Rosemåling, with its distinctive stylized depictions of flowers, scroll forms, lining, and geometric elements, is Norway’s best known decorative folk art form. Its origins lie in eastern Norway during the Eighteenth Century, as changes in the style of housing occupied by rural inhabitants, and the influence of Baroque and Rococo art forms began to filter into rural Norwegian culture.
As the popularity of rosemåling increased, local styles began to develop, and semi-itinerant painters travelled throughout Norway spreading awareness of the art form and increasing its popularity. Many of these painters were farmers, whose skills in the art form provided them with an additional form of income. Many were also craftsmen, with skills in woodwork and carving.
As the art form spread through Norway from east to west, local interpretations began to arise, in part as a result of interpretations of rosemåling by amateur painters who either could not afford the services of professional painter, or who served demand within their local community.
In western, coastal, Norway the art form gained less traction than elsewhere, perhaps due to the much longer tradition of living in årestue type dwellings that persisted in western coastal areas. The argument being that the typical single room årestue with its characteristic of being poorly lit and smoke filled did not lend itself to decoration of walls and ceilings. Whether the case or not, it is clear that in the west of Norway rosemåling was more typically to be found on objects, rather than architecture.
If rosemåling gained less traction in western Norway as its influence expanded from its eastern heartlands, it was to be the westward expansion of the Norwegian diaspora to the United States in the Nineteenth Century that was to spread the art form outside the boundaries of its country of origin. Norwegian immigrants to America brought with them decorated objects, nostalgic reminders of their former home which took on significance as family heirlooms and reminders of the culture from which they came.
Per Lysne (1880-1947), who emigrated to the USA in 1907, is regarded as the father f the American rosemåling movement. Having been employed as a wagon painter in Stoughton, Wisconsin, he turned to rosemåling painting as a source of income during the Great Depression, subsequently developing a financially viable enterprise and teaching the art to others.
As is often the way with many art forms, the popularity of rosemåling in Norway declined from its peak in the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Interest in the art form in Norway has seen a resurgence in the last half of the Twentieth Century, and since, while it continues to be taught and practised in the United States.
If rosemåling was intended as simple decoration to brighten low lit rooms and to add colour and vibrancy to mundane day-to-day objects, it could, like all art be used in other ways. During the German occupation of Norway from 1940-1945, public display of the Norwegian coat of arms or national flag could attract incarceration or the death penalty. Rosemåling designs circulated in response that bore a stylized letter ‘H’, denoting the Norwegian king in exile, Haakon VII. A reminder that art can be, and often is, a medium in which subversive messages of protest may be conveyed.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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