Beautifully luminous and fresh, verdant and of large format, Holiday Reading
is a prime depiction of family life at the Larssons' country home, Lilla Hyttnäs in Sundborn. Karin, the artist's wife and the sitter who appears most often in his idyllic domestic scenes, sits alongside their youngest son Esbjörn as they relax together on a sunny Sunday afternoon, each engrossed in reading their own book. Next to them the table has been set for tea, with some of Karin's sewing kit also left informally to the side, a reference to the textiles which formed her own distinctive contribution to the Larssons' pioneering folk art aesthetic. For the present work Larsson worked on a large scale, virtually the largest in his watercolour œuvre
The scene is set on the more private, south-eastern side of the Larssons' home, probably observed from a vantage point within the home looking out through a window. The enclosed, protective composition reinforces the contemplative mood of the scene, conveying the impression of the artist's family being cocooned in a garden room or hortus conclusus
, surrounded by verdure and the walls of the house, and perhaps even unaware that they are being painted.
Framing the scene to the left is the wall of Carl’s studio. Although initially a separate building, the Larssons built rooms connecting it to the house in 1901. These were the last of the major structural transformations that the Larssons made to Lilla Hyttnäs, coinciding with their decision to settle there permanently the year after Esbjörn's birth. The studio wall is echoed by the distant footbridge over the inlet where the Larssons kept their rowing boat, situated at the composition's vanishing point amidst luxurious vegetation. The same element, from a different view, appears most prominently in Larsson's The Bridge
of 1912. Beyond lies the Sundbornsån river.
Bordering the scene to the right is the sinuous form of a horse-chestnut tree trunk, its flatness of form and simplification of line and contour suggesting the strong influence of Japanese woodcuts on Larsson's aesthetic. The tree's overhanging crown provides a canopy over much of the scene, taking the artist's family in its spreading embrace. The foliage hanging down into the composition in the upper-left of the composition almost stands independent as a beautifully curvaceous art nouveau
study, while the dappled shade cast over the scene forms a decorative pattern touching on abstraction.
In his later years Larsson painted some of the richest, largest, and most vibrant scenes of family life at Lilla Hyttnäs of his career, belying to some extent his own turbulent emotions. During the same time Larsson fought a bitter campaign to have the art authorities accept his controversial mural Midvinterblot (Midwinter Sacrifice)
, with which the artist sought to complete his decorative scheme at the Stockholm Nationalmuseum. Despite the support of friends, notably fellow painter Anders Zorn, Larsson finally admitted defeat in the face of widespread opposition in 1916, the same year as painting the present work, and Midvinterblot
not find its permanent place on the walls of the Nationalmuseum until 1997.
Compared with the smaller watercolour Under the Chestnut Tree
, depicting the same corner of the garden in spring 1912 (fig. 1), Holiday Reading
is vibrantly exuberant rather than merely playful, at once more open and more protective of the artist's family. While embattled defending his public reputation in Stockholm, the present work stands as a moving evocation of family life at Lilla Hyttnäs which Larsson so cherished.