Erik Werenskiold was a prominent figure in Norwegian art and culture from the late 1870s and well into the twentieth century, first as an illustrator of folktales and a naturalist and subsequently as a leading member of the patriotic Lysaker circle.
Ever since its inaugural showing at the Autumn Exhibition in 1885, Peasant Burial has been regarded as a principal work in Norwegian art. The painting won great acclaim and was acquired the same autumn by the National Gallery.
Werenskiold hit upon the motif during an expedition to Gudbrandsdalen a few years beforehand, while the painting itself was executed over the span of three summers in Gvarv in Telemark. It seems likely that it was mostly painted outdoors, since it evinces the bright lighting and colouring of plein-air painting. Painting outdoors was a key element of the naturalist’s programme, where truth challenged beauty as an artistic ideal. The picture raises several questions. Who is the deceased? Why is only one woman present? Who is the man with the book? And why is there a stick in the mound of earth? The picture shows a funeral where a school teacher or sexton stands in place of the priest. In the countryside it sometimes happened that provisional rites had to be performed, and a stick was inserted into the grave so that the priest could sprinkle earth on the mound at a later date.
It is summer, the sun is scorching and it is hot. The depiction evinces the brightness of daylight and is true to nature, even as it employs an array of artistic effects, from the finely detailed landscape in the background to the broad, sweeping brushstrokes used for the burial mound itself.
Text: Øystein Ustvedt
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0