The Norwegian artist Hans Heyerdahl (1857–1913) trained at various places in Europe. In Kristiania (now Oslo) he received his first lessons at the Royal Academy of Drawing and he subsequently studied at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich from 1874 to 1878. Immediately thereafter he went to Paris and, like many Scandinavian artists of his day, became an apprentice in the studio of Léon Bonnat. After Heyerdahl’s move to Paris, his work was exhibited at the Paris Salon almost every year. He built up a coherent oeuvre in a recognizable style that steered a middle course between naturalism and impressionism and therefore also between the local style of his native country and the taste of the international art world in which he hoped to succeed.
The acquisition of Park and Girl with a Bunch of Flowers
In Paris, Heyerdahl became acquainted with Theo van Gogh (1857-1891) at Goupil & Cie, the art dealer who represented him from 1881 on. In February of that year, in fact, Theo had become the manager of Goupil’s branch at 19, boulevard Montmartre. Of the fifteen paintings by Heyerdahl that passed through this art dealer’s hands, thirteen of them were sold. The work of Heyerdahl and other Scandinavian artists was obviously gaining in popularity in these years. Theo acquired a number of works by Heyerdahl for his own collection, including the paintings Park and Portrait of a Girl with a Bunch of Flowers, which he bought from the artist (via Goupil) for 250 francs altogether.
Each of these paintings represents one of Heyerdahl’s specialisms: landscape and portraiture. The modest panel Park was probably painted on a field easel en plein air in a park in Paris. It contains no reference whatever to an urban setting. The light green landscape recalls Van Gogh’s later views of luxuriant gardens and parks.
Like Park, the girl’s portrait was painted in 1882, by which time Heyerdahl had been living in Paris for several years. The girl, who looks straight at the viewer, seems a bit unsure of herself. The flowers she holds are probably daisies. The background was thinly applied with a palette knife; the light ground layer can be seen in places. On top of this, broad brushstrokes are visible. The contours of the girl, seen against the background, were kept soft; her face, on the other hand, was depicted all the more sharply. This combination results in an intriguing diffuseness that demands careful scrutiny from those who wish to comprehend the painting.
Heyerdahl painted such portraits of children rather frequently. The stately pose, the presence of a single attribute (such as a cat, a plate of food or a flower) and especially the penetrating glance give these works a rather sentimental character all their own. The green background also occurs fairly often in such portraits, an example being The Sisters, painted several years later . In the painting in the Van Gogh Museum, the natural surroundings in the background are less explicit, but the patches of light on the girl’s left arm and elsewhere imply that sunlight is falling through the shrubbery.
Theo and Vincent’s estate also included two drawings by Heyerdahl: Mother of the Dying Child and Portrait of Maren Christine Heyerdahl. It is not known how or when either of these drawings was acquired. The drawn portrait of Maren Christine Heyerdahl (1854-1931) depicts the artist’s wife frontally, analogous to the model in Portrait of a Girl with a Bunch of Flowers. The verso of the sheet bears the inscription ‘To my darling Kristine’ (‘Til min kjaere Kristine’), which makes it clear that the work was a gift to the sitter, whom he married that year (1879). That it subsequently came into Theo van Gogh’s possession is therefore remarkable. This delicate drawing is possibly the drawn Portrait de Mme Heyerdahl that the artist exhibited at the Salon of 1880.
Heyerdahl also painted a portrait of his wife, which bears a resemblance to the woman portrayed in the drawing in the Van Gogh Museum . In both works, Maren Christine Heyerdahl wears her hair up and looks directly at the viewer. Perhaps the drawing served as a study for the painting, even though the clothing differs in the two portraits and the striking necklace in the painting does not appear in the drawing.
The Dying Child
The collection’s small drawing of a woman standing is related to The Dying Child , a work that Heyerdahl exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1882. The painting depicts a dramatic scene – a child on its deathbed – surrounded by family members and the doctor. The woman portrayed in both the drawing and the painting is Heyerdahl’s mother, for this is an autobiographical work. Heyerdahl was the eldest of twelve children, two of whom died in infancy. A Norwegian article about the artist, published in 1881, refers to this: ‘It is known that Heyerdahl himself witnessed this scene as a child; he is the crying boy in the foreground of the painting.’ Moreover, ‘the dying child’ was a common subject among Scandinavian artists who hoped to make a name for themselves in Paris.
Heyerdahl made five versions of the scene, the first in 1881 ; the second – the piece submitted to the Salon – also originated that year. In 1889 he painted the last version, a small variant that he sold directly to the national museum of Norway . Almost nothing is known about the other two versions. The life-size painting that was exhibited at the Salon was rather well received, which cannot be said of all of Heyerdahl’s work. For this painting he was even awarded the prestigious Grand Prix de Florence, which provided him with 5,000 francs to travel to the Tuscan city. The fact that the mother stands aloof from the deathbed elicited mixed reactions from the critics, one of whom thought this too theatrical: ‘the dishevelled mother, half-dressed, turns away from the cradle and gazes heavenwards, twisting her arms in pain. A single figure mars this scene, that of the mother, for being too conventional and melodramatic.’ But another critic was touched by this scene: ‘the mother, who, with her hair down, casts a desolate look at the unknown and wrings her hands, is a beautiful figure that is touching, for the present, and promising, for the future’.
The magazine La Presse published two drawings Heyerdahl made after the painting: one of the father bending over the dying child and one of the mother . It must be the drawing of the mother that ended up in Theo van Gogh’s collection. The subject and the shaded passages were laid in with blue pencil, which indicates that Heyerdahl, when making the drawing, was already taking into consideration the fact that blue would hardly show up against a white background in a photomechanical reproduction. Over the blue pencil, Heyerdahl ingeniously applied a web of pen-strokes to arrive at the correct gradations of light and dark and shadow. The graphic character of this sheet also indicates that Heyerdahl was bearing in mind the ultimate reproduction of this drawing. A reproduction of the entire painting, likewise based on a drawing by the artist, in the magazine L’Art shows the woman with slightly different facial features, which demonstrates that Heyerdahl did in fact make a new drawing for each reproduction .
Heyerdahl and Van Gogh
Theo van Gogh undoubtedly visited the Salon exhibition in question. He also knew about the prize that Heyerdahl won for The Dying Child, judging by the reaction of his brother Vincent: ‘I can well imagine that Heyerdahl is delighted by such a payment.’ Since 1881, Vincent had been full of praise for Heyerdahl in his letters to Theo, writing that ‘he seems to be such a highly cultivated man’ and ‘one who takes great pains to seek “proportions for the purpose of design”’, and he often voiced his desire to meet him.
Shortly before the Salon exhibition, Theo had shown Heyerdahl a version of Vincent’s drawing Sorrow (1882, Van Gogh Museum). Heyerdahl’s response was probably positive, because several months later, Vincent sent Theo a lithograph of the same subject, intended for Heyerdahl. Heyerdahl’s Mother of the Dying Child expresses the same feeling of despair that pervades Van Gogh’s Sorrow. It is quite possible that Heyerdahl gave Theo the pen drawing both as a token of gratitude for his involvement in the sale of two painted versions of The Dying Child and as a return gift for his brother, a like-minded artist. Theo himself also saw Vincent and the Norwegian artist as sharing the same fate, although in doing so he conveniently ignored Heyerdahl’s successful sales and the prizes he had won. As he wrote to their sister Lies in 1885: ‘As far as success is concerned, he may well go the way of Heyerdahl, appreciated by a few, but not understood by the wider public.’ Even after Vincent van Gogh’s death, his work continued to play an important role in Heyerdahl’s life.