Contributed research and text for the exhibition, Seen in the Mirror: Things from the Cartin Collection, at David Zwirner Gallery, 2021

Factsheet for Peder Balke, Fra Nordkapp, 1853:

Nearly lost to obscurity, the nineteenth-century Norwegian landscape painter Peder Balke (1804–1887) only recently became resurrected as an important figure of Northern Romanticism. Although his radical political convictions eventually ended his artistic career, his idiosyncratic methods and style situated him at the forefront of a then burgeoning Nordic modernism.

Balke was born on the small agrarian island of Helgøya, Norway, to an impoverished working-class family. Before studying under the Romantic painter Johan Christian Dahl, Balke began his career as a house painter, decorating interiors with faux marbling and stencils. He translated these methods to his easel painting, first putting down a smooth, hard base of white paint and then adding a wet layer of dye that he worked with a sponge, felt, fingers, or a coarse brush. Although dismissed as a shabby way of painting by his contemporaries, this innovative technique allows the white background to shine through, creating the illusion of depth that would become the hallmark of Balke’s striking compositions.

Perhaps more formative than his academic training was his intimate contact with nature. Balke was the first Norwegian artist to sail north, navigating the icy Barents Sea hundreds of miles past the Arctic Circle, making him also the first artist to depict these landscapes. Balke would undertake numerous voyages, oftentimes on foot, along the Norwegian coast, seeking to both uncover and experience the unsettling presence of the Romantic sublime firsthand. His landscapes effectively metabolized these experiences into poetic visions, fusing observation with intense emotional expression. Although greatly influenced by Caspar David Friedrich, whom he met in Dresden during his travels, Balke’s paintings differed in their more mannered style, oftentimes favoring abstracted forms over more mimetic renderings. Nevertheless, the influence of Friedrich and Dahl is evident in Balke’s preference for symmetrical compositions and a monochrome palette as well as in the view of nature as a symbol of the sublime.

The present work depicts the North Cape in northern Norway, a volcanic rock plateau rising one thousand feet above sea level. Balke visited the North Cape only once, in 1832, but his memory of the experience became a source of inspiration for the rest of his lifetime. By 1853, the landscape—at the time believed to be the northernmost point in Europe—had become a signature image to which Balke returned to again and again. This characteristic nocturnal seascape offers a dramatic moonlit view of the landmass and the sea, along with scattered figures and detailed ships. Balke’s rich palette, ranging from dark blue to burnt umber, highlights the juxtaposition between light and shadow, especially evident in the semitranslucent ice coating the rock. A canny use of materials and texture is exemplary of Balke’s mature style: the flat sky smoothly coats the paper support, while the dark-gray jutting rock is rendered with visible brushstrokes and the surface of the water includes protruding areas of impasto. Describing an earlier North Cape painting exhibited in Oslo in the fall of 1848, a critic wrote that it “is deserving of interest on account of the nature of the subject, but also because of the particularity of the perception of the chosen moment. The dark precipice, protruding into the bright light of the rising moon, with its steep drop and the horizontal outline of its plateau at the foot of which the polar sea is quietly rocking, does not fail to affect the imagination of the spectator.”