The Peasant BurialThe next stop on this mini-tour of the history of Norwegian art is painter and illustrator Erik Werenskiold (1855-1938). As a painter he was influenced by French naturalists, depicting farming communities in their natural environment, and he was also a portrait painter, best known for portaits of writers such as Bjørnson and Ibsen.

Although he studied abroad, he returned to Norway in 1883 and was able to survive as an artist in his homeland. He is best remembered in Norway as an illustrator of books of Norwegian fairy tales. He drew fantasy creatures like trolls in the same naturalistic manner as he drew human characters; he had a knack of making fairy tales a little bit more believable.
Let’s take a look at one of his more serious paintings, The Peasant Burial, hanging in the National Gallery in Oslo. I could not find a reproduction of it online (at least not in colour!) and this is the best picture my mobile phone could make of it. But you can see, generally, what it looks like. Members of a farming community stand around the grave of one of their own. There is a simple stick inserted into the ground instead of a cross or a gravestone. This is because the local minister would have been occupied with more important (richer) people, and as the peasants had to bury the body quickly, before it decomposed, they had to have a funeral without the minister being present, so they stuck a stick in the ground, rather than a holy symbol. Later, the minister would come to the village and sanctify the burial, after the event.
The deeper meaning in the work relates to the status of farmers in Norwegian society. It was painted at a time when the farming community were beginning to educate themselves and organize themselves politically, to become a self-aware power in Norwegian society. The stick symbolizes the old ways, when the farmer took second place in Norwegian society. What’s being buried is the pejorative sense of “peasant”. Werenskiold was not depicting social change, but was pointedly showing what was going to change.

Barry Kavanagh writes fiction, and has made music, formerly with Dacianos.

Contact him here.