Norwegian artist Harald Sohlberg first saw the Rondane mountains during a skiing trip in 1899. The magnificent sight of the rounded snow-covered peaks of the Rondeslottet and the Høgronden against a dark azure sky would have a career-defining effect, inspiring a subject that would preoccupy him for over a quarter of a century and give rise to a series of iterations in oil and watercolour, in addition to a series of hand-coloured lithographs of the composition, his most ambitious print project. Voted the ‘National Painting of Norway’, Winter Night in the Mountains would become arguably the most famous painted landscape in, and of, Norway, both an icon of the country’s pristine natural beauty and a powerful expression of Sohlberg’s interior response to the natural world.
Of the group, only one work has ever appeared at auction, more than thirty years ago. Now, one of just a handful of finished watercolours will be offered at Sotheby’s in London this July, having remained in the artist’s family since it was painted. During that time the watercolour has been exhibited once only, when it was shown side by side with the definitive oil version (National Museum, Oslo) in the first major UK exhibition of Sohlberg’s works, held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in 2019. Coming onto the market from a European private collection, with an estimate of £800,000-1,200,000, the painting will lead Sotheby’s European & British Art sale, open for bidding from 7 – 14 July 2021.
“We are immensely excited to be offering for sale this most famous of images by one of Norway’s greatest artists. The appearance of Sohlberg’s ‘Winter Night in the Mountains’ is the latest in a line of works by the artist including ‘From Værvågen Bay’ and ‘Ripe Fields’ we have sold for record-breaking prices in these rooms over the past five years. His timeless aesthetic and celebration of the beauty of nature, along with the recent international retrospective of his work in Oslo, London and Wiesbaden, has contributed to the international profile he deserves alongside his contemporary Edvard Munch.”
“This beautiful image is one literally engrained in the Norwegian consciousness, and one which generations of Norwegians have grown up with from childhood. It is a motif that symbolises the mountain landscapes of our native country. Very rarely does such a work come up for sale, and we are proud to see it presented on the international stage, an ambassador of Norwegian art, in its iconographic stature perhaps second only to Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’.”
Sohlberg completed an initial oil painting of the composition in 1901 (which he never exhibited) and worked for almost fifteen years on the version in the collection of the National Museum, Oslo, before considering it complete and fit for exhibition in 1914. Dating to 1911, the watercolour provides a fascinating insight into the artist’s developing thoughts on, and ambitions for, the 1914 oil.
From 1900 to 1902 Sohlberg set up home in Rondane, where he was joined in the summer of 1901 by his 23-year-old fiancée Lilli Hennum, before returning for shorter visits in 1911 and 1913. Throughout this time, he continued to focus his thoughts on the composition, taking photographs and sketches, and making a series of finished studies, including the 1911 watercolour. Whereas his earliest watercolour studies from 1900 often featured skiers in the foreground in awe of the view, by 1911 they were devoid of human presence and pared down almost to abstraction. In the 1920s he would work on a third and final oil version, featuring a red fox in the foreground (sold Sotheby’s London, 1987, private collection).
Winter Night in the Mountains epitomises Sohlberg’s startlingly modernist aesthetic, blending a Romantic perception of nature with the ‘mood-painting’ which characterised Nordic art at the close of the nineteenth century. While working on this subject, Sohlberg turned from atheism or agnosticism to religion, experiencing the sublime scale of nature with ‘such intensity, that one feels so extremely tiny and imperfect and ignorant, that one remains standing, humble as if during the most moving devotions.’ Against this immersive backdrop, he translated emotions into colour in order to explore contradictory feelings of awe, fear, and desire that the landscape invoked in him.
To convey the intensity of colours in nature, Sohlberg exaggerated the dominant colour, in this case blue, to produce a mysterious effect. The black silhouettes of gnarled and blasted trees take on the forms of skeletal figures, and the mountains convey his first impression of them as ‘petrified giants’. Given the concomitance of Sohlberg’s first trip to Rondane and his engagement and marriage to Lilla, the prominence of a lone star in the night sky imbues the painting not only with a cosmic intensity, but also with an ever more personal meaning.
 The exhibition was initially held by the National Museum in Oslo, before travelling to London and onto Museum Wiesbaden in Germany (2018-2019).
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