchant for ignoring criticism and sticking to what he believed in was apparent in the obituary which appeared in the magazine Verdens Gang in March 1887.  It emphasised Balke’s pugnacity:

“…Fearless and straightforward as he was, it would never occur to him to defer to people in an argument.  He considered only the matter in hand and did not bother in the least about who was for or against him.  This does not always result in popularity…”

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.

Peder Balke. Part 1 – His early life and struggles to become a painter

Peder Balke (1804-1887)
Peder Balke
(1804-1887)

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…”

Christiania Viewed from Ekeberg by Peder Balke (c.1829)
Christiania Viewed from Ekeberg by Peder Balke (c.1829)

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…”

The Mountain Range 'Trolltindene' by Peder Balke (c.1845)
The Mountain Range ‘Trolltindene’ by Peder Balke (c.1845)

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.

Landscape with Mill and Rapids by Peder Balke (1840)
Landscape with Mill and Rapids by Peder Balke (1840)

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…”

Moonlight on the Coast at Steigen by Peder Balke (1842)
Moonlight on the Coast at Steigen by Peder Balke (1842)

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.

Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, by Johan Christian Dahl  (1827)
Winter Landscape. Near Vordingborg, by Johan Christian Dahl (1827)

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.

Seascape by Peder Balke (c.1860)
Seascape by Peder Balke (c.1860)

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.

 

A Moonlight Effect by Paul Sandby

Landscape painting became the most inventive form of art in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  Traditionally, paintings of the British landscape had been a way of showing off magnificent country houses, and were often commissioned by wealthy landowners to show off their estates and wealth.  However in the late eighteenth century the landscape became the subject of a more poetic vision. There was a growth in the urban middle-class and for them landscape art provided a romantic ideal of the landscape as the source of timeless values which could be enjoyed by anyone.  Landscape paintings were now being viewed as portraying idyllic places of rest and solace.  Landscape art in the 18th century did however have its detractors.  The Swiss-born artist Henry Fuseli, when once lecturing his art students, identified landscape art as a low branch of painting.  He described it:

“…the tame delineation of a given spot;   what is commonly called Views is  little more than topography; ….a kind of map-work”……”

My featured artist today would not have agreed with Fuseli’s description, as he was one of England’s great landscape artists.  His name is Paul Sandby.  Sandby was born in Nottingham in 1731.  His father Thomas was a framework knitter and he had a brother, also named Thomas, who was ten years older than him.  The boys had a comfortable upbringing and it is thought that they both received drawing tuition from Thomas Peat, a Nottingham-based land surveyor.  Both boys showed great aptitude and in 1747 Paul, then aged sixteen, left Nottingham to take up employment as a military draughtsman.  After the Battle of Culloden the English felt the need to map the Scottish landscape with detailed records of forts and castles and Paul Sandby was involved in the survey and from his office at Edinburgh Castle, where he worked as a mapmaker, he developed his landscape drawing technique.

After his work in Scotland he went on to paint much of Britain. In 1752, he, along with his brother, took up a post producing landscapes of the royal estates at Windsor.   Importantly in 1770, he travelled through Wales and was one of the first artists to paint landscapes of that country.  He popularised the area by not just exhibiting paintings but widely circulating printed images and developing an innovative print method, aquatint, a variant of etching, which echoes the washes of watercolour rather than relying on pure lines.   He returned to Wales in 1773 and toured the south of the country along with Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist and botanist.  This sketching trip resulted in the 1775 publication of XII Views in South Wales.  A further twelve views were added the following year.

In 1757, Sandby  married Anne Stogden.   In 1768, the same year as his election as a Royal Academician, he was appointed chief drawing master to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, a position he held for over thirty years,.  His son Thomas Paul was eventually to succeed him in that post.

 Unfortunately for Sandby the public fell out of love with his fresh and uncomplicated natural style of paintings, which he embraced, and he was ultimately forced to petition the Royal Academy for financial support to supplement his modest pension. He died in 1809, his obituary describing him as the ‘father of modern landscape-painting in watercolours’.  He is buried in St George’s Burial Ground London.

Gainsborough praised Sandby as one of the first artists to paint what he termed “real views”, ones which were topographically accurate as opposed to idealised compositions.  There was a large gap between the topography and the ideal landscapes.  The topographer accurately recorded what he saw whereas the ideal landscape artist manipulatesd his landscape for aesthetic ends.  Paul Sandby endeavoured to bridge that gap.  He kept faith with his topographical skills but managed to bring expression and sensitivity to his work.  He did this by carefully choosing the viewpoint for the composition.  He also liked to incorporate realistic human figures in his works.  Throughout his career Sandby only ever used the medium of watercolour.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled A Moonlight Effect which Paul Sandby completed around 1790 and which can be found in the Nottingham City Museums and Galleries.  This is one of a number of paintings Sandby completed which depicted a place or a building as seen by moonlight.  In the 1770’s the early romantic painters, such as Joseph Wright of Derby and William Hodges, had taken a special interest in the portrayal of moonlight effects; and the image of the moon and of moonlight became one of the great romantic images.  For the romantic artist, who saw himself as alienated from society, the moon was often seen as an image of constancy and hope in a changing world, and it adequately depicted that longing and yearning or an unattainable perfection which lies at the heart of romanticism.

I love this painting with its silvery moonlight. 

Maybe you will have noticed that My Daily Art Display has not quite been a “daily” offering recently.  The reason for that is not because I am losing interest or having difficulty to find yet another painting, albeit it is getting harder.  The reason is that I have been trying to build up a reserve stockpile of blogs for when I am away on holiday in case I don’t have the time to research and compose a blog.  Today we are setting off to Hong Kong and Australia for a three-week break.  I am hoping I will still have access to the internet when I am away so that I can send out one of my “reserve” blogs, at least every other day.  I am hoping to take in a couple of art galleries when I am away and I am looking forward to seeing the depth of art on offer.