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19th-Century Norwegian Landscapes At Wadsworth Atheneum

The United States declared its independence from England in 1776. Norway declared its independence from Denmark in 1814. In the 1820s, artistic institutions in these up-and-coming countries were beginning to develop and artists were trying to figure out what "national landscape" meant.

In the United States, the Hudson River School came into being to answer that question. In Norway, a smaller school, led by Johan Christian Dahl, answered the question.

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford is known as the world epicenter of Hudson River School collection and scholarship but has never before now shown an exhibit of work by the contemporaneous Norway School of Landscape Art. "Sublime North: Romantic Painters Discover Norway" is on view until mid-January.

Oliver Tostmann, the Atheneum's curator of European art, says art came to Norway in a roundabout and nomadic way.

"There was no such thing as a formalized school or art academy in Norway. [Artists] went to other European academies to train," Tostmann says. "Also there were not a lot of art patrons in Norway. It was a backwater, very agricultural. There was not broad support for artists."

Dahl, Peder Balke and Thomas Fearnley, the artists seen in the show, were educated in Copenhagen and Stockholm. The three also worked together in Dresden, Germany. Dahl — considered the father of Norwegian landscape painting — was mentor to both Fearnley and Balke.

The average European thought of Norway as a forbidding, cold place, and the artists themselves tended to avoid the country in the wintertime.

"They traveled to Norway when it was warm in the summers and did studies," Tostmann says. "But they lived most of their time on the continent."

At the time, landscapes were considered the lowest form of painting, not on a par with more well-respected history painting. But this changed dramatically with the rise of romanticism, which glorified nature and imparted intense emotionalism to its subject matter.

The majestic paintings of Dahl, Balke and Fearnley — serene peasants in tidy, isolated cottages; grazing goats; dark and ominous clouds; roiling rivers; deep, neverending canyons; craggy mountains; sailors battling stormy seas; all in a dark, muted palette — established a vision of Norway in both that country and the rest of Europe.

"There was a real fashion for Norway in the 19th century. Norway was known in Europe as the home of the Vikings. But nobody really knew Norway," Tostmann says. "It was hard to get to. It had harsh weather. Europeans ... were eager for more information."

Dahl's 1848 "View of the Feigumfoss in Lysterfjord" shows a small, lone goatherd resting on a boulder in a massive valley, a thin ribbon of a waterfall cascading from an awesome height. Another Dahl, "Fjord Landscape with Menhir," depicts an ancient standing stone towering over a cottage, tying together the country's then-present with its Viking past.

Dahl's "View at Skjolden in Lyster" also harkens to the country's distant past, as a boat resembling a Viking longboat rests between a hut and a river. Dahl's "Mountain Farm" is the most romantic of the lot. A single cottage sits on a rocky ledge separating it from the rest of the landscape, as goats wander around their two caretakers and the sun sets on the horizon.

Fearnley — descended from British emigrants to Norway — went for both realism and symbolism in "Riders in a Landscape (View over Romsdal with Romsdalhorn in Background)." The distinctly shaped mountain is accurately depicted, while the imposing panorama below it features an eagle perched on a twisting branch and a couple in a tiny carriage.

Balke painted "Finnmark Landscape" about 30 years after seeing it himself, in the northeasternmost reaches of the country, where in summer the sun never sets. Balke was the most experimental of the three artists, working with monochromatic or limited palettes and emphasizing the power of nature over geographical realism.

The landscape feature most closely associated with Norway — the hundreds of fjords that flow through the 18,000-mile coastline — is seen infrequently in the exhibit. This could reflect the difficulty of traveling the fjords during the 19th century, Tostmann says, and by extension the difficulty artists had in sketching them.

The exhibit is rounded out with paintings created by the men in the countries where they studied and traveled: Italy, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, even a dramatic eruption of Vesuvius, where the lava explosion spews upward like an arrow.

SUBLIME NORTH: ROMANTIC PAINTERS DISCOVER NORWAY: PAINTINGS FROM THE COLLECTION OF ASBJØRN LUNDE is at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, until Jan. 15. thewadsworth.org.

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