Birthday in the Parsonage Garden
undefined undefined undefined, 1911 - 1927, 1300 x 1590 mm
KODE Kunstmuseer og komponisthjem (KODE Art Museums and Composer Homes), Sparebankstiftelsen DNB (The DNB Savings Bank Foundation)
undefined undefined undefined, 1911 - 1927, 1300 x 1590 mm
A group of people are gathered under the large trees in the parsonage garden. Adults and children – a total of nine – are sitting or standing around a stone table. At the table juice or wine is being served in a bottle, and two coffee cups lie in the grass. The garden is verdant, with precisely delineated leaves and succulent berries on the rowan tree. The warm sunlight filters through the crowns of the trees, and a calm and tranquil atmosphere dominates the scene. To the right in the picture we can see the white parsonage farmhouse. This part of the painting has several areas that are incomplete.
Birthday in the Parsonage Garden is the only group portrait Astrup has executed. The group consists of the artist’s siblings and in-laws, gathered around the stone table in the old parsonage garden at Ålhus in Jølster. Astrup’s wife, Engel Astrup, is depicted in a white dress with and blue flower pattern dress, standing by the white railing. The white building to the right belongs to the parsonage and was called Hjørnestuen (the Corner Cabin). The lake in the background is Jølstravatnet. The light of a warm summer evening with early autumn colours in the leaves suggests that the birthday is Astrup’s own: August 30th.
Astrup worked on Birthday in the Parsonage Garden over a long period of time, most likely from 1911 until 1928. During this time the artist changed the composition several times, and the correspondence reveals that the intention of the work changed as well. This makes a reading of the work complicated.
The painting was mentioned in a letter for the first time in 1912: “The large picture from last year with the many figures I have discarded”. Astrup continues by writing that he will “repeat it this year”, and this one is presumed to be the version entitled Birthday in the Parsonage Garden.
Eleven years later Astrup writes that the group portrait is based on the last time his siblings were gathered together: “All of us siblings and Engel were gathered in the parsonage garden under the large-leafed linden tree – together for the last time before being spread to the four winds. We had sat there often in the evenings by the stone table ‘making mischief’ […] the parsonage garden lay spread out and white below us; the evening sky was mirrored yellow like an evil eye in a window, from where someone often banged admonishingly to us youths down in the garden.” It is reasonable to believe that the wedding of Astrup’s sister Hanna and Alf Bastiansen on July 27th, 1911 – most likely figures two and three from the left – was the last time the sibling were gathered in Jølster.
Other letters complicate this theory, however. Among other things the content of a letter from 1919 suggests that Astrup conceived the idea for the painting in 1904 – after the old parsonage had been vacated, or in 1907, after the house had been demolished, but this can also be interpreted as a change in the nostalgic significance the artist attributed to the painting during the process:
“I began work on a picture a few days before the old parsonage was demolished, it was meant to be my farewell to the parsonage, – indeed with an entire epoch in my art, – a whole decade of my first art […] The farewell I would evoke via the colours and composition of the figures and the house (the parsonage) […]. – I have “struggled” with this picture – (perhaps more than the motif is worth) – but I can never seem to finish it, – I paint it over and over again, scrape away – and paint anew.”
The painting remained incomplete at the time of the artist’s death in 1928, and was for sale in the Commemorative Exhibition the same year for 20.000 kroner. In the exhibition catalogue, the painting was listed as unsigned, which means the signature is secondary. It is reasonable to believe that the signing was done in connection with a sale in order to increase its value, as Engel Astrup was left with large debts after her husband’s death in 1928.
Birthday in the Parsonage garden was left unfinished in the studio upon the artist’s death in 1928. The right side has several unfinished areas, such as missing details in both the house and the figure in red. An X-ray photo reveals that the white house has been painted over, in a new position, which is also visible in the structure of the brushwork. The tree in front of the stone table has been painted over a figure, probably male, that was originally positioned behind the table. This underlying paint layer could be the first version of the painting from 1911. In 1919 Astrup writes, “I have ‘scraped it’ several times and begun it anew, and I lack a large enough studio, which I could use for such a large picture.”
Several of the works that are listed as “unsigned” in the exhibition catalogue from 1928 have a signature similar to this one in red or brown paint, but technical analyses have not been conducted which might confirm whether the same pigments have been used.
Arnold Böcklin Astrup
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