Gudmund Stenersen was an important contributor to the development of naturalistic landscape painting in Norway. His verdant depictions of ample scenery helped to establish a modern style of painting, which is distinctly Norwegian. He’s also celebrated as a productive illustrator.
Born in Ringsaker to veterinarian Stener Johannes Stenersen and Helga Hermana Heltberg, his early schooling was focused on his parents’ desire that he should gain a stable career. As such, as a young man, he began employment as a dentist while he pursued art as a sideline.
It’s fascinating to consider how he found the time to develop as an artist while also tinkering with the distressed mouths of his patients.
One can imagine him sketching between appointments, perhaps looking through a window to capture a garden in mid-Summer.
It’s said that, during his time working in Tønsberg, he asked some of his patients to model for him - an unusual request for the prone recipients. He offered free dental work in lieu of payment.
This endless juggling of his time paid off as, in 1885, one of his works was shown at the new ‘Autumn Exhibit’, Norway’s leading modern art exhibition. Established just a few years prior, its founders were keen to forge a new style of Norwegian art, which celebrated its rich heritage but overcame its fixation for Romanticism.
Erik Werenskiold (1855-1938), Frits Thaulow (1847-1906), and Christian Krohg (1852-1925) were around ten years older than Stenersen and sought to embrace the emerging French style of naturalism. Werenskiold was particularly inspired by the French ‘plein air’ painters with their looser brushwork and emphasis on light. This being at odds with the formal Academic ideals of Norway’s past.
Werenskiold was also displeased at the Christiana Art Association which held a monopoly on what was deemed worthy of the national collection. This group of traditional minds rejected several progressive works, so he took arms against them and formed a new collective.
Charles-François Daubigny, River Scene with Ducks (1859)
Stenersen, like Werenskiold, would’ve been acutely aware of the French plein air painters, such as Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878). This determined group of keen young minds had rebelled against their formal teachings to escape into the forests and paint what they saw. The impressionable Stenersen was inspired.
Gudmund Stenersen, Sommernatt Jæren (1883)
Here in this early work from 1883, we see Stenersen’s own interpretation of this style. At this point in his career, he was still working as a dentist keen to raise enough money to broaden his education.
A sole horse rests solemnly alongside a river and stares into the water as it passes. An apt metaphor for his situation, as he watched the artistic world drift by.
By 1889, at the age of 26, he’d finally saved enough to move to Paris where he studied in the illustrious studio of Leon Bonnat and later Fernand Cormon. Bonnat and Cormon were classicists, bound intrinsically to the great French tradition of Academic painting. Bonnat’s philosophy was one of expression but within the strict parameters of classical ideals - ultimately derived from the Italian Renaissance.
While working with Bonnat, students were urged to study the human form and Stenersen’s early teachings were predominantly gained from life drawing and classical sculptures. It’s interesting to consider how he felt while training here. On one hand, he needed a formal art education to gain an important marker on his ‘cv’, but on the other, back in Norway a new scene was emerging which placed less emphasis on the Academies.
One of the most exciting aspects of Paris however was the opportunity to witness various ideas and philosophies, including those of contrary minds, such as the Impressionists.
Gudmund Stenersen, Dag Asle Langø (1892)
Following his spell in France, he returned with renewed vigour and produced this work depicting a father and son resting by a vast fjord. The scenery is distinctly Norwegian and celebratory. At this point in time, Norway was seeking independence from Sweden and there was an urge to create a greater sense of national identity.
Werenskiold produced a comparable piece some years earlier.
Erik Werenskiold, September (1883)
Within these works from the 1880s/90s, we see the influence of three components - accomplished draughtsmanship gained via a formal education (Werenskiold in Germany, Stenersen in France), looser brushwork inspired by the French, and iconic Norwegian scenery bathed in Nordic light.
Prior to this, the Norwegian style had been based on the romantic generation - dramatic peaks strongly lit by the hand of Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857). Extensive vistas, finely executed, convey nature’s infinite power.
Johan Christian Dahl, View from Stalheim (1842)
But this new natural approach sought to paint the truth. Real people among a land blessed with abundant beauty. A celebration of Norway’s past but also its present.
Gudmund Stenersen, Midsummer Night (1906)
By 1906, Stenersen was now considered by many as an influential contributor to his nation’s art. He’d married and moved to Oslo. Norway gained independence a year prior and in this piece, Midsummer Night, which is currently in the Hungarian National Gallery, we gain a sense of his accomplishment. Several friends gather by a river as the sun sets across upland terrain. An artist, who bears a resemblance to Erik Werenskiold, captures the scene, as others look on.
Following his move to the capital, Stenersen painted views within and around the city. Undertaking excursions during the warmer months to Odalen, Gudbrandsdalen, Vestfold and in Valdres. He also developed a solid reputation as an illustrator.
Gudmund Stenersen, Fra Svolvær (1934)
In the final year of his life, the lights in this shimmering nocturne flicker like the souls of old friends gathering under an ancient mountain. The sky akin to the Aurora Borealis swooping over dark water while a poignant shadow highlights his existential thoughts. He was no longer the solemn horse waiting by a river, he’d become an integral part of nature itself.
Gudmund Stenersen was an important contributor to the establishment of a modern naturalistic style of Norwegian art, which overcame its fascination for German romanticism. His works celebrate his homeland with an emphasis on light, truth and distinctly iconic elements.
The National Museum in Oslo holds examples of his work and he was appointed the first knight of Tegneforbundet's order "The Crow".
Born in Oslo, Norway, to veterinarian Stener Johannes Stenersen (1835–1904) and Helga Hermana Heltberg (1842–1921).
Debuted at the Autumn Exhibit.
Worked as a dentist in Tønsberg, Norway.
Studied in Paris under Academic painters Leon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon.
Travelled to Italy.
Married Karen Wally Jacobsen (1874–1962) and moved to Oslo, Norway.
Appointed chairman of the Drawing Association.
Appointed the first knight of Tegneforbundet's order "The Crow".
Died in Oslo, Norway.