The family

The surname ‘Astrup’ hails from the Astrup farm on Jylland in Denmark. In 1707 the King of Norway-Denmark appointed Niels Nicolai Astrup (1681-1714) as bailiff of Sunnmøre. 

If we follow the Astrup family tree up to Nikolai Johannes Astrup (1880-1928), we largely find civil servants. Christian Astrup (1844-1920), Nikolai Astrup’s father, was no exception. He was appointed Jølster’s parish priest in 1883 and married to Petra Konstanse, the daughter of glove manufacturer Peder Mørch Lodtz from Bergen. Nikolai Astrup was the oldest of fourteen children, and there was a certain amount of pressure on him with respect to his choice of career. Given his precocious drawing skills, vicarage visitors often asked whether he would become an artist. Christian Astrup hushed them up: ’My idea is for Nikolai, with God’s help, to become a good priest.’ Consequently, at fifteen years old Nikolai headed north to Trondheim to study theology and Latin at the cathedral school. He took his exams in 1897 but received mediocre results. It was an artist he wanted to be. After Astrup finished his formal art education in 1901, he moved back to Jølster and launched into a life-long project: to paint the motifs of his home region.

In 1906 and 1907 he worked on several motifs from the south side of Jølstravatnet. One of the locations he painted from was Sunde, which lies in-between Jølstravatnet (lake) and Kjøsnesfjorden (also a lake). Here Jølster’s highest mountains rise up, and at the innermost point of the valley, the mighty Jostedalsbreen (glacier) creeps down between the mountains. One motif Astrup worked on at Sunde was of the mountain Kleivefjellet, which he called Kollen (1906). With colours grey and cold, its monumental mass fills the pictorial field. The weather is miserable, the lake is sheathed with ice and patches of snow lie heavy and sodden in the landscape. There is little here to suggest that the picture alludes to a love story.

On account of bad weather and wind, Astrup sought shelter at a farmer in Sunde. The daughter of the house was Engel Sunde (1892-1966), and while Astrup painted Kollen (1906) the two met and fell in love. A wedding was nevertheless not completely unproblematic, given that Engel’s family were peasants rather than from upper-class civil-servant stock. Love finally prevailed, however, and the priest officiated at their wedding on the day before Christmas Eve in 1907. Until Engel and Nikolai’s first child was born in 1911, they lived at the vicarage.

Engel Astrup influenced her husband a great deal, also in terms of his art. This is clear from an excerpt in a letter Astrup wrote in 1909: ‘I cannot afford to lose her, I had almost given up hope in life when I met her, and thanks to her my life-force re-ignited.’ This life force, this vitality, can also be traced in Astrup’s paintings, given how they become demonstratively lighter after his marriage. The heavy and dark landscapes – Kollen is just one example – were largely replaced by spring and summer motifs and lighter atmospheric colour harmonies.

The most important family picture in Astrup’s oeuvre is Birthday in the Garden (1911-1928). Astrup once wrote about the pictured event, saying it was the last time the whole family was together, before ‘we were scattered by the winds’. In the picture the brothers and sisters gather round a stone table in the vicarage garden. Standing next to the white hand-rail is his wife Engel, wearing a white dress with blue rosettes. Astrup probably started painting this picture as early as 1911, working on it off and on until his death in 1928. Since it was one of the few pictures that remained at Astruptunet until his death, it must have held special significance for the artist as a family memento.

In 1912 Engel and Nikolai Astrup bought an old cotter’s farm at Sandalstrand, on the south side of Jølstervatnet. Astrup initially wanted to settle on the north side of the lake, near the vicarage at Ålhus, but property was hard to come by since it was usually passed down from one generation to the next within the same family. From Sandalstrand, Astrup had to make do with seeing his childhood motif from a distance, on the other side of Jølstervatnet. Nevertheless, Engel and Nikolai made Astruptunet into a true home. Although it lay on a steep and difficult slope, they built several buildings and a barn, ran a farm, grew vegetables and raised eight children. As soon as the farm started looking like Astrup wanted it to, in the middle of the 1920s, it began appearing in his repertoire of motifs. Unfortunately, Nikolai Astrup died of pneumonia in the town of Førde in 1928, after battling for many years with the chronic asthma he had developed in childhood.

Tove Kårstad Haugsbø

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Nikolai Astrup