The Scandinavian artist Carl Olof Larsson was a Modern Swedish illustrator and painter associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement. As a Modern artist, he dwelled in Impressionism, Realism, and Romanticism, never abandoning his distinctive aesthetic. Larsson was also passionate about decorative art, hence his involvement with the Arts and Crafts as well as the Art Nouveau movement. Larsson worked with different media throughout his career, like oil painting, watercolor, and even frescoes. The painter became most known for his indoor scenes, portraying happy families in idyllic atmospheres, a contrast from his harsh and poverty-stricken childhood.
Carl Olof Larsson was born in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, in May 1853. He lived a severe childhood, as his parents were extremely poor, living in improvised and temporary homes. After his family was left homeless, they moved to a district named Ostermalm in Stockholm, known as Ladugardsplan at the time. There they lived in a home in which three families occupied a room together, in short, an altogether unsanitary and unhealthy environment where cholera quickly spread.
Young Larsson received all the support he could from his mother, who worked arduously to put food on the table. The same can't be affirmed about his father, who was depicted by the artist as an impulsive drunk who didn't show any affection for his family. With that said, Larsson and his father did not have a stable and loving relationship.
When Larsson was only thirteen years old and studying at an impoverished school, his teacher encouraged him to apply to the prestigious Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, where he was promptly admitted. It is possible that the hardships of deprivations of his young life were pivotal elements on the artist's longing for a stable and comfortable family life, which consequently influenced his later production.
Because of Larsson's past, it took him some years to shake off the feeling of not belonging to the Academy. He felt ostracized, socially outcast, dislocated, and inferior to his peers, as well as being a naturally shy person. He eventually felt more at home after becoming part of the antique school, which he was promoted to at sixteen.
During this period, he blossomed and even became one of the most known students of the school for his work. Larsson earned his first prizes, especially praised for his nude drawings. In the meantime, the artist worked as a caricaturist and graphic artist for local papers, like the NY Illustrered Tidning and Kasper, respectively. The artist's illustration work enabled him to become independent at an early age and support his parents as well.
In 1877, Larsson relocated to Paris, where he spent several frustrating hardworking years without any success. Along with other Swedish artists, he resisted any involvement with the avant-garde movements that were emerging, like the French Impressionists.
Larsson became more in tune with the Modern influences after spending a couple of summers painting en plein air in Barbizon. Plein air painting was a technique popularized by the Impressionist, in which the artist portrayed nature from observation, meaning he or she painted outdoors.
By 1882, Larsson joined a Scandinavian artist colony on the outskirts of Paris, accompanied by other Swedish colleagues. During this artistic retreat in Grez-sur-Loing, he met fellow painter and his future wife, Karin Bergöö, with whom he had eight children. This was a pivotal period for the artist's career and personal life.
In Grez, Larsson produced some of his most important artworks as he was letting go of his previous oil painting techniques to focus on the watercolor painting, considered at the time a more Modern approach by Academic standards. The artist was deeply involved with his family life, which transpired in his paintings. He would often paint interior scenes with his children as models and portray much of his wife Karin's work as an interior designer.
In 1888, Karin's father gave the family a small house in Falun, named Lilla Hyttnäs. Carl and Karin transformed a cottage into a unique home with their captivating decorations, making their aesthetic views known to anyone who set foot in Lilla Hyttnäs. As they had a large family, the couple expanded the stuga and eventually created a family farm.
The Larssons furnished and decorated Lilla Hyttnäs according to their keen and particular artistic taste. Larsson portrayed their life and new home in paintings and book illustrations, which eventually turned Lilla Hyttnäs into the world's most renowned artist's home. The couple's home also became a major reference for Swedish interior design. As Carl Larsson once said in his memoirs, "A home is not dead, but living, and like all living things must obey the laws of nature by constantly changing."
Karin was a multifaceted artist, as she worked with furniture design, bedsheet collections, among others, becoming as significant to her husband for Swedish art and culture. She worked with embroidery, textile design, and even created clothing for herself and her family, which contributed to creating an overall cohesive aesthetic in their everyday life. The way the couple worked together, as Larsson immortalized her interior scenes in his paintings, made their conjunct work as important as their individual approach.
Larsson often portrayed his family in daily scenes, which became his most well-known motifs. His children became the central figures of his most notable works. They were often mentioned in the title of his paintings, like Esbjorn Doing his Homework, Brita at the Piano, and Lisabeth Reading, for example. The artist also worked with lithographic prints, like in the artwork Brita as Iduna, which became a well-known Christmas card. He carried on the Christmas theme in other artworks like Christmas Morning and Christmas Evening.
Although Larsson worked with different media, the interior family scenes were mostly portrayed in watercolor. He concluded many paintings with similar compositions, focusing more on representing his family and the elements of the room, like in the masterpieces Nameday At the Storage House, After Putting the Children to Bed, and In the Punishment Corner, Mamma's and the Small Girls Room, to name a few.
Larsson, in his late years, produced what is sometimes regarded as Sweeden's most controversial painting and his most famous artwork, the Midvinterblot, or Midwinter Sacrifice. This piece was created to become a major part of the decoration in the central staircase of Stockholm's Nationalmuseum. The masterpiece depicts a scene from a legend from Norse mythology, where the Swedish king Domalde is sacrificed in order to avert famine.
The painting was initially rejected and was later placed where the artist intended, decades after its completion. The museum even declined the painting free of charge in 1987, for which it was sold to an art collector. It was only in 1992 the Nationalmuseum held an exhibit in Larsson's honor that the institution decided on letting the Midvinterblot at its intended location, as the piece was lent by its owner for the exhibit.
The painter predicted as he stated, "The fate of Midvinterblot (Midwinter Sacrifice) 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 honored with a far better placement." In 1997, a chocking 82 years after its completion, the Nationalmuseum of Stockholm purchased the painting for a permanent display.
By the turn of the century, the Swedish artist's popularity skyrocketed with the help of publications of his artworks in full color. Larsson's watercolors were published firstly in Bonnier's A Home, but ultimately became vastly known after the 1909 publication Das Haus in der Sonne, meaning The House in the Sun. This publication by Karl Robert Langewiesche gathered a beautiful collection of watercolor paintings as well as his thoughts and drawings and was extremely successful. In only three months, the Das Haus in der Sonne sold over 40 thousand copies.
Carl Larsson suffered a mild stroke in January 1919 and passed away later that month, in Falun.
Carl Olof Larsson consolidated his name as one of Sweden's most internationally famous artists. Although the artist considered Midvinterblot his masterpiece, his oeuvre became especially known for his idyllic depictions of family life in watercolor.
The Swedish artist also impacted the Arts and Crafts movement as well as Art Nouveau, spreading these influences throughout his country. Carl and Karin Larsson's legendary home, depicted in his paintings, was mostly designed by both, from furniture to clothing and bedsheets, and became one of the foremost representatives of Swedish interior design.