Einar Jónsson

First off, apologies this wasn’t up yesterday.  There was an issue at work and I was called in early, before I had time to schedule this to post yesterday.  So here it is a day late, but no worse for wear. 😉

So if you remember back two weeks to the pictures from the south of Iceland, you might remember a picture from out in the sculpture garden at the Einar Jónsson Museum in Reykjavik.  I fell in love with those sculptures the first time I was in Iceland, and being able to go back in go in the museum and see more was just wonderful.  I figured who better to learn a bit more about than Einar.  I didn’t find a whole lot of varying information on Einar, so this might be a bit brief, but I’ll try and make up for that with pictures.

einarEinar Jónsson was born on May 11, 1874 at Galtafell, the family farm in southern Iceland.  There isn’t much known about Einar’s childhood other than that he had “an artistic bent” (1).  We know he went to Reykjavik for the first time when he was fifteen, and first saw parliament and the paintings there.  When he was seventeen, he moved to Reykjavik and began to learn English and drawing (2).

At this time there wasn’t a heritage of sculpting in Iceland.  In 1893 Einar left Iceland for Copenhagen, Denmark, where he first learned wood carving.  He then began learning true sculpting, and took night classes. (3)  And from 1896 to 1899 Einar studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.  Einar studied under the Danish sculptors Vilhelm Bissen and Theobald Stein.  Beginning in 1902, Einar studied in Rome on a grant from the Althing (Icelandic Parliament).

This time in Rome seems to have shifted something in how Einar worked.  While living in Rome he was able to visit throughout Germany, Austria, and Italy.  When he left Rome, Einar “completely rejected naturalistic depiction and publicly criticized the classical art tradition, which he felt had weighed artists down” (4).  Einar became focused on the need for artists to figure out their own style and path, following what they wanted to do rather than trying to follow what others had done.

Personally, Einar turned to German symbolism, also using personification and allegory in his pieces.  He also became interested in the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and theosophy, working this into his art as well.  While he was concerned about these abstract themes, he also wanted his art to be accessible and so always used concrete imagery that the public would understand and interpret themselves. (5)

3e Einar Jonsson museumIn 1909, Einar made a deal with the Althing.  They would build him a home, studio, and museum (all in one), and he would donate all of his works to Iceland.  It took some time, but in 1914, the Althing accepted this proposal.  Parliament pitched in for one-third of the cost and a national collection was taken up to provide for the other two-thirds. (6)  For his workspace/museum, Einar chose the highest point in Reykjavik and built the building to his own plans, though officially it was designed with Einar Erlendsson.

1h Jon SigurdssonThroughout this whole time he was away from Iceland, he was still creating Icelandic works either on his own or through commissions.  In this period he created “The Outlaw” (1900), “Jónas Hallgrímsson” (1907), and “Jón Sigurðsson” (1911); the statues of Jónas Hallgrímsson and Jón Sigurðsson are both displayed in Reykjavik.  He also took commissions for statues of Ingólfur Arnarson (in Reykjavik) and Þorfinnur Karlsefni (in Philadelphia; a second in Reykjavik).

(A note on all these people: Jónas Hallgrímsson was a poet and author; Jón Sigurðsson was a saga expert and politician who led Iceland’s independence movement; Ingólfur Arnarson, with his wife, was the first permanent settler in Iceland and founded Reykjavik; Þorfi.nnur Karlsefni was an explorer whose son, Snorri, was the first European child born in North America.)

1f in ReykjavikAt this time, in 1917, Einar married Anne Marie Jørgensen (Anna Jörgensen).  Together they travelled to the United States so Einar could continue work on the statue of Þorfinnur Karlsefni.  This statue was the first part of a bequest to “create a series of sculptures ‘emblematic of the history of America’” (7).  In 1920, Einar and Anne moved back to Iceland, and the following year his second major North American work was commissioned: a statue of Jón Sigurðsson for the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg.

Finally, in 1923, on Midsummer’s Day, the Einar Jónsson art museum opened.  This was the first art museum in Iceland.  The museum was on the main floor, Einar’s apartment was on the upper floor, and his studio was on the lower floor.  These positions shifted slightly over the years as Einar and Anne grew older and couldn’t move throughout the building as easily, including a building out back in what is now the sculpture garden.

Einar and Anne put work into the garden out back, and some of the bronze casts in the sculpture garden were cast while he was alive.  Einar died October 18, 1954 at the age of 80; Anne died October 2, 1975.  The sculpture garden didn’t open until June 8, 1984.

Iceland 3 540Einar Jónsson wasn’t like most sculptors.  Most sculptors work in clay, but due to the geologic makeup of Iceland, there wasn’t the clay for him to use.  Instead, Einar used plaster to create his pieces.  This also allowed him to continue working on a piece for much longer than modelling clay would allow (sometimes up to a decade) (8).  Only towards the end of his life and after his death were his works cast in bronze.
In addition to the twenty-six pieces on display in the sculpture garden at the museum, Einar created eight public monuments and did at least four private commissions.  In the museum you can see the plasters Einar created for some of his well-known pieces, pieces in the garden, and pieces that were never cast in bronze.  It’s a really wonderful museum and it was great being able to travel throughout Iceland and see his pieces across the country.

Iceland 3 544

1, 8 – Einar Jónsson

2, 3 – The Einar Jónsson Museum – Timeline

4, 5, 6 – The Einar Jónsson Museum – Carreer [sic] and view on art


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