Albertine to See the Police Surgeon
- Artist: Christian Krohg
- Creation date: (Påbegynt 1885, avsluttet 1887)
- Object type: Painting
The painting Albertine to See the Police Surgeon is realism at its most effective. It was regarded as scandalous when it was first exhibited, but now it is viewed as a success. The work incited widely divergent views, and the debate was heated. Why was this painting the subject of such intense controversy?
In March, 1887, there was a constant stream of people making a beeline to the street Rådhusgata in Kristiania every day. They were heading to see a painting on display. It was unusual for pictorial art to attract so much attention from the city’s inhabitants, but now both the bourgeoisie, who were typically interested in art, and members of the working class were eager to view Albertine to See the Police Surgeon.
What they got to see was a full-scale depiction of an everyday situation among the city’s prostitutes. It was as though Krohg had torn down the wall of the police surgeon’s waiting room on Møllergata, and was inviting people in to see what many knew was going on, but avoided talking about. Krohg, however, was fearless, and wanted to trigger a social debate. Only a few months earlier his novel Albertine had been published. The novel is about a poor working girl who is summoned to the police surgeon after having been raped by a police superintendent. She subsequently ends up as a prostitute. The novel was confiscated by the Ministry of Justice immediately after publication. It was especially the rape scene and the description of the gynaecological examination by the police surgeon that were deemed inappropriate for a novel.
The debate on prostitution in Kristiania in the 1880s
Prostitution had been illegal in Kristiania since 1842. All the same, the public authorities tacitly accepted it by providing compulsory medical check-ups and health controls. It was argued that the examinations of prostitutes were necessary to prevent the spread of venereal disease. Krohg saw this as a double standard, and he sought to put an end to this regulation and the systematic degrading and unlawful treatment to which impoverished women were subjected. In the painting, Albertine is placed in the background. She is clearly ashamed and embarrassed. She is dreading the examination, as the young women no doubt did in reality.
Freedom of expression and art
Krohg, along with many others, believed that the confiscation of his novel was a breach of Article 100 of the Norwegian Constitution, protecting freedom of expression. He brought the case before the Supreme Court, but lost and was forced to pay a fine. The painting was not confiscated, but the fact that the motif was closely associated with the prohibited book meant that several venues refused to exhibit the picture and some newspapers declined to print articles about the case. Eventually the debate came to revolve around freedom of expression in addition to the situation that the book and the picture criticised: that public prostitution had not yet been abolished, despite being prohibited by law.
From beauty to truth
The artists of the realism movement aimed at incorporating pictorial art as a factor in the social debate. Art was meant to be something more than decoration or entertainment. Attracting viewers from all social classes, as was the case with Krohg’s Albertine to See the Police Surgeon, was a sign of success. The ideal was to convey truth rather than beauty. Artists were to paint motifs from their own times. Krohg went so far as to hire prostitutes to model for the Albertine painting. Such a realistic portrayal of the dark side of society was designed to provoke viewers. Few Norwegian artworks have sparked such intense debate.
Billedkunstner, Author, Journalist, Jurist
Born 1852 in Vestre Aker, death 1925 in Oslo
Christian Krohg, one of the great Norwegian painters of the Realist movement, was a champion of justice and freedom of expression. Krohg painted members of the working class in the Kristiania of the 1800s with empathy and a desire for change.
His family expected him to practise law, like his father, but he wished to become an artist. Christian Krohg managed both. After completing his legal studies in Kristiania (now Oslo) he went to the art academy in Karlsruhe to study art. When many of the younger Norwegian art students travelled from Karlsruhe to Munich for further study, Krogh followed his teacher, Karl Gussow, to Berlin. His encounter with the metropolis awakened his social conscience, sparking a life-long focus on social issues.
Krohg’s stay in the small village of Skagen, Denmark, in 1879 left a lasting impression. Most of the artists who flocked to Skagen went to capture the landscape and the light. Krohg, however, chose to paint the people who lived there and the simple lives they led. He forged especially close ties with the Gaihede family, and painted many motifs depicting their everyday lives. We see the family’s eldest members, Ane and Niels Gaihede, slicing bread, mending fishing nets or resting. Their children and grandchildren are portrayed while sleeping, braiding hair or keeping watch over a sick child. Krohg returned to Skagen several times.
One of Krohg’s earliest socially targeted motifs is his depiction of the seamstress who has fallen asleep while working. In a number of versions he has portrayed a young girl who has been up sewing an order all night, and has fallen asleep at her sewing machine. We meet the seamstress again in one of Krohg’s most important projects, his story about Albertine. Krohg painted several scenes from Albertine’s life that were based on stories he had heard and people he had encountered.
In the early 1880s a group of young artists, writers and intellectuals began to gather in the cafés of the nation’s capital. They were rebelling against the prevailing social structure, and held loud discussions on morals, sex, drugs and free love. Krohg and writer Hans Jæger were the leading figures in this group of “Kristiania bohemians”. The members of the group were active in the press, as poets and as novelists, and Krohg and Jæger founded the newspaper Impressionisten (The Impressionist). It was there that Jæger presented his nine commandments, the rules of life for a good bohemian. One of the group’s members was Oda Engelhart, who married Krohg in 1888. Christian and Oda Krohg were the parents of artist Per Krohg and the grandparents of artist Guy Krohg.
Krohg was a prolific artist who explored a broad range of motifs. His many portraits are especially worth noting. He could portray Prime Minister Sverdrup or a small, bashful lad sitting on a spindleback chair with equal attention to detail. He was in great demand as a portrait artist due to his ability to evoke the character of his subjects.
From 1901 to 1909 Krohg lived mainly in Paris, where he taught at Académie Colarossi. Inspired by the new trends of the time, Krohg changed his precise, realistic style to an approach characterised by more diffused shapes and looser brushstrokes. His motifs featured artist’s models more prominently than previously. When Norway’s first art academy was opened in 1909, Krohg served as its first director and professor, a position he held until his death in 1925.