Seeing the World With Swedish Eyes: the National Museum in Stockholm

Spread the love

National Museum, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden

When I last visited Stockholm in 2015, I was disappointed by the fact that the National Museum was closed for renovations.  Then in October 2018, I saw on our French news that it had finally reopened.  They showed images from the fine building, the paintings, the Carl Larsson frescos, and I wished I could visit.

So imagine my delight when some nine months later I was entering the grand central hall and admiring my first Larssons of the day!

The museum opened thanks to the great interest that King Gustav III had in art.  It was founded in 1792 as the Royal Museum but in 1845, the parliament voted that a new building should be created to house what should be a national collection.  It took twenty years for the project to be fully realised – the present building opened in 1866 and accommodated visual arts of all kinds.  There have been many changes over the years, with the building of annexes, and the modernisation of the whole building – most recently in 2018.  The result is a classy, modern, intelligently curated museum filled with a surprising collection that is genuinely fascinating to explore, whatever level your interest.

The Larsson Panels

At the base of the grand staircase, which you enter as you come into the building, are a series of paintings by Carl Larsson which show the supporters of the arts from Swedish history.

The Great Hall has two equally grand paintings by Larsson: one of Gustav Vasa Entering Stockholm in 1523, and the other is the somewhat infamous Midwinter Sacrifice.

Midwinter Sacrifice, or Midvinterblot was, if you’ll forgive the pun, a blot on the Larsson’s career.  The painting shows an episode from the Old Norse Prose, Edda, written in the 13th century.  It shows a naked man holding his head hight as he awaits the the knife of executioner, the priest.  This victim is King Domald, who was said to have been scarified to appease the gods and bring about the end of years of failed harvests.

Larsson wanted to paint this scene.  He’d just completed the panel for the museum showing Gustav Vasa’s Entry into Stockholm, and had this idea of showing a Viking King making the ultimate sacrifice for his country.  He submitted a picture to the Nationalmuseum in 1911, without being asked to do so, and was promptly shot down.  He was criticised for historical inaccuracy in his vision, and furthermore, historical paintings weren’t so fashionable anymore.

However, Larsson was a stubborn devil.  The more the haters hated, the more he was determined to paint his picture – which he did, at his own expense, without knowing what the outcome would be.  As it happens, it was shown in the museum in 1915, but they refused to buy it.  Instead, it went to Lund for almost 40 years before being sold – the Nationalmuseum refused to buy it, and other Swedish institutions couldn’t afford it, so it was sold in 1987 to a Japanese collector.

Incredibly, the story of the painting didn’t end there as you’d expect: the painting came back to the Nationalmuseum as part of a major Larsson exhibition in 1992, and whereas previously people had been pretty down on the painting, there was a growing affection for it.  In 1997, the painting was acquired by the Nationalmuseum – Larsson must be delighted!

I don’t know that I particularly like either of the semi-circular murals – I prefer the ones that you see going up the staircase.  I think part of the problem is that you’re used to Larsson’s very individual and unique style being small-scale, so seeing it large is a bit odd.  I think his style suits the less dense scenes, like the ones on the staircase, where the colours struck me as being really harmonious with the surroundings.

Old Masters of Europe

The fine collection of 18th century paintings can be attributed to Carl Gustaf Tessin, a diplomat and connoisseur who served as an unofficial ambassador in Versailles from 1739-42.  He bought directly from contemporary artists, like Chardin, and when old masters came up for auction, he bought as many of those as he could too.  That’s presumably how the collection now has some very fine Rembrandts, and generally a good selection of Dutch paintings.

But for me the eye opener was seeing so many lovely portraits by Swedish artists.  I was particularly taken by Alexander Roslin, who was born in Sweden in 1718 and settled in Paris when he was 32 years old.  He remained in that city for the rest of his life, married the pastel artist, Marie Suzanne Giroust, and when he died in 1793, was apparently the wealthiest artist in Paris.  He was an extremely popular portraitist, admired for his sensitivity and style, and certainly those paintings on show in this museum demonstrate why he deserved his high reputation.  Roslin manages to combine an almost classical gracefulness, with a realistic, freshness – you get the glowing skin and the elegantly rendered clothes, but you also get a sense of the individual’s character.  It’s interesting that his wife specialised in working in pastel, because Roslin’s paintings give the impression of being done in the same medium; it has that same softness of Liotard’s pictures, but without the simper.  I’ve become a big fan.

There’s quite a fascinating display of 19th and 20th century art.  The work by Swedish artists were particularly interesting, especially those by female artists, like Fanny Brate (A Day of Celebration) or Hanna Pauli (Breakfast Time).  The paintings have great charm in the way they’ve been created, but have the added appeal of showing delightful Swedish life at the turn of the century.

Speaking of showing Swedish life… we come back to seeing six little watercolours – six little jewels by Carl Larsson that show his family and their home in Sundborn.  As we were to visit Sundborn later in our Swedish trip, these images were particularly wonderful to see.  They are just exquisite – his style was just so cute.  There are so many details that you just stare at the picture and find certain details emerging – for example even though I thought I knew Crayfishing quite well, I’d never noticed that the baby is squawking at a little crayfish crawling towards it.  I love, love, love Larsson and his drawings and his world and his style and everything.

So In Summary

There are so many different styles of painting on show in the galleries, it’s likely that even if you’re not that fond of art, you’ll find something that takes your fancy.  I was taken by the lovely range of portraits by Swedes in the 18th century, especially by Roslin.  Having said that, I was also truly delighted to see Carl Larsson’s murals and his delicate little watercolours of his family – but then, I was intending to embark on a Larsson trip, with a trip planned to his house in Sundborn.  This set that up nicely.

Further Information

Incredibly, the museum has free entry – which is very generous.  Exhibitions are extra.

The museum has a fantastic website which has lots of information about their collection, and which gives you the chance to download their pictures in high definition –

How To Get There

Centrally located, the National Museum is easy to get to with public transport: English language transport information is available here:

No Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: