On a cold January day in 1885, a great discovery was made in Kristiania (the old name for Oslo). The collector of fairytales, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, had just died of pneumonia. In his bookcase they found a dusty album, soon to be recognized as a national treasure.
Along with Jørgen Moe, Asbjørnsen had published volumes of beloved Norwegian folktales in the decades before he died. He also got the artists Erik Werenskiold and Theodor Kittelsen to illustrate the fairytales.
These illustrations were transferred from paper to wooden blocks, before finally being printed in the books, as you can see in the glass display case in the middle of this room.
These images of trolls, forest nymphs and people quickly became a cherished part of Norwegian cultural heritage, but where did the original drawings go? Until that cold January day in 1885, there was only one person who knew that.
Tucked away in Asbjørnsen’s dusty album were over 200 drawings. The struggle to preserve them for posterity began. The estate wanted to sell them to the National Gallery, who wanted to buy them but could not afford to.
Then, something quite unusual happened. A petition was launched, which major Norwegian cultural personalities such as the playwrighter Henrik Ibsen and the novelist Camilla Collett signed in support of the struggle to raise the money needed. It yielded results, and the Norwegian government funded the National Gallery to buy the entire collection.
The images by Kittelsen and Werenskiold continue to inspire writers, musicians and filmmakers to this day. For example, when you imagine what a troll looks like, what do you see? Many of us probably think of something similar to one of these artists’ fantasy characters.
Now, here at the National Museum, you can see many of the drawings from Asbjørnsen’s album up close in the Study Room next door.