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Monday, August 21, 2017

Carl Larsson

Christmas Eve, 1904–05, Carl Larsson
My work has often been compared to that of Norman Rockwell. I'm flattered, I suppose, but I'm also tired of hearing such shallow comparisons. In retribution, I've looked up the artists who Rockwell has cited as having influenced him, painters and illustrators such as Howard Pyle, J.C. Leyendecker, N.C. Wyeth, and Maxfield Parrish. I like the work of each of these artists but Wyeth and Parrish are the only two I ever paid much attention to. Like Rockwell, these men would be considered by most to be primarily illustrators (doing work for publication) than what we've come to call "fine" artists as in those painting on canvas and collected mostly by museums.
Could these not easily pass for the work of Norman Rockwell?
Moreover, in each case the professional distinction has become something of a moot point in that they all have work in museums around the world, and there paintings are no more likely to be published as prints than those of any other famous artist. One other name I'd like to add to the list of those who influenced Rockwell would be that of the Swedish painter, Carl Larsson. That's based solely on the style of their work (above) which, though not identical at all times, is remarkably similar. Yet, even at that, Larsson is much more linear than was Rockwell once his style had matured. As seen in Larsson's Christmas Eve (top) from 1904, and his Cray Fishing with the Family (below) from 1896 (two years after Rockwell's birth) even the spirit of their work is quite similar. Larsson was born in 1853, making him a full generation older than the American painter. Larsson died in 1917, about the time Rockwell was just getting started. Also he lived and worked his entire life in Stockholm, so it's highly doubtful Rockwell even knew of him, much less felt any influence from the much older artist.
Cray Fishing with the Family, 1896, Carl Larsson
Living and growing up in the latter years of the 19th-century was not easy, especially in small European countries like Sweden, and doubly difficult in a one-parent family. Carl Larsson's father was an alcoholic, to mention just one of his vices, and perhaps a lesser one at that. When Carl and his brother, Johan, were still small children, their father literally put them and their mother out on the sidewalk. Eventually they landed in what amounted to a tenement hell-hole in which as many as three other families were housed in the same room. As a rule, each room was rife with penury and filth. Vice thrived leisurely there seething and smoldering, among rotting, eaten-away bodies and souls. Such an environment is the natural breeding ground for cholera.
Larsson rose from extreme poverty solely as the
result of his artistic talents.
At the age of thirteen, his teacher at the school for poor children urged the young boy to apply to the "principskola" (principle school) of the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. He was admitted. During his first years there, Larsson battled feelings of social inferiority, confusion, and profound shyness. However, In 1869, at the age of sixteen, Larsson was promoted to the "antique school" of the same academy. There he gained confidence. He even became a central figure in student life while earning his first medal in nude drawing. In the meantime, Larsson worked as a caricaturist for the humor paper Kasper and as a graphic artist for the newspaper Ny Illustrerad Tidning (New Illustrated Newspaper). His earnings were sufficient to allow him to help support his mother financially.
Larsson's studio was typical of artists' turn of the century workplaces.
After several years working as an illustrator of books, magazines, and newspapers, Larsson moved to Paris in 1877. There he spent several frustrating years as a hardworking artist with little or no success. Larsson resisted establishing contact with the progressive French Impressionists, cutting himself off from what he considered a radical movement of change for the sake of change. After spending two summers in Barbizon, the refuge of the plein-air painters, he met a fellow student named Karin Bergöö, who subsequently became his wife and the turning point in his life. She led him to paint in watercolors, which altered his style completely, leading to the more linear, illustrative works seen above and below.
The Larsson family bungalow, still owned by the family but now a museum featuring their father's work.
A studio Idyll, 1884-85, Carl
Larsson, the artist's wife with
their first child, Suzanne.
Between 1884 and 1900 Karin and Carl had eight children, (two of whom died in child-hood). His family became his favorite models. His son, Esbjorn (seen earlier) was their youngest. Fortunately, in 1888, Karin's fath-er gave the family a small house In Sunborn, which they, named Little Hyttnäs. The artistic couple decorated and furnished this house according to their particular artistic taste as well as the needs of the growing family. In later years, Larsson suf-fered from bouts of depression. While work-ing on a large mural titled Midvinterblot (Midwinter Sacrifice) for the vestibule of the National Museum, Larsson experienced the onset of an eye problem and a worsening of his frequent headaches. Nonetheless he continued working on what is today con-sidered his masterpiece (below). After suf-fering a mild stroke in Janu-ary 1919, Lars-son spent his remaining time completing his memoirs. He died later that same month.

The painting depicts a legend from Norse mythology in which the Swedish king Domalde was sacrificed in order to avert a famine. After a long controversy it was rejected by the museum. But the debate resurfaced again in the late 20th century, after which it was finally honored with the place where Carl Larsson intended it to be.

Brita and Me,
Carl Larsson


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