The Water Sprite
- Artist: Theodor Kittelsen
- Creation date: (1887)
- Object type: Drawing
Theodor Kittelsen’s drawings have a special place in the history of Norwegian art and culture. He is perhaps best known for his illustrations of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s folktales, but he also illustrated his own texts.
This illustration features a creature with luminous eyes peering up amidst the water lilies of the tarn, or small forest lake. The incipient ripples on the otherwise calm surface reinforce the impression that the creature, which resembles the roots of a tree, is alive. This monster, known in Norwegian folklore as the nøkken, recurs in several of Kittelsen’s pictures, but this drawing is his first known depiction of the mythical creature. Kittelsen has delicately reproduced the reflection of the trees on the tarn’s tranquil surface, hinting at the contrast between the idyllic and menacing aspects of nature. The supernatural and the natural merge into one and personify the forces Kittelsen perceived in his relationship with nature. This is characteristic of many of his pictures, whether lyrical depictions of nature or more dramatic and fanciful scenes.
In ancient folklore, the nøkken was a baleful creature that small children in particular had to be protected from. He could also assume other shapes, such as a beautiful white horse or an old skiff; no matter his form, he would always try to lure his prey down to the depths of the tarn. Kittelsen described the monster as follows in his book Troldskab: “He lurks in the tarn among the large, radiant lilies that you reach for. Even before you’ve touched the lily, the quagmire gives way beneath you – and that’s when he grabs you with his wet, slimy hands.”
This drawing was purchased by the National Gallery in 1893, along with seven other drawings from Troldskab.
Born 1857 in Kragerø, death 1914 in Jeløya, Norge
Although the figures portrayed in Nøkken (The Monster of the Lake), Skogtrollet (The Forest Troll) and Pesta (The Black Death) are over 100 years old, they still resonate as icons within the minds of many Norwegians. But who is the artist who created these legendary characters?
As a young man Theodor Kittelsen wanted to become a painter, but it would be his drawings that brought him the greatest success. Here he found an outlet for his sense of humour and his enthusiasm for stories, fairy tales, the comedic and, not least, the magic of nature. Kittelsen’s pictures of the Ash Lad, trolls, princesses and animals have captured the imaginations of generation after generation. In Troldskab (Magic), a series of mystical images of the natural world illustrating Kittelsen’s own texts, he portrayed nature and natural forces that he himself had experienced at first hand. The boy gazing at the golden palace in the distance, from the series of paintings Soria Moria slott (Soria Moria Palace), has become a symbol of the dream of succeeding in life.
Moods of nature
“It is not the dramatic ‘effects’ of nature that I am concerned about. It is the mystical aspect of it, the calm, the secretive…”Kittelsen, Aftenposten (newspaper), 9 October 1904
Kittelsen’s close connection with his natural surroundings – not only their mystical and secretive aspects, but also their subtle and evocative ones – is reflected in his drawings. The drawings from Lofoten, which he executed while living there, are among his most important works. The same can be said of his lovely, subdued watercolours from Jomfruland, depicting the luminous summer landscape of the outermost skerries by Kragerø. He often used realistic renditions of the landscape as a basis for his works, but incorporated elements of age-old legends to introduce an extra dimension. Again, these bear witness to his love of drawing and ability to combine different techniques. As a young man Kittelsen was not fond of winter, but as he grew older he became increasingly fascinated by the process of rendering snow and snow-covered landscapes. Snow-laden spruce trees containing bullfinches or leaping squirrels are transformed into captivating winter fairy tales.
The illustrations for Svartedauen (The Black Death) reveal Kittelsen’s great skill in creating a series. Here he combined historical material from the Middle Ages with his own pull towards the dark and melancholy in nature. The pictures, texts and vignettes were based on stories of the rural population’s encounters with folktales about the black plague and death. The landscapes and buildings in the series can also be traced back to various places where the artist himself had lived, from the Sole farm in Eggedal to Sund in Lofoten. The gaunt, crooked figure representing the plague is an unpleasant reminder of the hardships and distress of the past. The combination of pencil with wash, charcoal and wax crayon serves to intensify the atmosphere of the pictures.