The collection of old masters and modern art at the National Museum is one of the largest collections in Scandinavia. It consists of 4,500 paintings and 900 sculptures from antiquity until approximately 1945 as well as 50,000 works on paper (20,000 drawings and 30,000 graphic works) from the middle ages until today. The collection has also a large range of historical plaster casts from antiquity up to the renaissance.
Its central part is the most comprehensive collection of Norwegian art from the late 18th century until the end of World War II. It contains many iconic works, like the first painted version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream from 1893. Furthermore the collection deals not only with important chapters of the preceding art history but also with parallel developments in the northern countries and in Europe, so that Norwegian art can always be seen and experienced in context with other tendencies.
The only comprehensive Norwegian collection of antique sculptures contains mainly roman copies of Greek art from the archaic to the hellenistic period as well as a series of portraits of Roman emperors. A small but first class collection of Russian icons focused on the Novgorod School links antique forms to renaissance iconography. Here the collection has a first highlight in a large assortment of graphic works by Albrecht Dürer and a small group of works by Lukas Cranach the Elder and his workshop. Important here is The Golden Age, one of his main works.
Baroque art is represented not only by paintings, but also by a large number of drawings and graphic works, mainly by Dutch and Flemish artists. Many graphic works by Rembrandt van Rijn, a vedute by Jan van der Heyden, or still lives by Baltasar van der Ast and portraits by Anthon van Dyck give an exemplary survey of central genres of the 17th century. A painting by El Greco and a representative group of Italian baroque drawings complete this section.
While European art of the 18th century is only represented by a few examples, Norwegian and international art from the beginning of the 19th century is presented in large variety. This is no coincidence, since the implementation of the Norwegian constitution in 1814 marks the beginning of an independent Norwegian art history in modern times. Furthermore, the collection has constantly been enlarged ever since.
Many main works by the Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl – represented by 147 paintings and 1500 works on paper – by Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, but also important works by Jens Juel, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Caspar David Friedrich, Gustave Carus, Eugène Delacroix and Gustave Courbet show the broad range of romantic tendencies during the first half of the 19th century. An impressive amount of Goya-prints has to be mentioned as well.
Another highlight within the collection is the large range of works from Norwegian national romanticism from the influential Norwegian artist colonies in Dresden, Düsseldorf, Karlsruhe or Munich from about 1840 up until 1870. Most important here is the iconic painting Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord by Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude, a painting many Norwegians can identify with even today.
The following general trend towards France is represented by a first class selection of French impressionists and neo-impressionists. Important works in this selection by Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin as well as works on paper by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec can be presented in a dialogue with their Norwegian contemporaries between realism, neo-impressionism and symbolism. Here the key works are by Christian Krohg, Harriet Backer and Erik Werenskiold as well as by leading Danish and Swedish artists. The National Museum has a large number of important Norwegian graphic works from 1870 until 1910, among them many illustrations of Norwegian fairy tales.
The works by Edvard Munch can not be seen independently from these predecessors and contemporaries. His 58 paintings and 175 works on paper can be regarded as the most important part of the collection of modern art. The early versions of the famous paintings The Scream, Madonna, The Sick Child, Dance of Life and Puberty are outstanding masterpieces, not only in Norwegian art but also in modern art as a whole. Parallel to Munch’s later work the collection offers a comprehensive survey of his Norwegian contemporaries in the early 20th century like Harald Sohlberg, Henrik Sørensen, Ludvig Karsten and the sculptor Gustav Vigeland. Munch’s influence on German expressionism can be demonstrated by means of important oil paintings and graphic works by for example Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Emil Nolde.
A second, comprehensive chapter with paintings by – among others – Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso, offers a background for the development of Norwegian art after 1914. Many main works by the so called Matisse pupils, by Norwegian cubists as well as by politically motivated artists offer a broad survey of Norwegian art history between the two World Wars. The phenomenon of public art during this time is for example represented by the artists of the so called Fresco-period.
The smooth transition from modern to contemporary art is marked by central works originating in different tendencies of modernism in Norwegian art during the 1930s and 1940s. Most important among those are mixed media works by Sigurd Winge and Olav Strømme, Gert Jynge’s expressive figurative paintings and the politically committed art of Arne Ekeland, not to mention the nearly complete graphic works of Rolf Nesch.
A collection is a growing organism gaining its quality and character mainly by means of individual points of focus. The Collection of Old Masters and Modern Art at the National Museum, which is constantly being enlarged, has its focus on landscapes and the close relation of man and nature from romanticism via realism up to expressive abstractionism. Like no other collection the works of old and modern art represent Norwegian art and its dialogue with international developments that influenced the expression of Norwegian artists.
Director of Old Masters and Modern Art