Art & Action: The Life Of Erik Werenskiold

Art & Action: The Life Of Erik Werenskiold

Author: Polly Pyke

When thinking about Norwegian art, perhaps the name Edvard Munch is the first to come to mind. Munch’s influence on western art, as well as his country’s own artistic identity, should not be understated. However, there is so much more to Norwegian art than just this one artist.

There was a plethora of artists working at around the same time as Munch, keen to explore the new styles which were burgeoning across Europe, as well as lending to those styles their own unique Norwegian zeal. A zeal which would celebrate the beauty of their homeland, and serve a nationalistic purpose, as well as an artistic one, forging an artistic national identity.

Erik Werenskiold (1855-1938) was one such artist. In painting, he was part of the development of a naturalistic and then neo-romantic style of landscape art. His illustrations of Norwegian folk tales developed a distinctive Norwegian illustrative identity and are iconic to this day. His championing of the rights of artists led to a fairer playing field, and his published works praised the developments of Norwegian arts and brought it to the notice of the rest of Europe. He was, in one word, indispensable. Norwegian art would not have been the same without him.

Whilst Werenskiold cannot represent, in his person, the entire development of Norwegian art during the late 19th century and early 20th century, he serves as a good example of the progressive mindset common in artists of his era.

This article will therefore explore Werenskiold’s impact as well as using him as a window through which to peek at the larger developments going on within this world. It will chart the revolutions, big and small, Werenskiold enacted through his art and his action. It will also take a look at his relationship to other artists, without whom he could not have made such an impact, as well as other prominent Norwegians in his life. Overall, I hope it will offer an interesting and insightful peek into the world of Norwegian art, to discover that it is so much more than simply Munch.

Norwegian Art Before Werenskiold

Before we meet Werenskiold, it will be worth our while to take a glancing look at Norwegian art before his time. What follows is by no means a comprehensive survey of developments in Norwegian art but should provide sufficient context for the world Werenskiold entered in the second half of the 19th century.

It is generally agreed that Norway did not begin to develop its own artistic identity until the 19th century. Before this time, it had predominantly been imports from Germany and Holland that fuelled the country’s art market. This would continue into the 19th century, and whilst Norwegian artists began to find their own feet, in the eyes of both art patrons and the art associations (such as the key Christiana Art Association), it was much preferred they be trained in Germany.

Portrait painting had been the key domain of these artists, however with the development of photography, the 19th century saw its pre-eminence wane. Instead, landscape painting grew progressively popular, and it would be the key genre in defining a new, Norwegian artistic identity.

Johan Christian Dahl (1799-1957) is a key figure in Norwegian landscape art. He took the romantic verve inspired in him by his training at the Dresden Art Academy and infused it with a Norwegian zeal. He threaded motifs from his homeland and began to weave a view of Norway which celebrated its natural beauty. With a gloriously soft, diffusing brush he washed a glorious romance over the Norwegian landscape and began to attract the attention of art lovers both at home and across Europe.

Dahl’s efforts would establish Norwegian National Romanticism. At a time when Norway was threading its own national identity after gaining independence from Denmark, art was beginning to play a key role in its presentation. Whilst artists were still studying in Germany, a number of Dahl’s followers were students at the Düsseldorf school, their homeland was becoming ingrained in their minds as their first and foremost muse.

‘Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord’ by Hans Gude and Adolph Tidemand, 1848

‘Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord’ by Hans Gude and Adolph Tidemand, 1848. This works serves as a great example of Norwegian National Romanticism.

As the 19th century developed, so, too, did artistic styles. The legacy of the National Romantics remained, and younger artists found an affinity for their homeland. Yet they began to look towards more naturalistic styles of painting in their art. The impressionists of France were also proving inspiring. Now, more than ever, Norwegian art was beginning to expand, just as art across Europe was expanding, to incorporate more styles. The art world was burgeoning at a fast pace as yet unseen.

Enter Erik Werenskiold…

Early Life and Education

The young Erik Werenskiold was born in 1855 to a military father and his young wife. The Werenskiold family had been civil servants and landowners during the 17th and 18th centuries, and as a result, Werenskiold was part of a middle-class bourgeoisie which provided him with the chance at a proper, thorough education. This meant access to artistic prospects.

Werenskiold was taught by Julius Middlethun (1820-1886) at the School of Design, and also received tutoring from National Romantic painter Axel Ender (1853-1920). Werenskiold’s biographer has remarked that ‘already as a boy, he was a keen draftsman and garnered great admiration for this talent.’ Indeed, it was the encouragement of landscape painter Adolph Tidemand (1814-1876), that convinced Werenskiold’s father to allow him to study art.

At the age of 20, Werenskiold packed his bags and set off, in Norwegian tradition, for Germany. He would turn to the Munich Academy of Fine Arts for his education, and it was a time in his life that would prove formative for the young artist.

Here he would form friendships with his fellow Norwegian peers. These were people who would become great painterly friends and associates in the future to come: Christian Skredsvig, Eilif Peterssen, Gerhard Munthe, Harriet Backer, Kitty Kielland and Sophie Thomesen (who Werenskiold would later marry). The roots of Werenskiold’s generation of painters were beginning to take root.

The Munich Academy of Fine Arts had something of a penchant for studying and copying the works of the old Flemish masters of the likes of Rubens. They appreciated their use of chiaroscuro and their more earthy-toned palettes. Werenskiold’s teacher, Ludwig Löfftz (1845-1910) was a great proponent of this past-inspired style. Indeed, Werenskiold’s friend Eilif Peterssen (1852-1928) derived much inspiration from this trend.

However, Werenskiold was unmoved. Instead, he found a calling for the realist style which had also become popular in Munich since the French artist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) had visited in 1869. In Courbet’s own words, realism translated ‘the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my time, according to my own estimation.’ An artist would study the world around them and envision it by their own hand in a naturalistic style. The drama of the Flemish masters was stripped back for something a bit more authentic.

Werenskiold’s other teacher, Wilhelm Lindenschmidt (1829-1895) very much encouraged this realism in his pupils, and it was a style to which Werenskiold’s artistic sensitivities took like a duck to water. It was in his ‘nature,’ his biographer wrote, to be a ‘realist.’

This call towards the study of the world around him was further enhanced in Werenskiold by an art exhibition in Munich in 1879. Here, he was able to view works in the French ‘plein air’ painting style. The work of naturalist, and precursor to the impressionist movement, Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878), proved most enthralling to Werenskiold. He was ‘convinced’ of French naturalism’s ‘superiority over German studio painting.’ He considered the exhibition ‘the beginning of his turn towards naturalism.’

The creation of an innovator in Norwegian art was underway.

Werenskiold the Naturalist

Following the 1879 exhibition, Werenskiold spent some time experimenting with his own works in the French naturalistic style. He utilised gloriously vibrant greens and abrupt brushstrokes to lend immediacy and vitality to his work. They seem to capture a moment in time. This was all very much in the spirit of the French naturalists and were quite a shock for Norwegian art. Still enamoured with the German art schools, in particular the Düsseldorf school with its more subdued use of colour, Werenskiold’s zesty canvases injected new life into Norwegian art. Along with his peers, he was leading a revolution in painting styles.

Erik Werenskiold - Evening at Pipping

‘Evening at Pipping’ by Erik Werenskiold, 1879.

Werenskiold did not look back. He continued to make many trips to France whilst he began producing works depicting his homeland in this spirited, lively manner. He further developed his understanding of French ‘plein air’ painting, becoming familiar with the work of the Impressionists. Their desire to study the effects of light, and how this affected the colours chosen in the piece, appealed to him immensely. This was a development he translated into his own art and thus translated to the Norwegian art scene.

In translation, these new modern styles began to take on a unique Norwegian flavour. As well as depicting the wilds of the Norwegian countryside, Werenskiold also focussed on figures of Norwegian rural life, those not yet touched by industrialisation. Those who held the traditions of their way of life close to their chest and presented themselves in a distinctly Norwegian manner. This was a key component in the retention of the nationalistic identity the National Romantics had coveted. Werenskiold was taking up the banner of Norwegian identity and was carrying it forward into the contemporary.

The prime example of this is his painting ‘Peasant Burial’ (1885). Inspired by travels through Norway in the years before its completion, the scene portrays a congregation gathered around a raised mound of earth, a rudimentary wooden marker denoting this as a grave. The male figures are coatless, and mud coats their trousers. One holds onto a spade, whilst another, in the background, wipes the sweat from the back of his forehead. This seems to suggest they had buried the deceased. A man stands over the grave with book in hand, perhaps commemorating the deceased, whilst a woman clutches her shawl to herself behind him, head bowed, perhaps the widow.

With the stark sunlight which flatters the scene in vivid colours, the viewer gets an impression of momentum. This is a snapshot, the scene is alive, and the viewer knows that the reader will soon reach the end of the page, that the man in the background will soon lower his hand. The mound of dirt is executed in quick brushstrokes, as is the rippling grass, suggesting movement, suggesting the freshness of this grave.

Werenskiold also adds finer brushwork to lend more obvious detail, more realism. The woman’s shawl is decorated with fine flowers and creases in the wind. The men’s shirts ripple and fold in their slouched positions. The trees and the wall in the near background are detailed, each crag and each leaf painstakingly executed. In the far background, the snow atop the mountains are slick additions of white, made hazy by their distance yet not diminutive. They appear unassailable, the Norwegian landscape seemingly endless. Timeless and constant in the face of the short span of human life.

‘Peasant Burial’ by Erik Werenskiold

‘Peasant Burial’ by Erik Werenskiold, 1885.

The painting was an instant success. Shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, it was awarded the Grand Prix (the Grand Prize). Within Norway it was immediately classed as an iconic work of art. Its focus on rural Norwegian life and its celebration of nature saw it purchased by the Norwegian National Gallery, where it remains to this day.

Mood Painting

The summers of 1886 and 1887 saw Werenskiold and his group of painting peers from his Munich days congregate at Fleskum Farm, near Bærum, just outside of Oslo. Here, inspired by the impressionist Skagen painter’s colony in Sweden, they intended to study nature and develop their art further.

It was from these trips that Norwegian art developed further and saw the birth of the neo-romantic movement. With a turn towards the twilight and the more ethereal hours of nature, Norwegian neo-romanticism departed from the crisper, brighter, sunnier scenes of their impressionist counterparts to offer up mood paintings distinctive to their country. The work of Kitty Kielland (1843-1914) is a prime example of the sultry dip of nature towards the night’s dawn and the bewitching, otherworldly mood that is birthed. A sense of the unknown comes over the canvas, an alluring strangeness of nature which has not yet been revealed to the human eye. In her painting ‘Summer Night,’ one can almost imagine fairies drifting above the crystalline surface of the water.

‘Summer Night,’ by Kitty Keilland

‘Summer Night,’ by Kitty Keilland, 1886.

Whilst Werenskiold did not stray as far into the ethereal unknown as his peers, he was to derive some inspiration from their time at Fleskum Farm. He injects the moody gloom of dusk into some of his landscapes following this time, with skies whipped up in sultry blues and greys. As the American Scandinavian Review writes, ‘a new sentiment, a new romantic nature lyricism’ seeped into his art, albeit retaining ‘a solid naturalistic base.’

He may not have been a leading proponent of the neo-romantic in his paintings, but Werenskiold was very much a part of developments and experimentations in Norwegian art. At Fleskum Farm he participated in this quiet yet confident revolution in Norwegian artistic identity.


Into the 20th century, Werenskiold’s art began to take on new inspiration. Trips across Europe introduced him to the vibrant works of the post-impressionists, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne. From this time forward his paintings became injected with a new vitality, a greater focus on colour as a tool of expression. Flowers could bloom with a luminous neon quality; a sky could be a sheet of rippling azure. As some of his works took on more abstract, expressive qualities, colour became key in representations of nature.

‘Mirroring,’ by Erik Werenskiold, 1915

‘Mirroring,’ by Erik Werenskiold, 1915

Werenskiold was not alone in this new inspiration. Indeed, in 1896 the artist moved to a house in Lysaker, a waterside area on the outskirts of Oslo. He was joined here by the artists Thorvald Erichsen (1868-1939) and Oluf Wold-Torne (1867-1919). These two were also greatly influenced by post-impressionism, and along with Werenskiold, they established the ‘Lysakermalerne,’ a painting group interested in modern developments in art.

In 1914, the Lysaker group worked in collaboration with Norwegian followers of the vibrant visual artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) to achieve a modern breakthrough in Norwegian art. They made a statement about the tenacity and importance of the new styles of post-impressionism, fauvism, and expressionism. Werenskiold was once again involved with revolutions in Norwegian art. In Lysaker, Werenskiold would also develop an interest in decorative art.

Alongside his friend and fellow artist Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929), Werenskiold drew on the luminous colours in his paintings and translated them into designs intended for rooms and furnishings. These he would complete for his friends and neighbours, such as the arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930).

Werenskiold’s lakeside home offered him a community which would invigorate his art and see him mingling with some of the most prominent and powerful Norwegian public figures. Both Munthe and Werenskiold’s friend from the Munich days Eilif Peterssen owned a house nearby, as well as Nansen and a plethora of other personalities. Nansen’s biographer described the community as an ‘inspiring neighbourhood of Norway’s greatest artists.’ Indeed, the area earnt some renown for Werenskiold’s presence. The photographer, and friend of Werenskiold, Ingeborg Motzfeldt Løchen (1875-1946), would capture the group as they went about their lives.

‘Ski race at Lysaker, 1900,’ photographed by Ingeborg Motzfeldt Løchen. Werenskiold is shown on the left, with Fridtjof Nansen on the right.

‘Ski race at Lysaker, 1900,’ photographed by Ingeborg Motzfeldt Løchen. Werenskiold is shown on the left, with Fridtjof Nansen on the right.

The Lysaker group would offer inspiration for the large number of portraits Werenskiold would execute during his career. He was incredibly successful in this venture, capturing those personalities so key to the country’s development and injecting them with great vitality and spirit.

Motzfeldt captures with great intelligence. She looks directly at the viewer with a spark in her eye, suggestive of a bright mind. Her pose is dynamic, she seems to be on the precipice of rising from her chair, her fingers tapping at the arms, full of restless energy. He translates the same lively brushstrokes and emotive use of colour from his landscapes onto his sitters. He compliments them with backgrounds just as alive but not so much as to dim the view of his sitters. Kitty Keilland is presented with verve, with intelligence.

Werenskiold’s sitters are front and centre. The same celebration he affords to his Norwegian landscapes, he crowns to his sitters, as well.

‘Portrait of Ingeborg Motzfeldt Løchen,’ by Erik Werenskiold, 1898

‘Portrait of Ingeborg Motzfeldt Løchen,’ by Erik Werenskiold, 1898


This article has so far focussed on Werenskiold’s development as a painter, and how his life in Lysaker contributed to a healthy creative nurturing. However, the artist is most well known for his illustrations said to have ‘laid the foundation for an independent Norwegian art of illustration,’ which celebrated Norwegian folk tales and tradition.

Werenskiold’s illustrative career began in the late 1870s, when he was a young and budding artist. After fellow artists tired of the task or realised they did not have the time, Werenskiold was employed to illustrate author Peter Christen Asbjørnsen’s collection of Norwegian folk tales. Asbjørnsen is said to have been filled with ‘overwhelming joy’ at the prospect.

It was a task to which Werenskiold devoted himself attentively. He drew upon the world around him throughout various trips across his homeland to create illustrations seeped in high fantasy yet rooted in his homeland. He combines the same realism which had attracted him in painting to the human figures and their surroundings, and lends the same detail to the creatures he conjures. Working in collaboration with Asbjørnsen, Werenskiold is posited with inventing a new kind of troll. The image of these hulking creatures was then taken up by fellow illustrator Theodor Kittlesen (1857-1914) and reproduced in popular culture upon souvenirs.

‘"Ugh! Ugh! Here I smell the Blood of a Christian Man!" roared the Troll,’ by Erik Werenskiold, 1884.

‘"Ugh! Ugh! Here I smell the Blood of a Christian Man!" roared the Troll,’ by Erik Werenskiold, 1884.

What made Werenskiold so successful as an illustrator was his ability to conjure scenes with such drama and atmosphere from ‘a slight hint in the text.’ He worked in tandem with the authors to invigorate their stories with a visual creation alongside their text. He was also meticulous. Despite their high fantasy, his illustrations had a strong basis in historical fact. He made painstaking studies of the clothing and customs of Norwegian folk life to make everything ‘as correct as possible.’

Indeed, even his friends in Lysaker became of use to his illustrations. The Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen was the perfect model for his depiction of Viking King Olaf Tryggvason!

This saw Werenskiold become an extremely popular choice as interest in Norwegian folk tales boomed and more publications were produced. He would complete illustrations for numerous publications of Norwegian tales reinterpreted by authors such as Asbjørnsen or reprints of classic Nordic sagas such as Snorri Sturluson’s (1179-1241) Royal Sagas.

Werenskiold’s illustrations were coming to define a new culture of Norwegian illustration. He was demonstrating that vivid visuals richly steeped in his country’s culture could be produced to a high standard. After his time, The American Scandinavian Review heralded Werenskiold’s works as ‘real treasures of Norwegian art.’ Indeed, they are a vital part of his lasting legacy and define Norwegian cultural tradition in the minds of many.

Call to Action

This article has so far focussed on Werenskiold’s contribution to the development of Norwegian art through his work as an artist. However, his role as a confident speaker on the rights of artists must also be explored. Through his work in improving conditions for Norwegians artists, Werenskiold enabled the artistic production of generations.

When discussing the history of Norwegian art, it was mentioned that there was a monopoly over production and curation by the art associations. In particular, the Christiana Art Association was a leading decider of what art was considered worthy enough for purchase to be held in the national collection. This purchase was also a significant source of income for artists at the time, meaning the difference between being able to paint for a living, or having to find other means to survive.

The Christiana Art Association was still very much rooted in the bourgeoise which had a penchant for German, or German style, art. As a result, it was very reluctant to even acknowledge the developments Norwegian art was undertaking, let alone accept paintings of this development into their collection. The works inspired by naturalism and impressionism derived from France, works such as Werenskiold’s, were castigated.

An 1880 rejection of the work of artist Nils Gustav Wentzel (1859-1927) caused an uproar among the new generation of Norwegian painters, desperate for recognition in their homeland and for the creation of a fairer process of judgement. They asked the Association whether artists might be able to have a say in the selection of works chosen for their collection. The answer was a resounding ‘no'.

Werenskiold was furious. At this time, he had befriended two other prominent Norwegian painters of his time, Frits Thaulow (1847-1906) and Christian Krohg (1852-1925). It is believed that with their encouragement, Werenskiold made a call to arms to his fellow painters. He made his fury known in a newspaper. Referring to the Association’s disdain, he wrote, ‘this is the same bitterness which makes those who live at home only long to get out.’ Obstinance was pushing Norwegian painters out of their homeland, creating an environment detrimental to the nurture of homegrown art.

Werenskiold was leading the charge to change things and demanded a jury of three artists and three sculptors to select the artworks for the Association. This demand was signed and supported by a myriad number of artists. Once again, however, the Association refused. This was the final straw, and the artists went on strike, abstaining from submitting their paintings for consideration.

What followed was an artistic and political struggle. Conservative newspapers were quick to defend and support artists who remained loyal to the German schools and the Association, condemning the more progressive attitudes of Werenskiold, Thaulow, and Krohg. The artists’ response was a direct and determined one.

In 1882 they organised their own exhibition, known as the Autumn Exhibition. Thaulow wrote of the struggle that ensued to create a proper exhibition space: ‘we plundered the rooms of rich friends for lovely woven carpets, cases, and other objets d’art, and changed our first exhibition into an elegant salon. We got an engine which produced electric light and a big deficit in our finances.’

Through all their toil, the exhibition became a success. Werenskiold and the others put on an exhibition which made a statement about the validity of modern developments in Norwegian art. ‘It was a glorious beginning which awakened a great deal of anger and which held great significance for the future,’ Thaulow wrote.

Indeed, two years later in 1884, the Autumn Exhibition received state recognition, becoming the official annual art exhibition of Norway, which still runs to this day. It encouraged Norwegian artists to return to their homeland, to begin producing distinctively Norwegian pieces of art, just as Werenskiold did. It also democratised the art selection process, leading to a fairer selection and a more invigorating atmosphere for artistic production. The same spirit which had called upon their predecessors to create a great National Romanticism in art now called on them to bring Norway up to date and put it on the art map of the world.

Werenskiold played a key role in the artistic revolution in Norway, and he did not stop there. He would continue to become an ambassador for modern developments in art, passionate to see them take root in the hearts and minds of young Norwegian painters.

He published numerous pamphlets celebrating modern developments, such as his 1882 publication ‘The Impressionists.’ Werenskiold was not afraid of confrontation. ‘Again, stop a moment’ was a direct attack on an anonymous critic who had decried the work of Christian Krohg and none other than Edvard Munch.

Werenskiold was willing to defend his fellow artists with passion. Perhaps the spirit of his army commander father helped possess him with a fiery spirit!

Indeed, his concern and care for the artistic health of his country and its artists continued well into his old age. At 81, Werenskiold published ‘Dictatorship and Culture,’ admitting to his discontent with the far-right political party Nasjonal Samling and his fears they might stifle creative life.

Werenskiold expressed his feelings about his homeland both through his art and his actions. He made it his mission to encourage a revolution in Norwegian art to ensure a fairer, more artistically nourishing country. His efforts have paved the way for the generations of artists that have followed in his footsteps.


Whilst this article has not been an absolute biography of Werenskiold or of the developments of Norwegian art, it has explored how determination and passion can lead to big and small revolutions and hopefully offered an interesting look at Norwegian art history.

The life and works of Erik Werenskiold present a man of frenetic energy, always creating, always developing, and always keen to discover the new. They also reveal a man with a conscientious nature which, combined with his determined grit, enabled other artists to follow their passions.

Werenskiold was able to look to the past and celebrate the culture of his country whilst bringing it into the contemporary, and offering up a fairer palette for his painting peers to dip their brushes in. It could be argued that it is him Edvard Munch has to thank, in part, for the acclaim and renown he has cultivated.

Certainly, Norwegian art as we know it today would not be the same without the works and legacy of Erik Werenskiold.

‘Erik Werenskiold at home in his studio,’ photographed by Ingeborg Motzfeldt Løchen, before 1908.

‘Erik Werenskiold at home in his studio,’ photographed by Ingeborg Motzfeldt Løchen, before 1908.

Stay In Touch
Subscribe to our Wednesday newsletter for the latest finds and 10% off your order.