“Father of the Trolls” - the Art of Theodor Kittelsen

27 April 1857, the Norwegian artist Theodor Severin Kittelsen was born in the Telemark coastal town of Kragerø.

“What appeals to me are the mysterious, romantic, and magnificent aspects of our scenery, but if I cannot henceforth combine this with a wholesome study of Nature I´m afraid I´m bound to stagnate. It is becoming clearer and clearer to me what I have to do, and I have had more ideas - but I must, I must get home, otherwise it won´t work.” (Theodor Kittelsen)

Theodor Kittelsen: "Troll at the Karl Johan Square" (1892)

 art did not just begin with Edvard Munch. In 1886, though, when his “Sick Child” was exhibited for the first time in Kristiana, as Oslo was known back then, it meant a major breakthrough, though, not only for the artist but for the Norwegian art as well. And, naturally, the piece drew a "a veritable storm of protest and indignation" from the Scowegian spectators and critics just as most major works from Munch’s colleagues in France and the German speaking states did when the art –isms of dawning modernity finally took root and flourished. With Munch, Norway had finally arrived on the late 19th century’s international art scene. Admittedly, Norway had to catch up a bit since the Middle Ages, on national identity as well as on how to artistically express the growing Norwegian self-awareness. When the country finally became independent from her big brother Denmark in 1814, the place had been a colonial backwater for more than 400 years. Without any art patrons or art schools to speak of. The few whose artistic talent was recognised and who managed to receive some form of patronage, either by their families or some generous individual in higher places, usually went first to Copenhagen for academy training and afterwards to Germany and later France to get their final sanding. Munch still passed through a similar professional development in the late 1870s, just as the "father of Norwegian landscape painting" Johan Christian Dahl did at the beginning of the century. It was Norway’s hauntingly beautiful landscape that inspired the local painters, more often than not, and drew them back home, again and again, even after they had gone native down south, usually in Germany. Along with the glorious Viking past and picturesque folk garb and customs, the landscape made a national Romantic approach on art rather easy. From Hans Gude’s, Peter Nicolai Arbo’s, Erik Werenskiold’s and Adolph Tidemand’s paintings, to folklore collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe, the Norwegian Brothers Grimm, the writings of Ibsen and, famously, Grieg’s music, “Halls of the Mountain King” and all that. It was one artist, though, who gave Norway’s folklore a distinctive image and became “Father of the Trolls”: Theodor Kittelsen.

Theodor Kittelsen: "The Princess picking Lice from the Troll" (1900)

has been described as naïve and folk artist. He was anything but that. Even if he became famous for his illustrations, many of them made for Asbjørnsen and Moe. Arbo, Tidemand and Gude neither couldn’t resist the temptation to leave palette, oil colours and huge canvasses aside and draw scenes from the immensely popular folk tales as illustrations for new editions published between the 1840s and 1879, when all of them contributed their wonderful imaginations to the first fully illustrated collection of “Norske folke- og huldre-eventyr”. Werenskiold and Kittelsen took it from there for the next editions published and Kittelsen hit everyone’s nerve, in Norway and the rest of the world, and more or less codified how Norwegian trolls and most of the other local huldrefolk are supposed to look like. Kittelsen himself studied abroad, goes without saying, first in Munich where he began to work as newspaper illustrator after his benefactor back home went bankrupt. He was granted a state scholarship, continued his studies in Paris until homesickness finally got him. He returned to Norway, first to his native Telemark county in the south and then to Lofoten, an archipelago off Nordland, a dramatically romantic scenery where it is even easier to see trolls. At the very least in one’s own inspired mindscape. Kittelsen did, put them down to paper, first in his “Troldskab”, published in 1892 and right into the heart of his fellow countrymen and every connoisseur of fairy tale and folklore motives from the Golden Age of Illustration to this day.

Personified plague stalking the picturesque Norwegian fjords:
Theodor Kittelsen: "Pesten" (1900)

Munch, Kittelsen had a somewhat morbid streak, at least in choosing his distinctive sujets. He illustrated tales of terror from the times of the Black Death that stalked medieval Norway just like the rest of Europe. Grief and death are an integral part of his illustrations and paintings. And Kittelsen did paint as well, usually in a late or post –Romantic style, celebrating Norwegian landscapes in their wild northern splendour. Along with local motives like the picturesque Kornstaur, stacks of grain, often seen on Norwegian farmsteads and part of the pictorial world of Norwegian art since Dahl, who turn into trolls with Kittelsen, as one would expect. And despite becoming something of a national artist in Norway and an icon among illustrators at the turn of the last century, Kittelsen died a poor man in 1914, a couple of years after Norway finally had become a sovereign state. By then, in the wider world, his art works would be found, by and large, in children’s books only. The art world had long since evolved away from his narrative of the otherworlds of the fjords and mountains of Norway. And while he was never quite forgotten back home, with several small museums maintaining his legacy and the remembrance of his life and works, it took well into the 1970s and the worldwide revival of folklore and tales of wonder and imagination that he became more than an insider’s tip for enthusiasts only. But at least since then, he is the undisputed “Father of the Trolls”.

Theodor Kittelsen: "Kornstaur i måneskinn" (Stacks of grain in the moonlight, 1900)

more about Theodor Kittelsen on:

His "Pesten" images on:

and more wonderful images on: