With his works imbued with a ‘rough power and controlled melancholy,’ Swedish artist Axel Norgren was an extremely emotive and reactive landscape painter. He often looked to the Düsseldorf School of painting for inspiration, and, indeed, was known as the leading practitioner of the Düsseldorf School style in Sweden.
Nordgren first received instruction in the arts from his father, painter Carl Wilhelm Nordgren (1804-1857). He would continue at the Royal Institute of Art in his homeland of Sweden. However, he did not further his studies at the eminent Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, despite being on the list of students to be accepted into the Academy.
Instead, Nordgren was drawn to the artistic output of artists from the Düsseldorf area of Germany. Participating in an Academy exhibition of landscape paintings in 1849, Nordgren would notice works by Norwegian artists who were studying in Düsseldorf. These were receiving much acclaim, and Nordgren himself was immediately drawn to the style. Soon enough, he was travelling to Dusseldorf to receive instruction from its finest artists.
Hans Gude (1825-1903) and Andreas Achenbach (1815-1910) were two of the greatest contributors to the Düsseldorf school styling of painting. This is a style which refers to artists who were involved with the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, and which bred a distinctive approach to painting. Landscapes in particular were their popular output, and it was common for Swedish students to travel across the Baltic Sea to receive instruction from greats such as Gude and Achenbach.
Düsseldorf landscapes were fanciful and dramatic, defined with fine detail and strong colour. Students were often encouraged to paint ‘en plein air’ in order to successfully emulate the moods of nature, despite many scenes being fictional fantasies. They seemed to have been at something of a crossroads between the fantasy legacy of neo-classical artworks and the naturalism and romanticism that were becoming popular in the 19th century.
Nordgren defined himself by his ability to take his learnings from Gude and Achenbach and apply them both to fantasy scenes and depictions of the nature surrounding him. The wildness and ‘meagerness of northern nature’ were particular areas of interest for Nordgren. The more subdued, gloomy palette of the Düsseldorf School well suits the desolate Scandinavian lands.
They have an enigmatic beauty to them, a sense of bewitchment in the shadows Nordgren casts across grasslands or rocky shorelines. He frequently uses a piercing moon to cast ephemeral light across these scenes, only adding to the mood of misty mystery.
In brighter scenes, Nordgren retains the fine detail the Düsseldorf School coveted and casts beaming strands of light across mountains and lakes, illuminating mossy hillsides, snow-capped summits. Clouds are bursting with golden light as a glorious sun fights to break through white plumes set against a vibrant azure sky.
Nordgren settled in Düsseldorf following his studies but made frequent travels to nurture his inspiration. He journeyed back to his homeland as well as to Norway, often with Gude or his friend and fellow painter Morten Müller (1828-1911). This suited his painting style when capturing his Scandinavian scenes, as he preferred to paint ‘en plein air.’
His works were well received, especially in his homeland. He was said to have been the leading painter of the Düsseldorf School within Sweden, and critics often elevated him above his peers in his skill as a ‘mood lyricist.’
Unfortunately, though, Nordgren did fall on hard times. The Long Depression, which began in the 1870s, stretching across Europe, was bad for artistic business. Nordgren had to barter his paintings to procure items such as clothing. In a letter to a friend he would bemoan his ‘permanent homesickness.’Such tough events were soon followed by a stroke which limited Nordgren’s ability to travel abroad. He did, however, continue to paint right up until his death in 1883.
Axel Nordgren left behind numerous works of art which paint for him a notable legacy. He was one of the leaders in the growing relationship between Swedish and German art and took the teachings of his Düsseldorf teachers and added a twist through the Scandinavian subjects he favoured so much. Nordgren was an innovator.
Today, his works are held in the National Museum of Sweden and the Gothenburg Museum of Art.
Born in Stockholm, Sweden.
Studied at the Royal Institute of Art.
Studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts.
Travelled to Düsseldorf, Germany.
Married Anna Mariane Natalie Lochen.
Became a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Art.
Died in Düsseldorf, Germany.