During his career, Carl Larsson (1853-1919) was a beloved figure in his native Sweden – a kind of national artistic treasure. In addition to his well known watercolors and books, he also completed several monumental murals commissioned for public buildings in his home country. But being famous and well thought of is no guarantee of success, it seems. While he was working on a series of large murals to decorate the central staircase in the National Museum in Stockholm, Larsson proposed the idea for the final mural, to fit an enormous space measuring twenty feet by forty-six feet. The subject was based on the Norse mythology legend in which the Swedish King Domalde is sacrificed to save the country from famine. It was titled Midwinter Sacrifice (Midvinterblot).
|Midvinterblot in the National Museum of Sweden. Photo by Hoger Elgaard.|
Between 1911 and 1913 Larsson worked on how to paint the composition and completed several sketch versions of the painting in both oil and watercolor before beginning any work on the mural. However, these were met with fervent criticism revolving around the artist's personal interpretation of the legend. The third sketch version was finally accepted by the museum board, but with important suggested changes.
Although Larsson did make some changes to the final sketch version, he did not make all the changes suggested by the board. Upon completion of the large mural in 1915, the board rejected the painting. Some think that the painting had become unfashionable and did not fit the modernist ideals of the new century.
In his autobiography, Larsson wrote of his disappointment and bitterness over the rejection. "The fate of Midvinterblot broke me! This I admit with a dark anger. And still, it was probably the best thing that could have happened, because my intuition tells me – once again! – that this painting, with all its weaknesses, will one day, when I'm gone, be honoured with a far better placement."
The controversy over the painting continued for decades. After several relocations it was eventually bought by a Japanese art collector. He agreed to lend it to the museum for a major Larsson exhibition, where it was hung in its originally intended place. 300,000 visitors saw the work for the first time and funds were raised to buy the painting and put it on permanent display in the museum at last.
Most artists understand the inherent complexity of working on a commission, but hopefully have never had to experience the kind of rejection and controversy that Carl Larsson did. It is inspiring, though, to read his words of acceptance and to know that, ultimately, not only was his intuition proved correct but his artistic vision vindicated.
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–John and Ann