Portraits that set the scene

Many portraits in the National Museum’s collection were originally bought to illustrate historical fashion.

Text by Collections Assistant Janne Helene Arnesen

The former Museum of Decorative Arts and Design acquired numerous portrait paintings where the details of the depictions mattered more than the artist or the pictures origin. It is only recently that these works have begun to tell their own story.

A director obsessed with historical fashion

As director of the Museum of Decorative Art and Design in Oslo from 1928 to 1960, Thor B. Kielland was an outstanding figure in Norway’s museum landscape. Kielland campaigned for an independent fashion museum in Oslo. Although he didn’t achieve his dream, he did succeed in organising two remarkable costume parades, in 1933 and 1952. At the heart of these spectacular presentations were the citizens of Oslo, dressed in historical attire. The events featured dance, music and lectures. It was the ambition of the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design to document all the historical garments in Norway, and to establish a narrative of Norwegian urban fashion and its European influences.

A small contribution to the dress history

In 1952, director Kielland published a little book with the title Draktbilder i Kunstindustrimuseet i Oslo (Dress Pictures in the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in Oslo).

It is interesting to note that he describes the museum’s paintings as «dress pictures» even in the title. The portraits were acquired not as examples of painting as such or to document the work of a particular artist, but as components in an extensive presentation about the history of style. In Kielland’s own words, they serve «to adorn and illuminate a furniture collection» and as «a supplement to the museum’s dress collection». In his conclusion, he remarks cautiously:

Finally, I wish to ask that this illustrated booklet should not seen as something grander that it aims to be: a modest contribution to the dress history.

Portraits to fill gaps in the collection

Some of the portraits served as «missing links», showing garments that were lacking in the museum’s collection, or hairstyles and accessories that helped to fill out the narrative.

One example is the portrait of Hulleborg Hielm, née Abel, painted around 1780. She is depicted in a red dress with a floral pattern, large ribbon bow and gauze collar, and adorned with jewellery. She also sports an impressively high, powdered hairdo topped with a lace bonnet.

Comparing the Hielm portrait to a rust-red dress from the same period, creates a clearer impression of both the dress as such and the fashions of the 1780s.

Other portraits show garments and jewellery corresponding with items in the museum’s collection. One example is the little portrait of Princess Charlotte Amalie of Denmark-Norway, which brilliantly illustrates the 18th century use of large jewellery sets.

Portraits that set the scene

Many of the portraits were meant to add a human element to the displays. An exciting portrait in this respect is that of Major General Louis Claude le Normand de Bretteville.

The Major General is pictured sitting on a gilded chair, with a window and a bookcase in the background. Dressed in a fashionable blue velvet suit, he is playing the harp. The portrait hung for a long time in a room devoted to the Rococo era, where Bretteville provided the personal touch. The theme was further emphasised by a precious harp placed in front of the portrait; and not just any old harp, but the very one depicted in the portrait. As chance would have it, both the portrait and the harp ended up in Norway. Having travelled by different routes, they were eventually reunited. Together they give an impression of the clothing, interiors and even the music of the period – in front of the window viewers get a glimpse of the sheet music that Bretteville is presumably playing: a minuet by J.C. Fischer, which became particularly popular after Mozart wrote a set of piano variations on the theme.

The private portraits

A third category that is abundantly represented in the collection is a genre of its own: the miniature portraits. These were portable items that could either be worn on the body as jewellery, or concealed in small lockets accessible only to the owner. Some have a lock of hair attached to the back, and they have particular personal significance either for the depicted person or for the owner.

One such miniature portrait can be seen in the Monsen Garniture shown above. Originally mounted in a bracelet that was later turned into a brooch surrounded by blue enamel forget-me-nots, this portrait once belonged to Helene Cathrine Büchler of the Linderud estate. It probably depicts her late father, Johan Georg Büchler.

Another miniature portrait shows King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway. Unlike the others, this one is not painted, but rather embroidered. Tiny stitches of silk are used to recreate the king’s baroque attire with its lace collar and the characteristic hair style. The portrait is based on an engraving by Simon de Passe from 1633.

It is said that this miniature portrait was embroidered by the Countess Christina Ulfeldt, daughter of King Christian IV and Kirsten Munk, during her twenty-two years of imprisonment for complicity in treason.

In her memoir «Jammers Minde» (literally: A Memoir of Lament), the countess describes how she had an embroidery needle smuggled in to her. In order to have some thread to embroider with, she unravelled silk ribbons from her clothes. Whether or not this is true we cannot know, but if we accept this story, the portrait can be viewed as a powerful plea of defence; the countess had been imprisoned without trial, and by embroidering her father, she was reaffirming her status as daughter of the king.

The portraits in the new National Museum

Miniature portraits have often been incorporated in larger presentations on themes such as metal art, painting or personal items. In the new National Museum, which opens in 2022, the embroidered miniature portrait of King Christian IV will be presented in a separate display case, in a room devoted to embroidery. In other words, it is the medium that stands in focus. Also on show in the museum is the Monsen Garniture with the miniature portrait of Johan Georg Büchler, while the portrait of Bretteville and his original harp will be on display in the rooms that explore the 18th century.


  • Henrik Glahn: Tysk barok-cembalo og fransk rokoko-harpe, i Kunstindustrimuseets årbok 1950-1958 (1960)
  • Thor B. Kielland: Draktbilder i Kunstindustrimuseet i Oslo (1952)
  • Anne Kjellberg: Intervensjoner. Gammel broderikunst møter ny, i Nålens øye. Samtidsbroderi (2014)
  • Aase Bay Sjøvold: Om moter, drakt og Kunstindustrimuseet i Oslo, i Kunstindustrimuseets årbok 1972-1975