Norwegian national awakening began in the nineteenth century. Before the Napoleonic Wars, Norway was in a personal union with Denmark (officially known as Denmark-Norway). The union between these two countries can be traced back to Queen Margaret I at the end of the fourteenth century. In 1814, Denmark was forced to cede Norway to the Swedes as part of a post-Napoleonic peace agreement. The Norwegians were not too keen on that arrangement. Though they could not resist the formation of a union, Sweden-Norway, in 1814, they did manage to pass and maintain their constitution. In May 1814, a constitutional assembly in the town of Eidsvoll met and ratified a constitution for the Kingdom of Norway. This constitution, still in effect, remains a symbol of national pride. It is the third-oldest constitution still in effect (after those of San Marino and the United States). The nineteenth century was, for Norway, a time of artistic achievement. The modern Norwegian artistic tradition was born out of Romanticism, nationalism, and salt-of-the-earth artists. From Dahl to Munch, the near-century of Norwegian history from 1814 to the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905 was marked by supreme artistic achievements.
Norway in the early-nineteenth century was an overwhelmingly rural country whose capital Christiania (present-day Oslo) had just under 9,000 people in 1801. The city of Bergen was larger but not huge. The population on Bergen jumped from just under 9,000 people in 1769 to over 37,000 in 1855. Christiania also had over 30,000 people by the 1850s. The Industrial Revolution was making a modest impact. Bergen was the birthplace of the man who has been hailed as the ‘father of Norwegian landscape painting,’ Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857). Dahl was born to a humble fisherman and educated by a local cleric. As locals recognized the young Dahl’s artistic talent, they started a collection so that he could afford to study in Copenhagen. Dahl spend considerable time abroad — in Copenhagen, Dresden, and Italy — and returned home in 1826, fifteen years after leaving.
Dahl went against the grain with regard to the subjects he preferred to paint. The leading academies focused on historical or mythological subjects. This was to the dismay of artists who wished to focus on landscapes and the everyday life. Decades later, in France, the Impressionists would rebel against such establishment subjects. Dahl’s rebellion, if one is inclined to call it that, was a focus on landscapes — increasingly those of his homeland. One of his early landscapes depicts the flow of lava from Mount Vesuvius.
Dahl was quite prolific. He painted several Mount Vesuvius scenes in the 1820s. When he returned to Norway, he painted numerous landscapes and seascapes, both daytime and nighttime scenes. Indeed, he was one of the early masters of nighttime scene paintings.
Later in life, Dahl was instrumental in promoting art education in Norway. He was a founder of the National Gallery of Norway as well as an art society. He was influenced major German artists, notably Caspar David Friedrich.
Adolph Tidemand (1814–1876) was another major figure of Norwegian Romantic nationalist art tradition. Like Dahl, he was formally trained in Copenhagen and in Germany. He painted historical scenes as well as scenes of contemporary Norwegian culture.
Tidemand’s best-known work, and one of the best-known paintings in Norwegian art history, is his Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord (1848). This perhaps most representative work of Norwegian Romantic Nationalism, was a collaboration piece between Tidemand and Hans Guide (1825–1903).
Tideman was an absolute master of depicting folk life in rural Norway at the time and his works, coupled with those of Hans Guide, constitute a supreme artistic expression of the national consciousness of any country (were such a thing to be ever adequately captured on canvas). The towering fjords of Norway crown the scene — the awe-inspiring backdrop to relatively humble, though celebratory, crowds streaming from the stave church in the background. The eternal, represented by nature, dwarfs the cultural, represented by the stave church, and the present, represented by the people sailing toward the viewer.
Hans Guide would continue the Norwegian Romantic tradition for decades to come. He was educated in Düsseldorf (like Tideman) and stayed in Germany for considerable amounts of time. Though instrumental in the development of Norwegian painting, Guide was probably the most German of Norwegian painters in terms of style. He was an art professor, mainly in German cities, and trained generations of Norwegian artists who sought him out. His collaboration with Tideman in 1848 (see Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord above) marked the very beginning of an incandescent artistic career).
The supreme artistic achievements of nineteenth-century Europe contribute ti the position, voiced briefly by historian David Starkey, that we are mere parasites upon that century. While he was talking about the political, I would reference the artistic. The integration of romantic vision with local culture and landscape has produced an abundance of timeless masterpieces. The nineteenth century, for Norway, can be bookended by the political achievements of 1814 and the artistic achievements at the end of the century. The crowning glory of Norwegian art history came just after the flowering of romantic nationalistic painting. Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ is undoubtedly the most famous painting by a Norwegian artist. Munch created the work in 1893.
Munch’s ‘The Scream’ is an artwork expressing the anxieties of the age, the product of a time and place radically being altered by mechanized industry and rapid growth of Christiania. The city, which had a population of about 9,000 at the turn of the nineteenth century grew to over 151,000 by the 1890s. The painting can also be construed as an artistic response to the German artist Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’ from the early-nineteenth century.
Friedrich’s man stands with his back to the viewer, gazing out at the mountains covered in mist before him. It is a painting where the light of the fog and and sky are bright, in contrast to the dark figure and the rocks upon which he stands. Contrast this with Munch’s artistic expression of existential alienation. His figure stands toward the viewer in a state of shock as those in the background walk on. Munch’s figure is androgynous in appearance. The particular features, being secondary, to the general mood being conveyed.