Otto Hesselbom

Otto Hesselbom
(Ånimskog, Dalsland, Sweden 1848 - 1913 Säffle, Värmland)

‘Vårt land’ – Our Country, 1903

Oil on canvas, 39 x 95 cm
Signed and dated lower right O. Hesselbom 1903.

Otto and Beda Löfberg, Malmö (1942);
thence by descent.

Christian Faerber, Konst i svenska hem: målningar och skulpturer från 1800 till våra dagar, IX, Gothenborg 1942, p. 474.


Otto Hesselbom ranks as one of Sweden’s leading National Romantic painters.1 He began his training at the Stockholm School of Art and Design in 1868 but financial difficulties prevented him from completing his studies. For a time he toured Sweden as an itinerant preacher, passing through remote, largely untamed tracts of countryside. His paintings represent a stylized image of the Nordic landscape, reshaped as an integral constituent of national identity. In his choice of motifs he repeatedly turned to the coastal province of Dalsland where he had spent his childhood, depicting sweeping panoramic views of the vast mountain ranges and extensive forests of the North, where rivers and lakes gleam in the soft light of dawn and dusk. In his paintings the grandeur of landscape functions as a reminder of its divine creator. Hesselbom’s work needs to be seen in the context of a national awakening in the countries of the North. Norway was recognized as an independent kingdom in 1905 and Finland gained independence from Russia in 1917. In the North, national tradition is not rooted solely in classical antiquity, as in central Europe – it is also rooted in Nordic legend and ancient cults.

The present painting bears the date 1903. A larger-format, similarly titled version executed a year earlier is now in the collection of the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.2 Vårt Land has been described as ‘the epitome of Swedish landscape’.3 The title is taken from a collection of epic poems by J. L. Runeberg (1804-77) narrating the war of 1808-9. Runeberg was the national poet of Finland and wrote in Swedish. The collection of poems is titled Fänrik Ståls Sägner (The Tales of Ensign Stål). It was first published in 1848 (Part 1) and 1860 (Part 2) and became something of a National Romantic symbol. The Swedish-Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905) produced a series of illustrations for the poems in around 1900. Vårt land is now the National Anthem of Finland. Its first stanza reads (in Swedish):

Vårt land, vårt land, vårt fosterland,
Ljud högt, o dyra ord!
Ej lyfts en höjd mot himlens rand,
Ej sänks en dal, ej sköljs en strand,
Mer älskad än vår bygd i nord,
Än våra fäders jord.

Our land, our land, our fatherland,
Sound loud, O name of worth!
No mount that meets the heaven's band,
No hidden vale, no wave-washed strand,
Is loved, as is our native North,
Our own forefathers’ earth.

Hesselbom visited Berlin in 1896 where he would almost certainly have come into contact with the ornamental aesthetic of Jugendstil. Its influence is evident in the present painting. The choice of an aerial perspective heightens the panoramic effect. A small, stylized cluster of trees on raised ground at the left edge of the image accentuates the different pictorial planes. Hesselbom handles the motif with remarkable formal economy in conjunction with a rich, expansive palette. Evocative lighting effects capture the warm glow of a northern summer evening. A low band of cloud suffused with shades of pink from the setting sun leaves a silvery gleam on the stretch of still water. The river and lake are embedded in a dark mass of largely unpopulated forest. Only on second glance does the observer spot a thin plume of smoke and a solitary farmstead – human beings are accorded a modest place in this majestic landscape.

Hesselbom grew up in the province of Dalsland on the west coast of Sweden north of Gothenburg. He moved to Stockholm in 1868 to train at the University of Arts, Crafts and Design. After a period as an itinerant preacher he returned to Stockholm to focus on an artistic career. He enrolled at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1888 and completed his studies in 1895. He first exhibited one of his paintings in 1896 in Berlin. He settled in Säffle in the province of Värmland, near his home province of Dalsland, in 1906.

1 See A Mirror of Nature. Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910, exhib. cat., Helsinki, The Ateneum Art Museum; Stockholm, Nationalmuseum; Oslo, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design; Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2006-7, p. 280.

2 Otto Hesselbom,Vårt land. Motiv från Dalsland, 1902, oil on canvas, 126 x 248 cm, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, inv. NM 1704.

3 Michelle Facos, Nationalism and the Nordic Imagination. Swedish Art of the 1890s, Berkeley 1998, p. 188.

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