Theodor Kittelsen grew up under straightened circumstances in the coastal town of Kragerø; he received an inadequate education and because of the family’s economic hardships the path to a career as an artist was far from easy. As a youth he worked among other things as a watchmaker’s apprentice but his artistic talent was discovered early. In 1874 well-to-do townsmen provided the 17-year-old Kittelsen with the opportunity to travel to Christiania (now Oslo) to study at Wilhelm von Hanno’s drawing school and the Royal College of Art and Design.

After two years in the capital Kittelsen’s sponsors felt that he should continue his studies in Munich, the major art metropolis of that time. He remained here between three and four years. He studied at the city’s art academy and among his close friends were the Norwegian artists Erik Werenskiold, Christian Skredsvig and Eilif Petersen, but the artistic benefits of his stay there were rather sparse. The sombre, naturalistic ideals of the times were unsuited to Kittelsen’s fanciful, imaginative style. There is little doubt, however, that Kittelsen strove persistently to adapt and his painting Strike (1879) is considered to be the first Norwegian example of tendentious painting.

The economic support from home ceased when his student years in Munich were over and Kittelsen was forced to manage on his own. Although his living circumstances were considerably more difficult, the beginning of the 1880s was important in a purely artistic sense; thanks to a warm recommendation from Erik Werenskiold, Kittelsen was hired to illustrate folk tales for P. Chr. Asbjørnsen. It was the beginning of a nearly 30-year long and very productive collaboration with Asbjørnsen and Moe.

At this time Kittelsen still had an ambition of becoming a genre painter and with the help of a grant he travelled to Paris (1882–83), and then returned to Munich at his own expense (1883–87). In 1887 he returned home to Norway for good, however, and settled in Lofoten for almost two years. This period was extremely productive. The drawings that he made during these years are considered by many to represent a breakthrough. Accompanied by his own lyrical prose the drawings were published in Fra Lofoten (1890) Fra Lofoten II (1891) and Troldskap (1892).

The spring of 1889 was a significant time in Kittelsen’s life; he met the 11-year younger Inga Dahl, whom he soon married. After having lived for a time in Hvitsten, they moved to Sole in Eggedal before settling down in Lauvlia in Sigdal in 1899. Here Kittelsen created some of his most famous pictures, among them The Plague ravages the countryside and The Water Sprite as a white horse. Unfortunately, due to their extremely poor financial situation, the family was forced to leave their home in 1910 and he spent the last years of his life in Kristiania and at Jeløya near Moss.

Theodor Kittelsen died in 1914 barely 57 years old.

Both his childhood home in Kragerø and the house in Lauvlia are open to the public today.

OWG

In the Waiting Room

Oil on canvas, 1882, 80x66cm, Th. Kittelsen museet

As an artist of fantasy and fairytales, Theodor Kittelsen (1857–1914) is unsurpassed in Norwegian art history. He was known in particular as a brilliant draughtsman and pastel artist and his beloved illustrations of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s folktales hold a unique position in his artistic production. Kittelsen often combined original and burlesque representations of mythical characters from legends and fairytales with depictions of evocative landscapes. He was an exceptionally complex artist whose representations range from the outrageously fantastic and grotesque to the directly crude, and on the other hand, from the sentimental and saccharine to the distinctly emotive and subtly poetic. 

Many of Kittelsen’s pictures have become icons in the national ‘cultural heritage’ of Norway. You won’t find a Norwegian who isn’t familiar with the menacing yet spellbinding The Water Sprite or The White Horse with its ‘Munch’ column of moonlight, the infinite quiet in It Snows and Snows and Bullfinch on a Twig with Hoarfrost, not to mention the bewitching Soria Moria

In the Waiting Room, on the other hand, represents a totally different side of Kittelsen’s work. Although this picture can be considered one of Kittelsen’s few convincing oil paintings, it is not so difficult to understand the judgement passed by art history that he never became conversant in the oil medium. The motif is presented in a sober and prosaic manner and in keeping with the hardboiled naturalism that in many ways characterised the art of the 1870s and 80s. This style of painting was exceptionally unsuited to Kittelsen’s fanciful idiom, yet he tried his best to live up to the ideals of the times. His painting Strike (1879), for instance, is considered an important work in Norwegian art, not because of its painterly qualities, but as the first example of tendentious painting.

In the Waiting Room was painted during a sojourn in Paris in the winter of 1883, but there is little evidence that the artist was able to adapt to contemporary French art. There is something heavy-handed in the presentation: the model sits stiffly erect in a chair that is positioned up against the wall. She is well-dressed, including hat and gloves, and her hands are carefully folded on her lap holding a little bouquet of flowers. With the exception of her gaze, which for some reason is turned to the side (is she reluctant to meet the gaze of the viewer?), the picture is characterised by a severe frontal perspective. As motif, the picture can been seen in connection with the sophisticated portrait painting of the times, but more than anything it has clear references to the documentary conventions of established photography.

In the literature on Kittelsen this painting has been given the more neutral title Study, but if we trace it back to the large Kittelsen exhibition at the Kristiania Art Association in 1911, when the artist was still living, it was entitled In the Waiting Room. We have no idea what type of “waiting room” it was – was she waiting for a train … for a friend … or perhaps the police medical practitioner? Based on the picture’s title and the artist’s expressed social commitment, the young woman is perhaps a cocotte (they were often used as models in Paris at that time), and the painting can conceivably be perceived as a commentary on the social conditions of prostitutes. In that case In the Waiting Room pre-dates Christian Krohg’s socially committed Albertine paintings that were executed somewhat later in the 1880s.

OWG

På vei til Gilde i Troldslottet

Mixed media on paper, 1903, 47,5 x 62 cm, Th. Kittelsen museet

Dompap. Morgengry

Mixed media on paper, 1902, 67 x 45 cm, Th. Kittelsen museet