Måbødalen, Norway' by Johan Christian Dahl, 1854, Bergen Kunstmuseum

A Guide to Art History in Norway

Whenever I said Norway, in my mind, all I could see was the naturalistic beauty in the mountains of Norway along with the gorgeous Northern lights. However, Norway has more to it than majestic Mother Nature. I am here to write about the art history in Norway that has included another dimension to the magical landscape of Norway.

Though the word “art” has a broader meaning that involves architecture to interpretive dance, opera to music, literature to theatre, my main focus will be on art that is related to drawing, paintings, sculptures, crafts, carvings, etc. But, not to worry! I will also touch upon Norwegian architecture and literature to poke at your interests. Otherwise, what art history in Norway is without its rich literary history.

The country, situated in Northern Europe, is occupies the western portion of the Scandinavian foreland. The capital of Norway, Oslo, inhabits most half of the population near the south of the nation. Now, to the modern eye, the beauty of Norway is limited to the two-thirds of mountainous Norway with its indented coastline sculpted by the deep fjords along with fifty thousand islands.

A Map of Norway
A Map of Norway Credit: Wikipedia

However, until the nineteenth century, “beauty” was typically man-made, comfortable, and safe, as opposed to the wild seas and wilder landscapes that were to be feared instead of admiring. Therefore, today, I am going to share with you the art history in Norway that has enriched the land as well as its nature.

Art History in Norway

Along with the grave natural beauty, the famous Norwegian artists have also attracted tourists to visit Norway (The Northern Way). Some of the famous Norwegian artists include playwright Henrik Ibsen, painter Edvard Munch, novelists Sigrid Undset and Knut Hamsun, and composer Edvard Grieg, who have enhanced the art history in Norway. The famous playwright Ibsen had once observed about his people and country that, “The magnificent, but severe, natural environment surrounding people up there in the north, the lonely, secluded life-the farms are miles apart-forces them to…become introspective and serious…At home, every other person is a philosopher!” (Britannica, 2021) Philosophers or not, their introspective nature has helped them to create some of the most significant Norwegian artworks since the stone age.

Prehistoric Art in Norway

The Stone age produces the oldest artwork in art history in Norway. Prehistoric art forms involve pictographs or rock painting and petroglyphs or rock carvings that represent the activities of that period like fishing and hunting alongside the animals and people aboriginal to that region.

The Northern municipality of Alta is the heart of the largest dossiers of prehistoric artwork in art history in Norway as well as in Northern Europe. The Alta Rock Art contains several pictographs and petroglyphs and can be found in five major places such as Transfarelv, Kȧfjord, Storsternen, Amtmannsnes and Hjemmeluft. Though the sites except Hjemmeluft are not open to the public, the art in Hjemmeluft can be seen as a part of the Alta Museum.

Rock art of Alta in Northern Norway, A World Heritage Site.
Rock art of Alta in Northern Norway
Credit: icapeace.org

Currently, the Alta Rock Art is one that is prehistoric and one of the eight World Heritage Sites of UNESCO in Norway. These five places are not the only ones for you to view prehistoric Norwegian art as there are Ekeberg in Oslo, Bøla in Steinkjer, and Solbakk in Rogaland that welcome visitors with open arms.

Viking Art

You may see Vikings as the barbarians who were only good for blood and battles and there was no sense of art in them, but the Viking art in Norway might pleasantly surprise you. Even though modern art is mainly created to admire artwork, Viking art seemed to be more practical as it used to be ornate functional objects. For instance, doors were carved with beautiful embellishments, ear spoons were decorated and ship posts were shaped in the form of an animal’s head too.

Ancient Viking art on wooden carved door in art history of Norway
Ancient Viking Art on Wooden Carved Door
Credit: Pinterest

Vikings also created art for purely aesthetic purposes, like tapestries and tattoos. However, as clothes, papers or skin biodegrade rapidly, we cannot observe that type of art nowadays. We can find Viking arts in bone, metal, stone, and wood today in the artifacts preserved in some of the best museums in Norway.

Viking art is divided into six distinctive Norwegian art styles that are named after the places where they are found. Such as,

  • Oseberg is named after the artwork found in Oseberg, Norway from approximately the ninth century including the Oseberg ship.
  • Borre is known after the artifacts from about the ninth to the tenth century, discovered in Borre Mound Cemetery.
  • Jellinge is named after the artistic items discovered in Jellinge, Denmark. The artifacts are from around the tenth century.
  • Mammen artifacts are found in the burial mound in Denmark’s Mammen which are approximately from the tenth to the eleventh century.
  • Ringerike is known for a carving stone found in Ringerike, Norway which is from the tenth to the eleventh century.
  • Urnes is called after the stave Church in Urnes that is approximately from the eleventh to the twelfth century.

You have to remember that the historian retroactively created these groups of Norwegian art styles based on certain characteristics. The timelines in art history in Norway are not always clean-cut.

Folk Art in Norway

Although folk art is traditional Norwegian art, it wasn’t considered “art” till the end of the nineteenth century. Conventionally, the items that are decorated with particular motifs utilizing a certain method are referred to as folk art in Norway. Artists aren’t trained in formal art but they are gifted with their talent and skills through generations.

“Rose Painting” or “Rosemaling” is among the famous folk art types in Norway that are named after the floral designs that feature the artwork. Though the type of folk art can be seen throughout Norway, the strongest roots of rosemaling are in Telemark and Hallingdal, situated in rural Eastern Norway.

Norwegian Folk-art: Rosemaling in art history in Norway
Rose painting or Rosemaling
Credit: Wikipedia

The fairly young form of folk art of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, rosemaling has been influenced by the other European art forms like Rococo, Baroque, and Regency that you can observe in the curves of “C” and “S” and the usage of colors. Though the general artistic pattern is the same, the regions have developed their distinctive design over time. The professional artists were trained and used to travel in the eighteenth century around Norway to provide their services where they were needed.

In the art history in Norway, the evolution of this art form can be evident in not only decorative items but also in the ceilings of the rooms as people would try to copy the art of the professional without any restrictions forming diverse styles of folk art. Though the Norwegian art style has gone out of fashion since the end of the nineteenth century, it became popular among the people with Scandinavian ancestry in America. If you have the desire to experience ingenious rosemaling folk art then absolutely visit the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in Oslo.

Norwegian Sámi Art

The Sami are the aboriginal people of Norway, Russia, Finland, and Sweden. They have their language, culture along with their art. Sámi art traditionally includes art with functional items such as cups, bags, knives, and shoes, etc. The type of handcraft is called “duodji” in North Sámi.

Duodji Cup Knife
Credit: Pinterest

The Sámi Art Collection or the Sámi Dáiddamagasiidna contains a large collection of Sámi-produced artwork and duodji. Though you cannot see the collection, the part of the art is lent to the Sámi Museum in Karasjok and Sámi Parliament Building which are open to all tourists. The Varanger Saami Museum also displays a large collection of duodji.

For further information on the art history in Norway, visit here.

Literature in the Art History in Norway

In the days of the Vikings, the storytellers of skaldic poetry invented various stories of warlike gods, giants, and trolls. In spoken as well as in written form, Norwegian authors have drawn from this tradition for centuries and created a vibrant literary history in the art history in Norway. Norway’s intellectual achievements in literature strongly formed its identity, not until the nineteenth century, which was followed by the country’s separation from Denmark.

Famous Playwright Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen
Credit: Britannica

The most notable writings were published in the form of Henrik Wergeland’s poetry and the dramas of Ibsen, where the realistic plays displayed a politically demanding moral depiction of the European theatre. The works of the renowned novelists Undset and Hamsun remain relevant and influential, yet, today’s Norwegians are more addicted to the works of contemporary writers like Tor Age Bringsvaerd for philosophical treatises, Kim Smage for existential detective novels, and Bjørg Vik for fantasies.

Architecture in the Art History in Norway

Like Germany or Italy, architecture in the art history in Norway did not have a distinguished identity for itself in the early periods. The first significant building is from the eleventh century, named Nidaros Domkirke in Trondheim. The cathedral was reformed in the late Norman style and at that time, Gothic characteristics were interwoven too.

In the art history in Norway, architecture thrived in the stave Churches or Stavkirker that were established before the Reformation. Inspired by the old Pagan Temples, the churches were constructed on the framework of staves or wooden posts that supported the roof and walls. The well-preserved twenty-eight stave churches are the most vital contribution to Norway in World Architectural History. After the construction of these stave churches with abundant cupolas, pinnacles, and gables, Norwegian architecture fell into a drowse for nearly three centuries.

Stave Church in art history in Norway
Stave Church
Credit: Wikipedia

In the dawn of the 1800s, the monarch Charles XIV of Sweden (1763-1844) heavily affected the architecture in Norway as the country was controlled by Sweden when it was bound in a political connection with Sweden. In the progression of the capital Christiania or Oslo, the King inflicted a neoclassical style on Norwegian architecture. But, the vernacular architecture was majorly contained wooden buildings in the countryside and you can still see them in the open museums in Norway.

About the beginning of the twentieth century, the new architectural style called Jugendstil was applied to the burnt port of the Alesund and reconstructed completely. In the 1920s, the modernism called funkis prevailed in art history in Norway until Nazi Germany had conquered Norway. The buildings were made of brick or timber and often multistoried after the war. The new buildings were situated in rows instead of blocks to get better sunshine.

In the twenty-first century, Norwegian architecture was fiercely avant-garde due to the inspiration from the futuristic Oslo Opera House. With glass solar panels and marble surfaces, the structure invokes an iceberg arising from the Arctic sea.

Famous Norwegian Artists

Though numerous artists have been creating art for a long time, Norwegian artists are not that popular in art history in Norway until the Romantic Period. The Romantic period in Europe stayed from the late eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century where art was influenced by the romanticism of nature and landscape and became reminiscent of a simpler time.

Johan Christian Dahl

'Måbødalen, Norway' by Johan Christian Dahl, 1854, Bergen Kunstmuseum
‘Måbødalen, Norway’ by Johan Christian Dahl, 1854, Bergen Kunstmuseum
Credit: Wikipedia

Dahl was the first Norwegian artist whose paintings were recognized not only in Norway but also in other countries. He specialized in oil paintings of German and Norwegian landscapes. Through his art, Norwegian Romantic art started its streak at Romanticism.

Erik Werenskiold and Theodor Kittelsen

These two artists were famous for painting fairytale arts. While Werenskiold made an exception by illustrating fairytale style art as he was a supporter of the realist or naturalist movement and was mainly painting the regular life of people, Kittelsen mixed the fantastical elements with the monotonous elements of everyday life like in “The Nokk at Tarntjarnet lake.”

Christian Krohg and Oda Krohg

The married couple were fantastic individual artists in their own right. They were members of the Kristiana Bohemians, which was a group of artists, academics, writers, and students. Christian Krohg was a mentor of Edvard Munch who closely followed the group. The majority of Christian Krohg’s art represents a naturalist’s work and though Oda Krohg studied under both Christian and Werenskiold, her art, like “The Japanese Lantern”, started the style of neo-romanticism.

Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch
“The Scream” by Edvard Munch Credit: Wikipedia

There is no doubt that the most famous Norwegian artist is Edvard Munch. Despite his success, he struggled with his physical and mental health heavily. But, it is also those times of difficulties. He painted the most famous painting called, “The Scream” and he painted four diverse of the same painting.

Nikolai Astrup

Though his art has been compared to that of the works of Edvard Munch, his works are much happier. Although he traveled across Europe, his love for his birthplace, western Norway, never diminished. Most of his works are affected by the mountains of the valley and the landscape of the place where he later came to stay, old Jolster.

Places to Go to Experience Art History in Norway

As you have come to know the art history in Norway, it’s time for me to introduce the numerous museums and sculpture parks where you can experience the real things.

The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway
The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway
Credit: Wikipedia

During my time researching art history in Norway, I came across this very informative blog. If you want, check it out!

Here we are at last! I hope that I have succeeded in igniting a spark of interest in you in art in Norway. Maybe I’ll come back to Norway soon and give you another different trip. Until then, travel well, be well.


Sandvik, G. (2021, March 19). Norway. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Norway


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