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Larsson, Carl

Category: Artist and sculptor

 

Carl Larsson (28 May 1853 – 22 January 1919) was a Swedish painter representative of the Arts and Crafts Movement. His many paintings include oils, watercolours, and frescoes, with his preferred medium being watercolours.

Carl Larsson was a spiritual man and spiritual people tend to see the world as a Light filled creation.  If they paint, they paint Light.  And Larsson was a painter of Light.

These days acrylics, because they are quick drying and the whites are bright, clear and not given to yellowing, are also suited to painting Light, but oils are not a good medium, even now.  The very fact that oil is used means there is always a yellow tint to the work, and the whites found in oil paints can be heavy and opaque, whereas to paint Light needs translucency, washes of white, white overlaid. 

In 1877, Carl Larsson and his friend Ernst Josephson headed for Paris. They’d heard about the Impressionists, and other nascent art groups living and working in the French capital, but eventually, the two friends, and some other Swedish artists settled at Grez, 70km from Paris. It was at Grez that Larsson learned to love watercolours, and he increasingly moved away from traditional oil paintings in favour of line and wash.  And the main reason is that if one can master watercolours, painting Light is a lot easier.

For-karin's-name-day-1899

Larsson considered his finest work to be Midvinterblot (Midwinter Sacrifice), a large painting now displayed inside the Swedish National Museum of Fine Arts and indeed it is a very very fine painting, but his philosophy is best explored via the scenes he portrayed of his domestic life.

The Philosophy of Carl Larsson

Carl Larsson’s paintings were a means of him demonstrating the values and philosophy he wished to promote.  Every painting tells a story, and, as he fully realised, a demonstration via illustration and example is far more memorable and useful to most people than a 300 page book that tries to explain his philosophy in words.  ‘Live my life’ he seemed to be saying and you can be as carefree and happy, well fed and healthy as the people in my paintings.  You will not be lonely or without love and you will not die alone.

 

His philosophy was not born from privelaged circumstances, or by inherited wealth.  Larssen’s family when he was young were in wretched circumstances.  Larsson was born on 28 May 1853 in the old town of Stockholm, at 78 Prästgatan. His parents were extremely poor, and his childhood was not happy.  But Larssen’s story is an example to all those who look for others to help them out of their difficulties, because ultimately Carl Larssen pulled himself up by his own boot straps and found solutions for all his problems.

Larsson's popularity increased considerably with the development of colour reproduction technology in the 1890s, when the Swedish publisher Bonnier published books written and illustrated by Larsson and containing full colour reproductions of his watercolours, titled A Home. However, the print runs of these rather expensive albums did not come close to that produced in 1909 by the German publisher Karl Robert Langewiesche (1874–1931). Langewiesche's choice of watercolours, drawings and text by Carl Larsson, titled Das Haus in der Sonne (The House in the Sun), immediately became one of the German publishing industry's best-sellers of the year—40,000 copies sold in three months, and more than 40 print runs have been produced up to 2001. Carl and Karin Larsson declared themselves overwhelmed by such success.

The girls' bedroom, showing the hand painted murals and simple wooden furnishings

Showing how happiness was possible with simple things/Enhancing the commonplace to show that nothing is in reality commonplace

Although this entry is headed with Carl Larsson’s name, Karin was as talented in her own sphere as Carl.  She acted as a sounding-board and critic for Carl's work, but channelled her own artistic impulses into design. She designed and wove a large amount of the textiles used in the house, embroidered, and designed clothes for herself and the children, and furniture which was created by a local carpenter. For example, the pinafores worn by her and other women who worked at Sundborn, known as karinförkläde in Swedish, were a practical design by her.

In the "Swedish room" with which she replaced the little used drawing room, she removed curtains and placed furniture along the walls around a raised dais, creating a room within a room that was much used by the family, as shown in Carl's paintings, with a sofa in a corner for naps, shown in Lathörnet (Lazy Nook). Her textile designs and colours were also new: "Pre-modern in character they introduced a new abstract style in tapestry. Her bold compositions were executed in vibrant colours; her embroidery frequently used stylised plants. In black and white linen she reinterpreted Japanese motifs
Essentially Karin showed that you can make something very special using your own imagination.  A home is a home because of the things you have made and arranged to put in it.  They may have cost next to nothing, a vase of flowers, some object found in a flea market that simply appealed.  It should reflect who you are not how much you are worth.

Filling his pictures with LOVE – children and friends

 

Larsson had not known much love as a child.  His mother was not lacking in affection, but had been forced to work long hours as a laundress in order to provide for her family.

Larsson's father was shiftless and unreliable.  He worked as a casual labourer, sailed as a stoker on a ship headed for Scandinavia, and lost the lease to a nearby mill, only to work there later as a grain carrier. Larsson portrays him as a man lacking both self-control and the ability to love; he drank, ranted and raved, and hurt his son mentally in an outburst in which he declared, "I curse the day you were born".

But as with many a childhood where love was lacking and affection desperately sought but never found, Larsson set about creating a home life which would be full of love.  He worked at home, where his studio and all his equipment was, in order that he could be near his family and he had a very big family.

Carl and Karin Larsson had eight children (Suzanne (1884), Ulf (1887, who died at 18), Pontus (1888), Lisbeth (1891), Brita (1893), Mats (1894, who died at 2 months), Kersti (1896) and Esbjörn (1900)).  Larsson wrote in his memoirs that the paintings of his family and home....

"became the most immediate and lasting part of my life's work. For these pictures are of course a very genuine expression of my personality, of my deepest feelings, of all my limitless love for my wife and children."

Encouraging the use of home schooling

Larssen’s experience of his school days had been extremely negative.  At the Poor School, Carl stood out despite his terrible circumstances, but the schooling was everything we now know to be counter to the way children learn and want to learn.  Even in the art academy in Stockholm, pupils learned in a classroom according to strict rules and formalised methods of teaching. And as a consequence, Larsson decided to promote the idea of ‘home schooling’, that is paced learning without exams, using books and practical observation in nature or watching someone else. 

Lisbeth reading

He has paintings showing his children absorbed and quietly reading books all by themselves. He has his children in his workshop learning by seeing how various jobs such as etching and carpentry are done.

He knew you cannot actually teach a child to paint.  You simply give them the materials, explain the limitations and qualities of the materials and then let them experiment.  Learning by doing, learning by reading and learning by watching.

Larsson was himself a very perceptive observer.  Little detail was missed and he had a real eye for capturing small things.  Observational ability of this kind takes a great while to master, but it can only be mastered by practise, long serious practise.

my-acid-workshop-where-i-do-my-etching

Promoting the development of craft skills

Both Carl and Karin Larsson wholeheartedly embraced the Arts and Crafts movement, which was largely a reaction against the perceived impoverished state of the decorative arts at the time and the conditions in which they were produced.

My Friends, the Carpenter and the Painter

Larsson himself had seen the squalor and poverty that resulted from industrialisation, as such the social aspects of the movement were as important as the aesthetics.  The Arts and Crafts movement advocated both economic and social reform and a return to craftsmanship, pride in one’s work and the removal of the factory style of manufacture.

The Arts and Crafts movement was an international movement in the decorative and fine arts that began in Britain and flourished in Europe and North America between 1880 and 1910.  It was inspired by the ideas of people such as the architect Augustus Pugin, writer John Ruskin, and designer William Morris.

Larsson embraced the ideas wholeheartedly and set about making his house into a showcase for the style as well as depicting the results in his paintings.  In total contrast to the prevailing style of dark heavy furnishings, he and Karin’s bright interiors incorporated an innovative blend of Swedish folk design, Japonisme and Arts and Crafts ideas from Britain. The Larssons created a style of interior decoration recognised as quintessentially Swedish with colourfully painted furniture and woven textiles. Karin designed and produced the textiles and her loom is one of the objects still preserved as a museum piece.  Through Carl's watercolours of his house and family, the couples' ideas on interior design reached a large audience.

Promoting home grown food organically produced

Many of Larsson’s painting depict his whole family growing and harvesting their own food.  There are pictures of them growing potatoes and all helping with the harvest, as well as pictures of them with their cows and getting fresh milk.  The emphasis is on a form of organic self sufficiency [though all would have been naturally organic in those days]

 

Promoting ‘slow meals’ and ‘slow food’ eaten all together as a sociable occasion around a table

 

Food organically grown is one of the best medicines, and meal times should be a celebration of food – of the labour that has gone into growing the food, of the work that has gone into its cooking and of the changes of seasons that has made life possible.

There are no paintings of Larssons showing people eating alone.  Always it is a family affair.  They eat round large wonderfully stacked tables at Christmas, they eat under the trees in summer and sometimes they take picnics and eat in the fields and meadows surrounding the house.

The Larssons did not take quick snacks or eat to live, there was no ‘fast food’.  They lived to eat and enjoyed every mouthful.  And as a consequence they were on the whole a very healthy family for the time.

Crab feast

 Demonstrating the value of the ‘Safe House’, the house without threats and with peace

Larsson had suffered an appalling childhood in which the family had had no secure dwelling and were moved from one place to the next:

The Life and Paintings of Swedish artist and illustrator, Carl Larsson - Amanda Severn
"As a rule, each room was home to three families; penury, filth and vice thrived there” These are the words of Artist and Illustrator Carl Larsson, describing his childhood in the slums of Stockholm in the 1850s and 60s. Cholera and tuberculosis were rife amongst this densely packed, seething mass of humanity, and as a consequence, over 100,000 Swedes fled their homeland between 1868 and 1873 to immigrate to America. The Larssons, however, were not among them. They stayed in the slums moving through a series of squalid, temporary homes, until at last they ended up in Ladugardsland which Larsson was to describe in his autobiography as ‘Hell on Earth’.  They frequently had little or nothing to eat, and their neighbours were prostitutes, murderers and thieves.


Little Hyttnäs

In 1888, the young family was given a small house, named Little Hyttnäs, in Sundborn by Karin's father Adolf Bergöö. Carl and Karin adapted it so that it was light and airy, clutter free and homely; and decorated and furnished this house according to their particular ideals.  Many of the interiors depicted in his paintings were the work of Karin Larsson, who also worked as an interior designer, as such this was a genuine shared project.    

The interior furnishings of many houses of their day were gloomy affairs with vast curtains in thick materials, heavy dark furniture and ornate gilded ornaments and fittings.  As such the style that Karin and Carl developed was somewhat revolutionary.  It has defined the style of Scandinavian architecture and interiors ever since.  It is full of light and fresh air, so healthier, and has the overall feel of a ‘safe house’; anyone could feel comfortable in.

Through his paintings and books, Little Hyttnäs has become one of the most famous artist's homes in the world, transmitting the artistic taste of its creators and making it a major influence in Swedish interior design. The descendants of Carl and Karin Larsson now own this house and keep it open for tourists each summer from May until October.

Showing the value of communing with nature

After spending two summers in Barbizon, the refuge of the plein-air painters, Larsson settled down with his Swedish painter colleagues in 1882 in Grez-sur-Loing, at a Scandinavian artists' colony outside Paris. It was there that he met the artist Karin Bergöö, who soon became his wife. This was to be a turning point in Larsson's life, he had found a fellow spirit and he had found a ‘style’ for his painting – one that incorporated the ‘plein-air’ approach.

In Grez, Larsson painted some of his most important works, now in watercolour and very different from the oil painting technique he had previously employed.

When he eventually moved into his house he ensured that it stayed natural, there were no clipped hedges, no fancy parterres, no rectangular borders all containing one sort of flower; his garden had masses of flowers of all sorts jumbled up, informal beds, simple gravel paths winding around trees and unclipped bushes, it was a near to nature as one can get whilst at the same time adding the beauty that flowers and bushes can bring.

Larsson continued to paint out of doors all his life and painted his surroundings – his children, his house, nature, his garden.

He demonstrated, very effectively  that you have no need to travel the world or constantly search for happiness, it is at home.

Illustrating the need to ‘squash the big I am

At the age of thirteen, Larssen’s teacher Jacobsen, at the school for poor children urged him to apply to the "principskola" of the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, and he was admitted. During his first years there, Larsson felt socially inferior, confused, and shy.

carpenter hellbergs children

In 1869, at the age of sixteen, he was promoted to the "antique school" of the same academy. There Larsson gained confidence, but he never forgot what it was like to be treated as an inferior simply because of one’s background.

In order to improve his circumstances, Larsson worked as a caricaturist for the humorous paper Kasper and as a graphic artist for the newspaper Ny Illustrerad Tidning. His annual wages were sufficient to allow him to help support his parents financially.  After several years working as an illustrator of books, magazines, and newspapers, Larsson moved to Paris in 1877, where he spent several frustrating years as a hardworking artist without any success.

But it taught him the value of humility.  In every painting of Larssen’s you see people with all sorts of occupations, mixing and being sociable on equal terms.  There is no distinction in terms of their clothes, there is no difference in terms of where they sit at table or what they are given to eat, or how they are treated.  Some say that this was the start of the socialist ideals that Scandinavia is so well known for, but for Larssen this was a Christian not a socialist ideal.  In the four Gospels, Jesus continually emphasises the need to treat all people as equals, Larssen simply decided to enact the ideals.

Showing his belief in the spiritual world / Preserving festivals and ceremonial events

Sankta Birgitta

We have already seen the influence of Christianity in Larssen’s moral values, but he also had a side which was equally fascinating - a deep and abiding fondness for the myths and sagas of spiritual Sweden.

Christianity is in many ways an imposition upon Sweden’s culture.  Many deeply held beliefs were crushed under the yoke of this institutionalised religion, imported from a far off land.  But the moral lessons provided by Jesus’s teachings were important to the advance of all of Europe, what is perhaps entirely wrong is that the ‘missionaries’ who came to bring the message applied a brutality in their missionary work which Jesus himself would have found breathtakingly unacceptable. 

Larsson appears to have recognised this dilemma and held fast to all the myths and legends, festivals and ceremonies that defined his culture, whilst embracing the positive message of love that Jesus preached.  His paintings are full of festivals, festivals that could be mistaken for Christian celebrations, but as we know the early missionaries combined old festivals with events in Jesus’s life and thus ensured that the new religion took a hold. 

This enacting of ceremony and preservation of values gave Sweden back its identity.  It helped to redefine the nation in the original mould.  Sweden wasn’t some Germanic offshoot with its baroque furniture and heavy opera and endless philosophy, it was a nation of simplicity and Light founded on spiritual values, not Lutheran religious ones.

Carl Larsson considered his monumental works, such as his frescos in schools, museums and other public buildings, to be his most important works. His last monumental work, Midvinterblot (Midwinter Sacrifice), a 6-by-14-metre (20 ft × 46 ft) oil painting completed in 1915, had been commissioned for a wall in the National Museum in Stockholm (which already had several of his frescos adorning its walls). However, upon completion, it was rejected by the board of the museum. The fresco depicts the blót of King Domalde at the Temple of Uppsala. It is an exceptionally important fresco.

It is full of symbolism.  It is also an incredibly striking and beautiful painting. 

"The fate of Midvinterblot broke me! This I admit with a dark anger. And still, it was probably the best thing that could have happened, because my intuition tells me – once again! – that this painting, with all its weaknesses, will one day, when I'm gone, be honoured with a far better placement."

Death

Although he appears not to have realised it, Larsson in later years was suffering from atherosclerosis. While working on the large decoration for the vestibule of the Nationalmuseum, Midvinterblot, for example, Larsson experienced the onset of an eye problem and a worsening of his frequent headaches.  Headaches can be caused by stress, but they can also be caused by hypoxia caused by the heart not being able to pump enough oxygen to the brain.  After suffering a mild stroke in January 1919, he spent his remaining time completing his memoirs. He died in Falun on 22 January 1919.

References

Larssen - self portrait

Paintings

Some of Carl Larsson's paintings have been used in this entry, however, we have also provided observations.  In addition to his paintings we have added a number of Swedish poems to the observations from poets and writers such as Harry Martinson, Karl Vennberg, Pär Lagerkvist, Gunnar Ekelöf , Frans Michael Franzén and a number from Erik Johan Stagnelius.  

Erik Johan Stagnelius  was born October 14, 1793 in Gärdslösa, on the island Öland, Sweden, and died on April 3, 1823 in Stockholm.  His father was a vicar on Öland, later on bishop in Kalmar on the nearby main land.  Stagnelius showed a natural gift for poetic writing from early childhood. He was notably gloomy and lived alone for most of his life.  But his poetry is stunningly beautiful.   A woman who knew him, said "where in this shabby person lies the beauty which his poetry expresses?".
He had only a few friends, and no female companionship. When he died in Stockholm at the age of 29, no relatives were present at the funeral.  The bulk of his poetry was found in a sack in his shabby apartment, after his death. They were almost sent to be burnt, but were instead kept, and are appreciated today for their ‘mystic/spiritual qualities’.
“His mystical lyrics, entitled  Liljor i Saron (Lilies in Sharon; 1820), and his sonnets, which are best read in Swedish, may be recommended as among the most delicate products of the Scandinavian mind.”

The translations are by John Irons.

Bibliography

  • 1895: De mina. (My Loved Ones)
  • 1899: Ett hem (A Home)
  • 1902: Larssons (The Larssons)
  • 1906: Spadarfvet - mitt lilla lantbruk (A Farm)
  • 1910: Åt solsidan (On the Sunny Side)
  • 1913: Andras barn (Other People's Children)
  • 1931: Jag (I, Carl Larsson) (autobiography)

Observations

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