I did not know of the remarkable 19th-century Norwegian painter, Peder Balke (1804-1887) before now, but his painting, “The North Cape by Moonlight “(1844), which I first saw on the Metropolitan Museum’s website, brought to mind the work of the great Norwegian Romantic painter, J. C. Dahl (1788–1857). I was not surprised to learn that Balke studied with Dahl in Dresden from 1843 to 1844. The 17 paintings by Balke in the beautiful, compact exhibition, Peder Balke: Painter of Northern Light at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (April 10 – July 9, 2017), are complimented by five Dahl paintings and individual works by August Cappelen (1827–1852) and Thomas Fearnley (1802–1842). All of Balke’s paintings in the exhibition were done after he was mentored by Dahl.
As much as Balke is connected to these artists and their paintings of Romantic landscapes, the driving force behind his work is his desire to harness paint’s capacious materiality, from impasto to liquidity, to evoke the changing, often tumultuous physicality of his subject matter: the roiling ocean, turbulent clouds, obdurate rock, and luminous moonlight, and such distinct phenomena as the Aurora Borealis. Balke is the most adventuresome of this group when it comes to manipulating paint, which partially explains why his paintings were not well received and were even seen as unfinished during his lifetime. In “The North Cape by Moonlight,” the lines of rolling surf lit by the moon are thick white impasto strokes. Balke’s control is both remarkable and necessary, as he folds part of the stroke over on itself to convey the surf curling toward shore.
What is more remarkable is that this is just one of many ways he exploited paint’s materiality. A looser, more sinuous brushwork is combined with a thinner viscosity of paint for the clouds gathering just below the moon, which illuminates the scene like a floodlight from the top center of the painting. Despite these vying methods of applying paint, the scene does not fall apart or appear contrived.
In Balke’s work, each event — clouds, waves, rock face, beach, Aurora Borealis — required a different application and viscosity. Many of the 17 paintings in the exhibition are done on paper mounted on cardboard. “Old Trees” measures less than six by eight inches. One combination of brushstroke and viscosity is used to make the backlit gray and white clouds, while another evokes the surface of the blasted trees in the foreground, and still another for the earth from which the old trees emerge. A dollop of white paint rolls across the top of the tree’s inverted L like whipped cream. The painting’s diminutive size pulls the viewer closer, so that the paint itself becomes one of the work’s marvels.
Along with his exploration of paint’s material possibilities, Balke used other striking devices: working with a near-monochrome palette in “Sea Fortress” (1844), or using his fingerprints to evoke the rocks in the foreground of the black-and-gray “Ships in a Storm” (circa: 1870s). In this grisaille painting, which is largely made of neutral grays and measures around three by five inches (the size of note card), Balke does not apply paint so much as wipe away areas of thinned washes, achieving effects we might associate with film emulsion. The interplay between the directional brushstrokes (waves), storm clouds (tonal washes), and stones (black fingerprints) is unique in 19th-century painting.
By using a rag to wipe his surfaces, Balke dispensed with a brush. The ghostly image in “Sea Fortress” seems poised on the cusp of dissolving into porous matter. In “Seascape” (1870s), he used thin, gray, wraithlike washes to paint on wood. He seems to have experimented relentlessly in order to celebrate the wild differences of sensual experience, from moonlight to crashing waves.
Balke’s experiments with paint and the effects he attained through different viscosities, applications, and tools, looks forward to a painter such as Elliot Green, who may be one of his greatest heirs.
Like his mentor Dahl and John Constable, Balke believed that the sky was as important as the subject below, perhaps more so, given how it takes up more space than the sea or land in his works. There are at least two dramas going in the paintings, the one above and the one below. They are simultaneously separate, governed by different laws, and joined together. Even on the calmest day, everything is dramatic, which makes sense if you live in a country where the sun seldom sets in the summer and appears only briefly in the winter. It is a world of dark and light, of extremes.
In “Northern Lights” (1870s), a series of vertical scraped areas (from lines to bands) stretch across much of the sky to evoke the Aurora Borealis. In the world below, horizontal striations embody a calm, waveless sea. Perhaps Balke felt that events such as the Aurora Borealis required new techniques and that naturalism was not up to the task of evoking the drama of a constantly changing world of sky and sea.
In the largely gray “Coastal Landscape” (1860s), Balke conjures up the rocks’ surfaces, the gray sky’s ethereal luminosity, and the physical presence of the incoming tide. I imagine that the artist wanted the paint itself to pay homage to reality’s diversity. His unorthodox methods feel contemporary, reminding us that paint’s capacity to become something unexpected, more than 150 years later, has not been exhausted. He made the wave in the foreground of “Ships in a Storm” by wiping away a thin wash of paint, leaving a striated band. This act of removal is consistent with the sea’s power. At the same time, everything in the painting is competing with everything else, suggesting that reality is tempestuous, even when it seems tranquil. This is where Balke’s metaphysical beliefs merge smoothly with the visceral effects of his innovative techniques.
By shifting our focus between the paint application and subject matter, with neither attaining the upper hand, Balke attains something his contemporaries never considered. His subject matter might have been of its time, but in paint handling he was ahead of his time, as if he knew what was lying up ahead.
Peder Balke: Painter of Northern Light continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 9.