28 March 2015

Northern Landscapes, Northern Lights - Peder Balke

In collaboration with the Northern Norway Art Museum in Tromsø, The National Gallery in London has opened a Peder Balke exhibition that will continue until mid April 2015. They are displaying 50+ paintings from private and public collections across Europe.

The National Gallery released this press release: Born into poverty on the Norwegian island of Helgøya in Eastern Norway, Peder Balke (1804-87) studied decorative painting in Oslo (then called Christiania) for two years from 1827. In 1829 he transferred to Stockholm, where he was taught by landscape painter and Professor at the Art Academy, Johann Fahlkrantz. Balke was drawn to the landscape of Norway; he walked across much of its lower regions and in 1832 travelled by ship to the North Cape, a rugged, inaccessible area of the country. There he found bleak and original landscapes, and continued to exp­lore them in ever-more austere images throughout his career.

Johan Dahl, 1827
Lower Falls of the Labrofoss
Loaned to the National Gallery London

Caspar David Friedrich, 1824
Which gallery?

Between 1835 and 1844 Balke travelled twice to Dresden where he studied with the leading Norwegian artist, Johan Christian Dahl, and also got to know the art of Caspar David Friedrich. It has been suggested Friedrich, the Danish-trained leader of German Romantic painting, was important in spreading Northern influences back in Germany.

In 1845 Balke travelled to London and to Paris, where he received a major commission from the French King for northern Norwegian scenes. By 1850 Balke was back in Christiania/Oslo, although his artistic career was not going ahead in leaps and bounds. Instead, the painter devoted more time to politics and to property development for the poor. Yet even after 1860 his paintings, mostly small improvisational oils on panel, continued.

The Gallery’s conclusion is that Balke was one of the first artists to venture to the vast, untrodden plains of the North Cape where he was overwhelmed by “opulent beaut­ies of nature and locations delivered to the eye and the mind.” With depictions of stormy seas, towering glaciers and threatening skies, the exhibition reveals an artist who is only now being recognised as one of the forerunners of modernism. His works are finally being regarded as highly original improvisations of unequalled virtuosity and innovation. His C19th oeuvre celebrated the drama and romance of the Far North.

The National Gallery in London owns just one painting by Peder Balke - The Tempest c1862.

Peder Balke, c1862
The Tempest
National Gallery London

Is it true that Peder Balke was one of the very first artists to venture to the far north of his native Norway? And that he was one of most original painters of C19th Scan­d­inavia? In 1832 he visited the distinctive, dramatic and rugged northern lands, an exper­ience of primal nature so pro­found that he built his career on those isolated Arctic Circle sea­scapes. Look at the words he used to describe his experience: “illustrious and overwhelming impression”, “opulent beauties of nature” and “inspiring vision”. They suggest that the sublime beauty and expressiveness of his seascapes reflected the awe this Romantic artist saw and felt.

Peder Balke, 1860s
North Cape
currently in the National Gallery London

But if the small scenes he painted for his own pleasure are now recognised as highly original improvisations e.g using his hands instead of brushes, I am confused between Romantic awe and modernist expressionism. Perhaps I am not familiar enough with Northern Landscapes and Northern Light enough to comment. I think I needed to be eased into these strange land and sea scapes - it would have been very useful to have seen the previous National Gallery exhibition of Scandinavian art – Forests, Rocks, Torrents: Norwegian and Swiss Landscapes (2011).

Landscape painting had a special significance everywhere in the C19th - no other type of painting could express nature's changeability and romance as clearly. But Norwegian artists sensed something extra from their landscapes and that was a ghostliness. So the viewer has only one task now. Do Balke’s paintings convey as atmospherically-charged landscapes as John Dahl and Casper David Friedrich’s paintings do?

Reading Northern Light: Nordic Art (Yale UP, 1988) by Kirk Varnedoe was very useful. Also read the excellent blog called Some Landscapes.


The National Gallery London said...

The first exhibition outside Denmark to focus on the paintings of Christen Købke (1810–1848) was in 2010. Emphasising his experimental outlook, the exhibition focused on his outdoor sketching, his fascination with painterly immediacy, and treatment of light and atmosphere.

The exhibition featured around 40 of Købke’s most celebrated works, spanning a variety of genres. Works included landscapes, portraits of many of his family and closest friends, and depictions of Danish national monuments. The Købke Exhibition Catalogue can be ordered.

Hels said...

Thank you.

I didn't realise there had been a keen interest in 19th century Scandinavian paintings in the past.

Decker said...

Early Romanticism was always melodramatic and maybe even tragic. Balke' s romanticism was cold and rugged as well. Great to paint, difficult to live there.

Hels said...


I have a feeling that is the very goal of
Romanticism. Anti-industrial, nature in its untamed state, natural phenomena infused with human emotion, wild rocks and mountains. Not an arcadian landscape where you would want to live.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Interesting to compare these wild landscapes with those of the Hudson River School of roughly the same period. The atmosphere seems different here, with a certain ominous heaviness. One can sense the wilis lurking just beyond the next crag or inlet.

Hels said...


I also thought of that for the first time when I saw the wild and rugged landscapes painted in the Swiss Alps, beautiful but with danger lurking for anyone risking the crossing.

Niagara Falls (and other rugged settings) must have been a bit of a magnet for romantic Hudson school artists, for the same reason.

MetPublications said...

Johan Christian Dahl's painting "View Over Hallingdal" 1844 appeared in Recent Acquisitions 2012-2014, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Fall 2014.

Hels said...

Nice comparison to the Balke paintings, thank you. For a description of the Dahl, see page 55 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Fall 2014.