Thursday, May 21, 2009

En Efterglemt

Fra Borgøya (From Borgøya) - 1867

En Efterglemt – A Forgotten Man

Unless you are Norwegian, especially interested in obscure Norwegian landscape painting from the 1800’s, or preferably both, you will probably never have heard of Lars Hertervig (1830-1902). Hertervig is one of those tragic figures who regularly emerge and then disappear quietly throughout history – the unappreciated artist. He died an unknown, en Efterglemt, literally relegated to the poorhouse. Before his ‘rediscovery’ in 1914, twelve years after his death, many of his paintings were destroyed or had otherwise disappeared.

Skogtjern (Forest Pond) - 1865

Hertervig’s life is the tragic story of a talented youth from simple means, a gifted painter with a bright future, but who then sadly slid into melancholy, madness and abject poverty. His illness supposedly started with an unrequited love affair while studying landscape painting in Düsseldorf, and continued with Hertervig being committed to Gaustad Asylum in Oslo. Considered incurable of what was first diagnosed as ‘melankolia’ but then amended to ‘dementia’, he was eventually sent to live with an uncle in Borgøya, on the west coast, where he continued painting, producing some of his most important work. Seven years later he moved back to Stavanger, where he managed to work as a house painter, giving him at least some income, but, more importantly, access to oil paints and canvas. In 1867, at the age of thirty-seven, he lost this job as well and became more or less totally dependent on the state for a meagre allowance. In the end, unable to afford expensive art supplies, he would draw with burnt matchsticks, and painted with watercolors on tobacco wrapping paper and old wallpaper.

Pyntesundet - (watercolor on a tobacco wrapper - 1867/70)

When the famous Norwegian writer Alexander L. Kielland heard that Hertervig was dying, he came to pay his last respects. Kielland was shocked to see Hertivig’s living conditions in the poorhouse and supposedly called out in despair; ‘What have you done, don’t you know who this man is, who you have so shamefully mistreated!’ (‘Hva hard dere gjort, vet dere ikke hvem denne mand er, som dere saa skjændigt har mishandlet!’).

Gamle Furutrær (Old Pine Trees) - 1865
Several days later Hertervig was dead. A poorhouse official came to claim his few earthly goods, among them a chest of drawers. An old friend of Hertervig’s, Ole Abeland, was helping to sort out his things and asked if he could have some of his smaller drawings as a keepsake. The poorhouse official said no, that wasn’t possible, they we’re taking everything. Just a drawing or two, Abeland asked again, opening the top drawer of the chest where the drawings lay. The official looked at the drawings and then dumped them out on the floor. ‘Is this what you wanted? Take the whole pile. I just want the furniture, I don’t care about the rest of this shit’ (‘så bryr kje eg meg om den andre lorten’).

Lars Hertervig by Niels Bjørnsen Møller - 1857
Hertervig is often referred to in Norwegian as ‘Lysets Maler (The Painter of Light) and while that is surely true, I feel that he is also the landscape painter who best captures the troll-like atmosphere of Norway. Many of his paintings have a mystical, dreamlike quality that is quite extraordinary for his time period. Totally removed from both ‘good society’ and the artistic community, he painted first and foremost for himself and for his art. Despite being abysmally poor and suffering from mental illness, he continued persuing his own vision throughout his life.
There are surprisingly few examples of Hertervig's work on the Internet, and those I have found are generally of poor quality. I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing some of his more famous pieces in the National Gallery here in Oslo; the blue skies, the clouds, and yes, the light, are truly breathtaking. A fantastic, if forgotten, artist.

More about Lars Hertervig in English:
Fra Tysvær - 1867


  1. Such a wonderful post! An artist of great talent and style. You are right, I have never heard of Lars Hertervig. I can see your style in his art, not that you have taken after him, more so that you have something in common with him. His story is tragic and yet so inspiring that he was an artist first, trying to make money somewhere after the passion. Thank you for the introduction.

  2. Hi Tammie!
    Glad you liked the post. I remember the first time I saw one of Hertervig’s paintings – it did something to me. He manages to capture an ineffable, dreamlike mystery that often pervades the Norwegian landscape. I became curious about the man behind the brushes and began to read about him. A miserable fate for such a talented artist. Of course he is now considered one of Norway’s most original landscape painters. Typical. But yes, it is inspiring, in a sense. He never gave up and he was a true visionary.

    In any case, after I wrote this post last week I got so inspired that I took a trip down to the National Gallery just to see the four painting of his that are there - both Fra Borgøya and Fra Tysvær. Fantastic, that’s all I can say.

  3. Certainly not unique in his history...There was an English poet, John Clare (just consulted my Norton Anthology). He was confined to an asylum after falling from prominence after an early success. However, they treated him kindly there, and he wrote some distinctive poetry in his retirement.

  4. I really the top painting you show here. Your story makes wonder how much great art has been consigned to the earth by hedonist clearer-outers of old peoples last possessions.

  5. I didn't know that you knew of Hertvig. I remember seeing a program about him on NRK when I first moved to Norway. My adviser (Kjetill) had a reproduction taped to his wall in his office.

  6. These paintings are great. Thanks for the link to your blog!
    I have never seen these works or heard of Lars Hertervig before.
    There is a magical quality in his paintings. I know why you like them so much. Thanks for introducing me to his creative worlds!:)