The Norwegian painter Peder Balke’s tiny monochromatic paintings on panel are among his most original works. He created them for his own pleasure after a lack of commercial success led him to give up trying to make a living as a professional artist in the 1860s. The fact that he was not aiming to sell them gave him the freedom to experiment with new techniques and radically simplified compositions.
Here the mighty power of nature is condensed in miniature, with a palette restricted to shades of black and white. Sea and sky are conveyed with deft sweeps of the brush while the boats and seagulls are touched in with strokes of calligraphic delicacy. There is no landmark to indicate a specific place, but the scene was inspired by the turbulent seas off the coast of north Norway, which Balke had experienced at first hand.
In this abstracted seascape the mighty power of nature is condensed in miniature, with a palette restricted to shades of black and white. Sea and sky are conveyed with deft sweeps of the brush while the boats and seagulls are touched in with strokes of calligraphic delicacy. The oil paint is applied thinly, with the white ground left to show through in places to suggest the gleam of light above the horizon and breaking waves. The ocean threatens to engulf the two boats, and the black irregular shapes in the right foreground resembling rocks are dark omens of possible shipwreck. There is no landmark to indicate a specific place, but the scene was inspired by the turbulent seas off the coast of north Norway.
Balke began painting the Norwegian landscape in the decades after his country had signed a constitution in 1814, separating it from Denmark and giving it a degree of independence. A growing sense of national pride led artists to turn their attention to their country’s dramatic scenery. Balke himself made journeys on foot through large swathes of the countryside but it was not until 1832 that he ventured to the far north. The region was widely imagined as a fascinating mythical place that was alien and scary, but it was relatively inaccessible and few outsiders had actually been there. Balke was one of the first painters to make the voyage by sea, travelling up the coast as far as the North Cape, Europe’s most northerly point.
On this epic coastal journey he experienced a tempest like the one shown here. Once safely on land in the aftermath of the hurricane he confided to his diary: ‘I had positioned myself on a rocky plateau some 100 feet above the sea, and I felt I had to hold on tight to the cliff when the backwash hurled itself against the rock face and with a deafening sound like thunder rolled out again into the heaving sea…’ It was, he said, a magnificent sight that would never fade from his memory, and the breathtaking Arctic landscape battered by turbulent weather provided him with material for paintings for the rest of his life. Storms at sea, shipwrecks, mountains, towering cliffs and lighthouses offering warnings to sailors became an established part of his repertoire.
Balke’s earlier landscapes have an affinity with those of his fellow Norwegian, Johan Christian Dahl, with whom he studied 1836 and 1843–4 and who encouraged him to concentrate on nature. Balke’s paintings also recall those of Caspar David Friedrich, whom he met in Dresden. Like Friedrich, Balke stressed the ‘sublime’ awe-inspiring aspects of the natural world. But unlike Friedrich, Balke did not depict its features in minute detail, preferring to convey them in a freer, more painterly style. The idiosyncratic private landscapes of his later years have an expressiveness that is unlike anyone else’s. Looked at today they seem almost modern.
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