Forests, Rocks and Torrents: Norwegian and Swiss Landscapes at the National Gallery

By Richard Moss | 23 June 2011
a painting of a river running through a ravine flanked by fir trees
Johan Christian Clausen Dahl, The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss 1827.© Photo courtesy of the owner
Exhibition: Forests, Rocks, Torrents: Norwegian and Swiss Landscapes from the Lunde Collection at the National Gallery until September 18 2011

The National Gallery is examining a vibrant body of work from nineteenth century Norway and Switzerland that reveals how a group of painters emerged as masters of the mountains, rocks, rapids and oceans of the Scandinavian and Alpine landscapes.

Drawing on the private collection of American Asbjørn Lunde whose Norwegian and Swiss paintings range from miniature oils to monumental canvases, Forest Rocks and Torrents reveals the similarities of the Norwegian and Swiss traditions as well as the many differences that climate, character, national temperament and political regimes can impose on art.

In Norway three landscape artists, Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, led the way.

a painting of a sail boat riding the rough waves of a sea
Peter Balke, Seascape about 1860.© Photo courtesy of the owner
Dahl was a patriot who committed himself to depicting the wild splendour of his nation, but in 1818 moved to Dresden where he began a long friendship with the German artist Caspar David Friedrich.

Soon established as an esteemed Norwegian master in exile, many young artists made the pilgrimage to see Dahl in Dresden when travelling from Norway to Italy.

His greatest student was Thomas Fearnley, who in 1835 spent time in Switzerland painting, and sowing the seeds of a cross pollination of Swiss and Norwegian techniques and ideas.

a painting of a lone figure on a rock outcrop set against a brooding sea landscape
Knud Andreassen Baade, Scene from the Era of Norwegian Sagas 1850© Photo courtesy of the owner
In the years around 1800, both nations generated traditions of painting that celebrated the landscape in its sublime and pastoral modes.

Another early devotee was Caspar Wolf, whose personal interests lay in the depiction of rocks, caves and water (notably the Geltenbach Falls in the Lauenen Valley with an Ice Bridge).

However it was Peder Balke who is now recognised as the true innovator. His study of Stockholm by moonlight and his studies of stormy seas, rocky coastlines and shipwrecks – many of which are rendered as small black and white improvisations, thinly painted on board – established the notion of a romantic Norwegian landscape.

Knud Andreassen Baade’s Scene from the era of Norwegian Sagas, 1850 seems to capture this development of the Romantic tradition perfectly by combining the weighty literary mythological traditions of the Norse Gods with dramatic flourishes that seem to capture the brooding menace of the sea and the sky.

a painitng of spruce or fir tree in a mountainous landscape
Alexandre Calame, At Handeck about 1860© Photo courtesy of the owner
Among the Swiss contingent the artist widely regarded as the preeminent landscapist is Alexandre Calame.

His paintings are said to owe much to the work of 17th-century Dutch landscape artists such as Jacob van Ruisdael in their portrayal of mountains, dense fir forests and raging torrents. The latter are central to Calame’s work and visitors can see one of his most monumental renderings in Mountain Torrent before a Storm.

Depicting the longest river in Switzerland, the Aare, the painting was acquired by Prince Yusupov of Russia and is pervaded by Calame’s dramatic sense of nature’s grandeur.

British gallery audiences are all too familiar with 19th century British artists Constable and Turner and how they have become lionised as masters of Romantic British landscape painting.

Forests Rocks and Torrents offers the chance to view their work in relation to parallel movements that, although from different countries, celebrated the landscape in similar ways.

  • Exhibition takes place in the Sunley Room, free entry
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