It’s quite telling: all the way up in the corner of the Louvre – in the innermost corner of the Northern Europe-section – there hang 26 small paintings by a Norwegian artist: Peder Balke. Virtually unknown in his home country – but one of the only Norwegians honored with a spot in the Louvre –, here is the story of how France’s last king both ruined, and possibly also made, one of Norway’s most undermined and under-appreciated artists.
Balke was born in a rugged town in Norway while Bonaparte’s war was raging in France and Europe – then of course completely and blissfully unaware of the role the events of the tyrant would play in his personal life. Balke – growing up surrounded by mountains and farmland in the Norwegian countryside – miraculously managed to save up enough money, with the help from local farmers, to pursue higher education – where he would later serve as a pupil for some of Norway’s finest national romanticists. Balke finished his education at the same time as legends, like Gericault and Delacroix, were becoming notorious for the paintings we today all know – and embarked on a journey to pursue the love for nature that the Scandinavian national romanticism was trying to emphasize. In 1830, Balke completed several long hikes in the fantasy-like Norwegian paysage, later going on trips to Russia, England and France.
In 1832, Balke completed a journey alongside the Norwegian coast – the same one as Louis-Philippe had conducted right before the end of the last century – and the outset of the French revolution. There, he captured in his mind the vivid pictures of the sea hitting cliffs, of the sun breaking the cold and unforgiving Arctic air and of the feebleness of people, in contrast to the great nature surrounding them. The same things Louis-Philippe had seen.
Balke knew this – and in 1845-47 he managed to get an audience with the Orléans king in Paris. The king accepted the offer from Balke, and ordered more than 50 pictures in commemoration of his journey. Balke delivered. And shortly after he presented 54 oil paintings as examples for the king. The king, however, then told him that the time was not right, as the embers of a new revolution were glowing bright. Balke spent the following years trying to convince the king to pay him to finish the mission properly, which never happened. As Balke gave up, so ended what could’ve been the future career of an artist in the ranks of the Norwegian Edvard Munch and Peter Nicolai Arbo. Balke would never return to painting, other than for the sake of feeding his own artistic taste.
Only recently Balke has received renewed interest by international galleries, such as the London National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Balke is only now being recognized for the methods he was despised for at the time – his creativity and imagination, that amongst other things, included painting by imagination, more vividly demonstrating his own emotions and thoughts in accordance with the nature that he was actively displaying. In Paris, 26 of the small and iconic oil-paintings are now on display, as they have been since 2001 when they were put up after having been hidden away when Balke was turned down by Louis-Philippe – for more than 150 years. But the lack of conservation and care given to Balke’s painting can still be seen on some of them, where long cracks spread through the Norwegian landscape that he was so touched and moved by.