Wednesday, 19 June 2013



Before the close of the 18th century the wilderness was considered uncomely. People didn’t venture out into the ‘wild’ without purpose, particularly not for the sake of sheer pleasure. The enjoyment of nature was confined to that which was tamed by man: such as gardens or hunting parks. Only through necessity would travellers brave the mountain passes of the Alps or traverse the heavily wooded roads of the hinterland. Scarcely would people seek their solace or entertainment in backcountry, this would not have been considered an enjoyable affair. Yet, somehow in the era of romanticism this all began to change. The late 18th century brought the onset of a romantic ideology concerning the natural world that permeated into popular thought throughout the course of the 19th century. By the mid 19th century when nation building and nationalism was widespread, landscapes once detested began to take on new significance in many parts of the world.

These changing perceptions were embraced gladly in Nordic countries. It became beneficial to Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland to represent their landscape through art as a symbol of nationalistic pride. The rustic north was transformed from something to cower from into something of stoic beauty and something to exemplify the tough character of its people. In the 19th century Nordic mindset, the northern landscape was unique and special. This new found pride in ‘northerness’ conveniently coincided with the period in history that saw en plein air painting fervently take flight. This timely combination of the popularity of painting en plein air (especially in an increasingly impressionistic manner) and the cherishing of a landscape with a northern climate, topography, and natural light was to produce a distinct style of en plein air art in Scandinavian countries between 1880-1920 that would foreshadow the artistically brilliant landscape art in Canada in the early 20th century.

In Canada in the years around 1910, a group of restlessly ambitious fellow artists clung together as colleagues in the reputable commercial design firms of Toronto, as friends at the Arts and Letters Club, and as individuals sharing some yet fulfilled purpose to find through landscape art that which would truly glorify the Canadian landscape. In 1912 when two of these fellows, Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald headed to Buffalo, New York to casually view an exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian art, they likely did not intend to be confronted with a stylistic inspiration that would launch this fellowship of Canadian artists full force into their own nationalistic landscape art movement.

At the Buffalo exhibition Harris was struck by the similar ‘northerness’ found between the Canadian and Scandinavian landscape. He and his peers found parallels between what these nationalistic artists have achieved in their depictions of the northern landscape and the visions and ideals he and his peers hoped to realize for Canadian art. Harris said himself:

It is the enduring credit of the leading Scandinavian countries that they may be counted among those fortunate peoples who, despite external influences, have stoutly guarded their native artistic birthright. Their achievements in the field of painting, sculpture, architecture, and industrial design are refreshingly and unmistakably their own.

Directly from the Nasjonalgaleriet in Oslo, I would like to share some pictures of Norwegian landscape paintings from 1880-1920 that would have had an influence on the Group of Seven and their followers. Perhaps with the exception of Harald Sohlberg's Winter's Night in Rondane 1914, hopefully these findings present less publicized examples that illustrate the profound effect that Scandinavian art has had on Canadian art history.

By: Jill Turner

Photo credits:

1. Harald Sohlberg (Norwegian) Winter's Night in Rondane 1914 oil on canvas Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo

2. Edvard Munch (Norwegian) Flowery Meadown at Veierland 1887 oil on canvas Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo

3. Edvard Munch (Norwegian) Moonlight 1895 oil on canvas Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo

4. Eilif Peterssen (Norwegian) Summer Night 1886 oil on canvas Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo

5. Harald Sohlberg (Norwegian) Flower Meadow in the North 1905 oil on canvas Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo

6. Thorvald Erichson (Norwegian) Wooded landscape 1900 oil on canvas Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo

7. Harald Sohlberg (Norwegian) Summer Night 1904 oil on canvas Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo

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