J.F. Willumsen: A Mountain Climber, 1912
Willumsen’s majestic depiction of his wife Edith in a mountaineous setting is about humanity’s relationship with nature
A Mountain Climber in brief
- Willumsen depicts his second wife, Edith, as a modern, strong and autonomous woman in a monumental landscape
- The painting is, typically of Willumsen, based on comprehensive studies and sketches made on travels in the Alps
- A Mountain Climber exists in two versions, painted eight years apart and very different in colour scheme and brush technique
(Wo)man and nature united
The mountains, the light and (wo)man as body and gender are the main elements in J.F. Willumsen’s vitalistic art. But nowhere visualised to the same dramatic extent as in A Mountain Climber. The woman, Willumsen’s second wife Edith Wessel, has elevated herself to the top of the world and beholds the immense mountainous landscape.
As a depiction of the “new”, and in the Nietzschean sense “great human being” in nature, one cannot imagine a more powerful expression of man’s command of and union with nature. As a ruler of nature and the world, A Mountain Climber has a kindship with the Danish writer Johannes V. Jensen’s contemporary anti-metaphysical dependence on the worldly, the physical laws of nature, on the machine and all that it entails. With A Mountain Climber and Jensen’s series of novels The Long Journey (1908-22) as key works, Symbolism with its metaphysical longings explorations of the innermost corners of the soul was replaced by a much more extrovert celebration of the body and a more vitalistic perception of life.
Among the beacons of Danish art, only few shine brighter or further than Willumsen. As a painter, sculptor, ceramist, and architect he had a talent and range like few others within the European art scene of his day.
An excerpt from SMK’s publication: SMK Highlights, SMK, 2005.
It is an exceptionally majestic figure of a woman, Willumsen has painted. She has practically conquered nature and as such seems to have obtained inner harmony. There’s a lot more to the painting than the title A Mountain Climber implies. Willumsen spent the summer of 1901 in the Alps and his awe of the overwhelming nature was expressed in a number of water colours of the mountains and in an imposing painting, Sun over Mountains of the South from 1902.
J.F. Willumsen, Sun over Mountains of the South, 1902, olie på lærred, 207 x 207 cm, Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm
In continuation hereof came the idea of depicting his second wife Edith trekking in the mountains and the following summer he painted several water colours of her, walking and sitting in a variety of alpine landscapes. None of these studies, however, show the same perception of the female motif. He didn't achieve this until he painted a sketch later that year with the woman in the same position as in the final painting. But, surprisingly, in the sketch she’s seen on a flat expanse, not in the mountains.
J.F. Willumsen, study for A Mountain Climber, 1902, J.F. Willumsens Museum
Not until the following year did he paint the landscape in which she ended up (in the Thielska Gallery in Stockholm). Now, all elements were in place and the painting could have the grand effect, which he’d wanted all along.
Two versions of the painting
It is opportune to presume that the painter was familiar with 'the lone wanderer' in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, but contrary to the German painter, Willumsen doesn’t show the woman with her back to the viewer, but angled from below and in profile, not romantic or longing, but at ease and gazing at a faraway, and perhaps even nobler, destination.
The first version of the motif was commissioned for Hagemann’s Kollegium in Copenhagen and was finished in 1904.
J.F. Willumsen, A Mountain Climber, 1904, Hagemanns Kollegium
Eight years later, Willumsen wished to show the painting at a Nordic exhibition in the US, but he wasn’t allowed to borrow it. This is a situation modern curators are well acquainted with. But Willumsen had an option for solving this problem, not open to the modern curator. He went and painted another version of it! Here, he has copied the composition, but has used a much brighter and more luminous colour palette and a more free and lively brush technique.
An excerpt from SMK’s publication: 100 Masterpieces, SMK, 1996.
- J.F. Willumsen 1863-1958 > Willumsen's characteristically monumental style with intense colours and blinding light effects made him a controversial figure on the contemporary Danish art scene
- Willumsen’s technique > Willumsen scientifically investigated the quality and durability of his pigments and primers, and yet he experienced great difficulties during his work on A Mountain Climber<em><br /></em>
- Artists’ wives > The years around 1900 features a whole range of monumental portraits of artist's wives
- L.A. Ring: The Artist’s Wife, 1897 > The Danish symbolist painter L.A. Ring has painted a large portrait of his wife Sigrid standing on the threshold to a lush garden