On 11 December 2019, a new world auction record was made for a work by Harald Sohlberg. Works by this contemporary of Edvard Munch are now highly prized on the international art market, as illustrated by the events at Sotheby’s London: Sohlberg’s 1898 painting Ripe Fields (Modner Jorder), a luminous depiction of a farm near Oslo, sold for £2.34 million.
The man responsible for bringing the work to auction was Richard Lowkes, a specialist in Scandinavian paintings in Sotheby’s 19th Century Pictures Department. “Standing in front of a great painting by Sohlberg like Ripe Fields is almost like standing in front of an altarpiece,” Lowkes observes. “The painting is inspired by a powerful concept of nature which Sohlberg wants you to also feel awed by as he did.”
In the wake of this auction success, Lowkes talked to Norwegian Arts about the market for Norwegian paintings and how the Nordic light was caught on canvas at the turn of the century.
Can you tell us a little about what you do at Sotheby’s and how Norway fits into the picture?
I’m a specialist in 19th Century European Paintings at Sotheby’s in London. We’re a small team working in a diverse field – in the last twelve months in London alone we have sold two rare paintings by the founder of German Romanticism Caspar David Friedrich, had a major sale from the Najd Collection of Orientalist paintings, which saw 18 artist records and 9 works sold for over £1 million each, and set a new record for the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
While we include works by artists from almost every country in Europe, my focus is more on northern European art, and especially Scandinavia. As well as our sales in London, we also have auctions in Paris and New York, so we’re always in touch with both potential buyers and sellers. In each auction some consignments will have come in from sellers we have known for several years, but other consignments start with a phone call or email just a few months beforehand. Norwegian clients are active in our London sales as both buyers and sellers.
Why is Harald Sohlberg’s Ripe Fields such an important Norwegian painting?
Sohlberg himself clearly thought it was important – it is the background of the self-portrait he painted in Paris in 1896. The art world in his day agreed, and the painting was widely exhibited in Sohlberg’s lifetime, across Scandinavia but also Vienna, San Francisco, and London. Ripe Fields even hung to the right of Winter Night in the Mountains at the 1914 Jubilee Exhibition in Oslo. More recently it was one of five Sohlbergs in the Dreams of a Summer Night exhibition of Nordic art at the Hayward gallery in 1986, and then a highlight in the travelling Sohlberg retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery and Wiesbaden in 2019.
I think of Ripe Fields as the painting where you see Sohlberg finding his own distinctive artistic voice. The seed for the painting was sown on the artist’s trip to Rotnes farm in Nittedal in 1891, and it germinated through the 1890s, the years when Sohlberg won success and recognition and travelled abroad. It is a bold and ambitious painting, and a magnificent example of the artist’s glowing, enamel-like colours and skill at rendering both distant mountains and tiniest leaf in the foreground. The painting vividly conveys Sohlberg’s love of the Norwegian landscape – perhaps the fleeting quality of this moment of high summer makes his painting all the more intense.
What are the key Norwegian artists in terms of the art market?
Edvard Munch of course, both for his paintings and prints, Harald Sohlberg, Peder Balke, Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley, Nikolai Astrup and Frits Thaulow. These are all artists we have sold in our auctions. Most have also had recent museum exposure in the UK.
Is there a 19th-century Nordic aesthetic in regard to painting?
The creativity in Norway, and the Nordics generally, around 1900 is staggering – not just in painting, but also music and literature. Nordic artists saw nature with fresh eyes, and Norwegian and Finnish artists especially felt a duty to invent a new way of seeing their countries, which were moving towards independence. At the same time Nordic art cannot be dismissed as simply nationalistic – Nordic artists travelled to Germany and later Paris, absorbing diverse influences from German Romantic art to the Synthetism of Paul Gauguin, and indeed Japanese art. For collectors and art lovers today, I think Nordic art speaks to modern concerns – their respect and awe before nature – and there is a mindfulness or ‘slow art’ quality in work by Harald Sohlberg or Vilhelm Hammershøi.
What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?
The international aspect of the artists we sell and the buyers and sellers we work with. When we are researching paintings, we look closely at the context in which they were made and first seen, but never lose sight of today’s tastes and demand from collectors. It is satisfying when a good painting we had believed in from the beginning gets a strong response from the market.
What surprises you about Norwegian paintings?
How Norwegian artists remain relatively unknown. While Sohlberg may never be as famous as Edvard Munch, there are encouraging signs that Munch’s contemporaries and compatriots are stepping out of his shadow.
Sotheby’s 19th Century European Paintings sales are held in London twice a year
Top photo: Richard Lowkes viewing Harald Sohlberg’s Ripe Fields at Sotheby’s London