Swedish artist Nils Forsberg rose from a childhood of poverty to become one of the most prominent Swedish artists working in France in the late 19th-century.
It seems a passion for art had stirred in Forsberg since an early age. His family was destitute, and as a child he would often work in the fields for farmers and shepherds alike, with no possible pathway to the painterly craft. When his family seemed set on him pursuing a career as a shoemaker, Forsberg ran away from home, determined he would make his fortune as an artist.
At first, he went to Forsberg, where he was taught a little by a local artist. Then, he went onto Gothenburg, and studied at the School of Design and Art. Here a work by Forsberg gained recognition and he was awarded with enough money to travel to Paris, and the heart of artistic enterprise in Europe. The trip was only meant to have been for a few weeks. Forsberg, however, stayed in Paris for 37 years!
Here, Forsberg would receive tutoring from one of the most respected artists of the time, Léon Bonnat (1833-1922). Bonnat had a distinct style, marrying the traditional, formal academic style with a much more impassioned drama evocative of his love for Spanish Baroque art. Such a style he transferred down to Forsberg. Indeed, Forsberg is known by some critics as ‘the Swedish Bonnat.’
Forsberg gained attention for his genre scene ‘Death of a Hero,’ in which the untimely death of a solider, loyal to his cause, is depicted with shocking realism. Forsberg centres the scene on the hero, prostrate in his bed, lifeless and slack, whilst gathered around are his comrades and leaders. A priest tends to his last rites whilst an innocent choir boy stands and watches with contemplative reverence. Forsberg builds up depth and shadows in the pillars and walls that swamp the scene around the soldier, whilst keeping a spotlight on the dying man. This adds a divinity to the scene, whilst also highlighting the brutal realism of his figure, the horrid limpness of his hand, mouth hanging open.
Inspiration for this scene was garnered from Forsberg’s experience working as a medical soldier during the Franco-German War of 1870-1871. The painting was received with much admiration and acclaim, winning a gold medal at the Paris Salon, making Forsberg the first Swedish artist to do so. However, he had not intended nationalistic honour and exaltation to be the lesson of his work. Instead, it was a protest about the brutality of war, how it cut life short. The realism Forsberg had learnt from Bonnat transcended simply style and became a key component of his works.
Indeed, throughout his life Forsberg took great inspiration from the world around him and his indignation for its cruelties. Despite the classical look of many of his paintings, they hold modern, social commentary indicative of Forsberg’s time. His second most well-known painting depicts an acrobat family auditioning for the circus director, a child bent in a stomach-turning position. This scene was intended by Forsberg to protest against child labour and was executed at a time when laws were being passed to ensure child exploitation was banned.
As moving as these paintings became, they were not enough to support Forsberg’s everyday life as a painter, therefore he worked predominantly as a portrait artist. Directly after the war he was employed by a photographer to execute charcoal sketches of the photographic portraits being taken. He also often completed commissions of wealthy patrons, those who could afford to have their portrait painted and desired one in order to show off their wealth to their peers. In each of these portraits, Forsberg captures a clear-cut character and keenness in the eyes of his sitters. Their eyes are contemplative, captivating, seemingly watching the viewer as much as the viewer watches them.
Whilst Forsberg remained much more conservative and classical in his painterly stylings in general, there are also touches of experimentation with the ever-popular impressionist style in some of his work. A street scene of Paris is awash with rapid colourisation, a pavement slick with rain a rainbow of beiges and gritty, dirt tones. Prominent buildings are a block of dark shapes and brushstrokes in the background. Indeed, in some of his portraits Forsberg executes the lines of the face and the definition of features in visible, bold brushstrokes. Eyes become watery blends of ochres with a light touch of white glint. Nonetheless, the character is still there. In each work, Forsberg creates a sense of being.
Whilst Paris offered him the chance to make his way as a painter, Forsberg did not forget his Swedish roots. He joined a group of Swedish artists living in Paris known as ‘the Opponents,’ who were protesting against the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts’ educational system and demanding a restructuring. He then went on to join their Artists’ Association when the Academy remained aloof to their demands, ensuring the greater ability for arts education and development in Sweden. For someone who had worked so hard against such testing conditions to pursue his dream, it is not surprising Forsberg joined such a venture.
Forsberg did eventually return to Sweden in the early 20th-Century, continuing to execute his portraits whilst also contributing to art in the churches local to Helsingborg, where he settled. The greatest artistic output, however, was garnered from his days in Paris, amongst the fashionable streets and alluring artistic pull of the metropolis.
Today, a number of his works are held in museums across Sweden, including the Gothenburg Museum and the National Museum in Stockholm. A memorial stone has also been erected in his honour in Riseberga, where he had lived as a child.
Born in Riseberga, Malmö, Sweden.
Moved to Paris, France.
Medical soldier in the Franco-German War.
Joined ‘the Opponents.’
Became a member of the Swedish Artists’ Association.
Married Maria Amalia Kihlstedt.
Awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon.
Awarded medal at the Paris World Exhibition.
Exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition.
Moved to Helsinborg, Sweden.
Died in Helsinborg, Sweden. Buried in Pålsjö cemetery.