- Artist: Christian Krohg
- Creation date: (1881)
- Object type: Painting
Christian Krohg’s Sick Girl has often been interpreted as a socially polemical painting, portraying the dark underbelly of modern industrial society. But more generally, the painting is a harrowing depiction of an existential theme, as succinctly captured by the art historian Jens Thiis:
“You encounter this sick child and recognize her as though she were your own, even as there is something in her eyes that recalls a sick animal. Uncomplaining, they hold you captivated, and you give in to a nebulous sense of grief, as you feel the pain of seeing her animal vitality being inexorably consumed by death.”
The neutral surroundings and simple clothes detach the image from time and space and focus our attention on the psychological content. The dying girl is heavily foregrounded, allowing the viewers to almost feel as though they are in the same room as her. We are confronted with a brutal reality, but the girl herself expresses no sorrow or despair. Krohg adhered to the ideals of realistic painting and rarely used symbols, but in this case the withering rose in the girl’s lap is an unmistakable emblem of transience.
We do not know who sat for Krohg’s painting, but there is reason to believe that the memory of his sister Nana’s illness and death in 1868 was a crucial backdrop. Krohg suffered the same fate as Edvard Munch in that he lost both a sister and his mother at a young age, and Krohg’s Sick Girl may well have been a source of inspiration for Munch’s The Sick Child (1886).
Text: Vibeke Waallann Hansen
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.