Scandinavian Art

Scandinavian art and architecture

Scandinavian art and architecture, works of art and structures created in the Scandinavian area of Europe.

Early History

The Scandinavian countries are rich in artifacts and objects of archaeological interest dating from the end of the Ice Age through the Bronze Age, the Celtic and Germanic Iron Ages, and the Viking period. Viking art (c.800–c.1050) is characterized by dynamic geometric design of considerable complexity and sophistication and the ingenious use of animal forms. It bears a clear relationship to other European trends, particularly to Hiberno-Saxon illumination. Numerous fine examples of early Scandinavian art are in the collections of the museums of Copenhagen and Stockholm.

The Early Christian Period

Church building became the principal artistic activity when Scandinavia was Christianized in the 11th cent. The wooden stavkirke, a medieval church decorated with grotesque figures, is unique to this region; examples remain only in Norway, where it was most prevalent. The cathedral at Lund, Sweden, begun in 1085, reveals Lombard influence; Gothic elements predominate in the cathedrals of Linköping and Skara. The island of Gotland produced numerous sculptural and architectural masterworks of the Gothic period. The cathedral at Trondheim, begun in the 12th cent., bears a resemblance to English Gothic architecture, particularly to Lincoln Cathedral. Uppsala Cathedral was built by French architects.

The Renaissance and Baroque Period

Foreign stylistic influence persisted through the Renaissance and baroque periods, the North German school of Lübeck becoming more and more the chief source for Scandinavian styles. Castles such as Gripsholm exemplify this borrowing habit. Great castle-building activity was instigated by the Danish and Swedish rulers of the 16th to 18th cent.; outstanding examples include Kronborg (c.1570–1590) and Fredriksborg (c.1560–1620) castles and the rebuilt castle of Stockholm (1690–1708; 1727–53).

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

In the 18th and 19th cent. native artists began to gain international prestige. From Denmark the neoclassicist sculptor A. B. Thorvaldsen taught and worked in Rome, wielding enormous stylistic influence. The painters Christoffer Eckersberg and N. A. Abildgaard were prominent, as were the architects C. F. Harsdorff and C. E. Hansen. The academy of Copenhagen attracted students from Germany, including the painters P. O. Runge and C. D. Friedrich.

Norway produced its best-known artists late in the 19th cent.—most notably the sculptors Stephan Sinding and A. G. Vigeland and the protoexpressionist painter Edvard Munch. Significant Swedish artists included the sculptor J. T. Sergel and, in the late 19th and early 20th cent., the painters A. L. Zorn and Carl Larsson.

The Twentieth Century

The Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, who worked extensively in the United States, was among the most notable Scandinavian artists of the early part of the century. Since World War II various strains of abstraction have been developed by a number of Scandinavian artists.

The inventive use of traditional and regional forms within the plain vocabulary of brick construction led to a rejuvenation of Scandinavian architecture in the early 20th cent. with the works of P. V. J. Klint of Denmark and Ragnar Ostberg, Sigfrid Ericsson, and, above all, E. G. Asplund of Sweden. The Finnish architects Eliel Saarinen and Alvar Aalto influenced Scandinavian design profoundly and have international acclaim for establishing an unquestionably new architecture. Modern Scandinavian furniture and applied arts, particularly glassmaking, metalwork, woodwork, and ceramics, have been widely imitated for their simplicity and purity of line.


See The Art of Scandinavia, Vol. I by P. Anker (tr. 1970), Vol. II by A. Andersson (tr. 1970); M. C. Donnelly, Architecture in the Scandinavian Countries (1992).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Scandinavian Art: Selected full-text books and articles

FREE! Scandinavian Art By Emil Hannover; Jens Thiis; Carl Laurin American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1922
Late Saxon and Viking Art By T. D. Kendrick Methuen, 1949
Edvard Munch By Frederick B. Deknatel; Johan H. Langaard Chanticleer Press, 1950
The Scandinavian Countries, 1720-1865: The Rise of the Middle Classes By B. J. Hovde Cornell University Press, vol.1, 1948
Librarian's tip: Chap. V "The Professionalization of the Arts in the Eighteenth Century"
The Vikings By Johannes Brøndsted; Kalle Skov Penguin Books, 1965
Librarian's tip: Chap. Twelve "Art"
Medieval Art By Marilyn Stokstad Harper & Row, 1986
Librarian's tip: Chap. VI "Art outside the Carolingian Empire: The Art of the British Isles and Scandinavia"
FREE! A History of Ornament: Ancient and Medieval By A. D. F. Hamlin Century, 1916
Librarian's tip: "Scandinavian Ornament" begins on p. 277
Art to Finnish By Valjakka, Timo Artforum International, Vol. 33, No. 9, May 1995
A History of Sweden By Andrew A. Stomberg Macmillan, 1931
Librarian's tip: "Swedish Art" begins on p. 743
The Hang of It By Obrist, Hans-Ulrich Artforum International, Vol. 35, No. 8, April 1997
Anders Zorn By Anders Zorn; Malcolm C. Salaman The Studio, 1925
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