In her book, ‘Rural Artists Colonies in Europe, 1870-1910’, Nina Lubbren looks at why thousands of artists during the nineteenth-century up and left the urban capitals of Europe and instead chose to live and work in the countryside. This was indeed the case for the Scandinavian artist, not only abroad but at home as well. Focusing on the Swedish artist, in particular, where the prevalence of the artist colony extended throughout the country – from the suburbs of Stockholm, to the shores of the west coast – their art was directly influenced by the landscapes in which they established themselves.
The landscape had always played a prominent part in the artistic education of the artist. In France, the village of Grez-sur-Loing, once an artistic retreat for American and British artists during the latter years of the 1870s, soon became the hearth around which Scandinavian, although predominantly Swedish, artists were drawn. From 1880 until the turn-of-the-century, the colony at Grez thrived, providing an abundant source of inspiration for artists including Carl Larsson, Karl Nordström and Bruno Liljefors, all of whom sought an escape from the hustle-and-bustle of the capital. It was also during a visit to Grez in 1882 that Larsson met his future wife, the artist and interior designer Karin Bergöö (they were married a year later).
This artist colony lifestyle translated easily back home. In Sweden, from 1894 until 1919, Prince Eugen established a base in Tyresö, a district of Stockholm. In 1894, Prince Eugen had been invited to Tyresö by the author Helena Nyblom. From thence forward, the area was established as an artists’ colony, attracting artists including Oscar Björck, Richard Bergh, the Danish artist Viggo Johansen. Tyresö’s time as a hub of artistic activity ended in 1919 following the death of Bergh. The work created by these artists, was brought together in an exhibition at Waldemarsudde in 2013 – where over one hundred works showed the extent to which the Stockholm countryside had been the inspiration behind many of their most iconic works. The painting below, by Prince Eugen, shows the house in which these artists spent many summers, the lights from the windows glimmering in the slowly falling darkness.
Further colonies were subsequently established on the Racken lake by Gustaf Fjæstad and his wife Maja in 1898; and in Varberg, which provided refuge for artists’ Richard Bergh, Nordström and Nils Kreuger. Varberg provided a very different environment to Tyresö; situated along the west coast of Sweden, just across the Kattegat strait, from Denmark. Known for its white coastal beaches and northern rocky coastline, Varberg was for the afore mentioned artists a familiar place to establish themselves in. Kreuger was himself from Varberg, having return there in 1887 after undertaking his studies in France, and Nordström was brought up on the island of Tjörn, just north along the coast. These artists set about painting the surrounding landscape, even establishing themselves as the Varberg School – working primarily in the synthetic style; commonly associated with artists Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard. The header image for this post is Nordström’s ‘Sunset at Bohuslän’ (1893). The colourful palette of these Varberg paintings, was not always easy to create, however, with Bergh writing in a letter to fellow artist Georg Pauli that:
“It was not easy to become colourful in an autumnal misty place like Varberg.”
Yet somehow they managed, with Nils Kreuger’s fantastic ‘October Evening at Apelvik’, using the blues and pinks of an early evening, just following the setting of the sun, to bring some life to the dreariness that tends to ensue with the arrival of autumn.
The vast expanse of artist colonies extended across Scandinavia, with many of the most recognisable names from Nordic art history having been part of these flourishing communities. In Norway, the colonies of Fleskum in 1886 attracted artists including Gerhard Munthe and Erik Werenskiold, while Åsgårdstrand, during the 1880s, inspired the likes of Edvard Munch and Christian Krohg; whereas in Finland, the artists’ colony on lake Tuusula, just outside of Helsinki, lured in artists Pekka Halonen and Eero Järnefelt, to name a few. In Denmark on the other hand, the already established, and internationally renowned, Skagen community, went from strength to strength.
Despite the prevalence of the artist colony at the end of the 1800s, the artist colony wasn’t exclusive to 19th-century Nordic artists. The community of Arild, similarly along the west coast, for example, only became a thriving hub for artists and the European elite at the beginning of the 1900s. Although the countryside existed in abundance in both France and at home, its true potential as a source of nationalist inspiration wasn’t realised until the 1890s, when National Romanticism came to the fore.