American Flowering: Norwegian Tradition Meets Contemporary Self-Expression in Rosemaling

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American Flowering: Norwegian Tradition Meets Contemporary Self-Expression in Rosemaling

by Nils Ellingsgard 32



t has been almost 35 years since I first came to Vesterheim. Marion Nelson invited me to demonstrate rosemaling during Nordic Fest in 1969, and then teach Hallingdal-style rosemaling for the three weeks afterward. I have visited America about 25 times since then, always with Decorah as my most important destination. My connection with America has added great meaning to my life. I have seen and learned a lot, and I have made many good friends there. I also feel that it has been a great benefit to my own painting, because teaching is a good way to learn. What surprised me most was the enormous interest I encountered in the classes at Vesterheim. If possible, it was even greater than in Norway, where rosemaling began to flourish as a hobby starting around 1950. This new phenomenon in Norway and America should be viewed against the backdrop of an improved standard of living that afforded people more spare time, and as a natural reaction to all of the modern standardization and mass production. Furthermore, it is related to a deep human desire to create. In Norway, courses in rosemaling sprang up everywhere, both in cities and rural districts. This folkart painting is no longer just a rural phenomenon, like it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some years before I first visited Vesterheim, I taught rosemaling in Oslo during the winter months. Most of the students were born in the city, and they came from all levels of society. Some Norwegian arts-and-crafts circles criticized these courses, complaining that they were too short to give the students a basic knowledge of craft and color, and that the result would be bad products on the market.

Ethel Kvalheim has enjoyed a long and successful career as a rosemaler. Through study of other painters and rosemaling precedents, she has developed her personal style within the tradition.

Hanging cupboard, Ethel Kvalheim, Stoughton, Wisconsin, 1980.

This arguably turned out to be true, especially in the period before 1980, but now there seems to be increased general interest in the quality of our traditional folk art. A very positive and important aspect of these courses is the vigorous growth in their popularity. Many people have acquired a sufficiently thorough training to choose rosemaling as a means of expression and even as a way to earn their livelihood. I think we have seen a similar development in American rosemaling. In my first class at Vesterheim, I was deeply impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and their willingness to learn, and the class stimulated its teacher, too. Often it is difficult in a big class to give each student the necessary individual attention, but everyone understood that learning rosemaling can be a long and difficult process — from basic drawings and single brush strokes to a completed composition in beautiful harmonic colors. All of us had something to learn every day. Not only was it necessary that the brush strokes have a nice form, but attention also had to be paid to the intervals — the empty spaces in between the main forms. I recommended that the students bring a sketch book to make notes in, draw in pencil, practice brush strokes, and even create small compositions in color. Correcting with a pencil in the sketch book was a great way to remember later. Many of the students wanted patterns to follow as templates. Such patterns are quite unusual in Norwegian rosemaling, and I was doubtful about their use. However, I thought perhaps it might be helpful in the early stages of painting to give ideas for compositions, so I made several sets of patterns in different styles and I hope it was helpful. In the same way I let the students copy old rosemaling from photos I brought with me.

With few colors, this bowl still achieves a striking design.

1980.70.1—Gift of the artist.

Bowl, painter unknown, Hallingdal, Norway, dated 1878. 1985.95.2—Museum purchase. Vol. 2, No. 1 2004


Though rosemaling is most often associated with stylized flowers and plant forms, human figures also appear in stylized form on many early Norwegian examples.

Trunk, painter unknown, Hol, Hallingdal, Norway, dated 1787. LC 83, Luther College Collection.

Copying is a good way to learn, and I think most of the clever rosemalers have learned this way. Eventually they leave the models behind and find a personal style and character. An original composition painted freehand is a way to communicate personal feelings, an important criterion for all kinds of artistic expression. Color and chromatology are almost more important than form and technique. Colors have to harmonize, tuned like the strings on a violin. A technically clever violinist will not play well if his instrument is out of tune. It is the same thing in painting. It does not help much that an ornament is technically perfect if the colors are incorrect. In this, the old advice is the best advice: Use few colors in your composition. Two, three, or four colors are generally enough. I advise my students to mix a small spot of each color side by side on the actual background, tuning them together — and not only the main colors, but also a darker or lighter value of each. Think in color values rather than in light and shade. Rosemaling is mainly a surface art. We have to be careful with plastic modeling in highlight and shading. 34

Vesterheim students often asked, “Is it correct to mix elements from several regional styles, such as Telemark and Hallingdal?” I think some may disagree, but my answer is yes, if the result is successful. We often hear about the American melting pot, with elements of many ethnic cultures. Why should rosemaling be an exception? We have to remember that Norwegian rosemaling began as a mixture of several European styles that came to Norway during the period from about 1650 to 1820. Decorative painting was first used in the churches in the late 1600s, and church art was an exceedingly important source of inspiration for the rural artist during the Renaissance, baroque, rococo, and neo-classical periods. Changing styles and forms also found other routes into rural art, through printed patterns, picture books, stove panels, and pottery (faience). The rural painter had a free and informal attitude toward these models, using stylistic elements according to personal interpretation


and needs, without any of the slavish imitation in which city painters were trained. Shapes from different styles and periods, painted freehand, were used side by side, or combined according to the painter’s own taste and imagination. From this came a spontaneous and unconventional expression that gave the rustic art very special and characteristic values. Various local styles developed from around 1800. Rural painters often were itinerant, carrying stylistic influences from one place to another. To a certain degree we can talk about the mixing of local styles already in the classical period. Most rosemalers today are still working in local styles, and many are able to give them a personal character. Those who prefer to experiment freely have an opportunity to show their imagination more. Norwegian rosemaling is primarily an ornamental decorative art. In the entire history of this art form, the emphasis has been stylized plant motifs, and in this, rosemaling has reached its highest level. But rosemaling also includes other types of motifs, including different kinds of free marbleizing, geometrical patterns, calligraphy, symbolic motifs, and last but not least, pictorial motifs with figures and stylized scenery. Some students in my classes

were interested in this repertoire of motifs and other decorative forms. Marbleizing, as the name suggests, imitates the patterns in different types of marble. In old rosemaling, this technique became almost entirely divorced from any natural resemblance, and produced a number of stylistic variants and fanciful decorative shapes. In class, we experimented with colors in many combinations, but mostly in shades of blue and white, which are the most common — fascinating play, with endless possibilities in technique, form, and color. Glazing, a different technique, has a long tradition in folk art. For example, krilling was done with dark transparent color on a light undercoating, and used either as a background for rosemaling, or alone on frames, moldings, or door panels. We also spent some class time on pictorial motifs used in rosemaling. Pictorial motifs from the classical period are sometimes very simply and naively painted, but often with a wonderful charm. In my view figures and other pictures should be stylized in one way or another instead of realistically painted. They should fit the ornament style. Vesterheim Museum, with its great collection of Norwegian folk art, is an excellent place for courses in rosemaling. Over the years, the museum has made major

Plate, painted by Nils Ellingsgard while teaching at Vesterheim, 1985. 1988.108.1—Museum purchase.

Unlike the acanthus-inspired painting of Telemark and other regions, Vest-Agder rosemaling often features symmetrical floral designs.

Trunk, painted by Ivar or Kjetil Urdal, carved by Vorm Mjaavatn,Vest-Agder, Norway, dated 1837. 1973.8.62—Gift of Augsburg College.

Vol. 2, No. 1 2004


Geometric designs have a long tradition in Norwegian art, as seen in this ale bowl that predates the emergence of rosemaling.

Bowl, painter unknown, Nordfjord, Norway, dated 1751. 2001.45.1—Gift of Marguerite Evenrud Drake.

Spouted tankard, painted by Herbrand Sata, Hallingdal, Norway, dated 1804. LC 807, Luther College Collection.

contributions to Norwegian folk art through its classes, competitions, and exhibitions. Now with the symposium The Art of Rosemaling: Tradition Meets the Creative Mind, it is about to do so again. About the Author Nils Ellingsgard was born in 1928, in Hallingdal, Norway. He has become one of Norway’s foremost decorative painters and one of the best-known historians of Norwegian rosemaling. Today he works full-time as an artist and an illustrator. He is best known for rosemaling in the Hallingdal style and was one of the first Norwegian painters to come to America to teach American painters at Vesterheim, first teaching in 1969. He has helped a number of his students, both in Norway and America, become masters of the style.


Ellingsgard and his talents have had a substantial impact on other rosemaling styles, too — most notably the Aadnes style. In recent years, he has introduced and established this as a standard style in rosemaling. He has spent many years researching the Norwegian rosemaling brought to America by immigrants. His research into the early development of rosemaling in Norway has generated many of the most important published references on the subject. Ellingsgard’s publications include: Norske Rosemaling: Dekorativ maling i folkekunsten (Norwegian Rosemaling: Decorative Painting in Folk Art), Norwegian Rose Painting in America: What the Immigrants Brought, Rosemaling i Valdres (Rosemaling in Valdres), Rosemaling i Vest-Agder (Rosemaling in VestAdger), Norsk Rosemaling (Norwegian Rosemaling), Hallingdal i Biletkunsten, and Rosemaling i Hallingdal (Rosemaling in Hallgindal). Vesterheim

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