Carl and Karin Larsson: Their Collaboration, their Critics and their Transcendency

Last week I began re-perusing a book I’ve owned for some time called The World of Carl Larsson.  As I’d mentioned, I’d been drawn for years to the paintings Larsson did of his home and like many another person of Scandinavian origin, wanted to create a similar atmosphere in my own.  I had read that Larsson’s books, illustrated by his paintings, had revolutionized home decorating in his own day.  I can well believe it.  His home was filled with light:

Carl Larsson interior

The Flower Window

I’ve been reading about Carl and Karin out of interest, because they were both artists, wanting to know more about their collaboration.  Hans-Curt Koster writes (The World of Carl Larsson), “Karin no longer manifested herself artisitcally with her own artwork after 1884, the year Suzanne was born, so far as we know.  Her achievements in the field of textile art, which are to be seen mostly in Carl’s pictures from their home setting, stem almost all from after 1897.  But art historians are agreed that the creation of the Sundborn home, was chiefly if not practically exclusively the work of Karin, though Carl did have a hand in it.  It is also the prevailing opinion that Carl profited from Karin’s feel for color-effect.”

So, the Larsson home should more aptly be called the Karin Larsson Home.  As I have already mentioned, Carl and Karin met at a Swedish artists’ colony outside of Paris in the 1880s.  They were both painters.

I have learned by reading exerpts of The World…, that after he became Sweden’s most beloved artist, Carl was attacked and deeply hurt by critics in his later years.  This is not an unusual experience for anyone who achieves fame and becomes a role model.  The critic that probably packed the worst sting was a former champion of his, August Strindberg.  Strindberg had asserted in A Blue Book (1908), that “Carl and Karin Larsson, who at the time were the most celebrated family in Sweden, were merely putting on a show the whole time, were not revealing their true characters because the latter were diabolical and despicable, and especially that the Larsson domestic bliss, well-known throughout the kingdom, did not in reality exist — was just a lie.” (Strindberg’s assertion paraphrased byHans-Curt Koster)  A more recent critic, chiming in with Strindberg, alleges that “Carl and Karin were united only by hate-love and desire for notoriety.  Because Carl ‘forbade’ his wife to continue her work as an artist, she took revenge on him by forcing Carl to paint only what she had thought up.”  This latter is to comment on whether the Larsson paintings of their home and family life were the creations of them both or of Carl only.

Well, as Koster admits, it’s impossible to answer such critics definitively, since the Larssons, Strindberg and the whole pre-world war era is irrevocably gone, but it strikes me as highly unlikely that the two existed in a love-hate, ambition-driven dependency.

The fact that Carl Larsson had made his personal life the subject of his paintings, thereby creating an idyll, was undoubtedly due to the fact that the books, illustrated by his artwork, were well-received and liked.   We are the beneficiaries of his idyll.  But even after the public taste in art changed and Larsson became for many a paradigm of bourgeois complacency, at best irrelevant as a contemporary artist, and at worst, a hypocrite, he continued to paint happy pictures of his home life.

I see Larsson as faithful to his vision.  He wrote, “For life is, indeed, dreadful.  Each one makes the best he can of it but if one of us sometimes has something so bearable, yes, happy,…he can not help seeing side-by-side with himself…angry..individuals….One beast torments and devours the other, one flower stifles and kills the other…For many years you have been happy to call you best friend your own and then he turns his face against you — that is hellish….That is life….But we must, in order not to despair, keep saying encouraging things to ourselves and saying: “Nice weather we’re having today!

Larsson consciously made himself the the apostle of domestic happiness.  He had had the opposite experience of childhood and family himself.  His father had abandoned the family to poverty and struggle in a slum, surrounded by every kind of vice and evil.  That was Carl’s memory of it.  He, on the other hand, having married the right woman — and who can contest that marrying a person who will build you up, rather than tear you down, is one of the foundations of a successful life — was determined to create something else.  Koster writes that in the moment of Carl’s and Karin’s falling in love, they had been painting together.  Carl had experienced a revelation, in his words:  “And then we both painted Mere Morot.  And the scales fell from my eyes!  I had up to now not brought my so called talent into any kind of form, but now I had immediately succeeded with a little masterpiece, I think, because I got a medal for that picture.”  Koster goes on, “The moment when the ‘scales fell from his eyes’ had been for Carl Larsson definitely the most important thing in his life as an artist.  This moment could have been of equally great importance for Karin, who together with him had painted Mere Morot.  She wrote later to her parents that she had never felt so safe, so calm and so strong at the same time so devoted as now.”  Koster concludes, “This shared creative intoxication was probably sought again and again by the two, and in my opinion it is only natural if Carl and Karin shared in creating the subsequent Larsson pictures.”

I will not comment on the facts of nature, that women bear children and men don’t, which has been forever the reason women’s talents have rarely had the opportunity to be honed to the degree men’s have.  This was no doubt at work in Carl and Karin’s relationship.  However, I do not find it hard at all to believe in relative domestic bliss.  Way back in 1994, when the movie version of Little Women, starring Winona Ryder and Christian Bale, was released, having a chance conversation with someone in a doctor’s waiting room.  The (younger) woman told me she “despised the movie, because no one’s life was so sweet and cloying.”  My response was only, “Ummmmmm…..”  Frankly, such a wholesome family experience was completely famiiar to me, probably more banal and less story-worthy, but when I looked about myself, at my own life and that of my friends’, I didn’t find Little Women particularly unrealistic.  (Louisa May Alcott had really wanted to write thrillers and gothic novels about murder and romance, not a novel extolling virtue and personal growth.)  It’s certainly an edited version of Victorian life, but I think the spirit that pervades it is a completely valid human idealism.

Human idealism, a penchant for turning to the wholesome and upbuilding, is as valid as anything darker.  It is a real part of the spectrum of human experience, especially if one is determined to choose it over despair and bitterness.

Going to play cards

Just a Sip?

I’ve had this print hanging in my kitchen for years.  It shows the Larssons preparing for a card party and guests.


children's theatrics

Lisbeth Playing the Wicked Princess

family picnic

The Crayfish Season Opens

We had just such family picnics at Rabbit Lake (Aitkin, MN) on Midsummers’ Day when I was a child.

alfresco lunch

Breakfast under the Big Birch

My grandmother had a special fondness for a large birch at their family farm in Lappajarvi, Finland.  She came from a family of many sisters and brothers.  This painting has always reminded me of her childhood.

My Grandmother and Uncle Unto under the Big Birch

I know this photo needs photoshopping badly, but I don’t happen to have Photoshop right now.

Swedish Cottage

Carl and Karin's Cottage


Who wouldn’t want to stay here?