This is the fourth article in in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Scandinavian artist’s life and work.
Mathias Skeibrok was born 1851 in Skeibrok, a small place in Lista in the south of Norway. He died in 1896, only 45 years old. His parents were poor farmers and he was the second out of five children. As a boy he worked on his parents’ farm, first as shepherd, later as fisherman. The whole family worked together, fishing and farming. In his spare time, he liked to make drawings and do wood cuttings.
How did this boy become one of the most remarkable artists in Norway in the 19th century?
In school Mathias’ teachers recognized his talent for making remarkable drawings and he carved in wood better than anyone. Mathias didn’t have access to many examples of art that he could draw on for inspiration, but close to his home there were simple stone carvings from the Viking age. Also, the furniture in his home had decorative woodcarvings that could inspire him. In this way his interest in art came out of his own talent, and not the other way around.
As a young man he was a construction worker at the lighthouse in Lista and in his spare time he cut portraits in wood with his knife. His friends were astonished at the likenesses he created.
The lighthouse boss saw that Mathias Skeibrok had talent and recommended him to a friend in Oslo who ran a woodcarving company and was in need of a new and talented craftsman. Oslo, the capital, was the centre of art in Norway. It was a place with possibilities and Mathias used his income from the woodcarving company to study sculpturing. His portraits in the naturalistic style became popular and he made an income by selling them. In 1874 one portrait of a famous Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg got him enough money to travel to Copenhagen in Denmark for further studies.
At the time the prevailing trend in art was romanticism, where the artist depictured people in glorious and beautiful ways. In line with this Skeibrok wanted to depict figures from old Nordic history and mythology. He later departed from that idea however and started the movement realism in Norway.
In 1876 he received a public scholarship and went to France. In Paris the ideas in art was to create sculptures of people in their daily lives, not in artificial romantic settings. Mathias Skeibrok had been well known for his busts, mostly ordered by rich people to honour popular men but influenced by Parisian artists, he created in an oversized dimension, a sculpture of the legendary Viking Ragnar Lodbrok in severe pain, portraying his body in fine detail. This sculpture was accepted at the World Exhibition in Paris 1878.
Mathias Skeibrok’s most important work was a sculpture of a tired working girl, sleeping on her chair. This work fully shows Skeibrok’s talent for portraying. In realistic detail a tired girl is shown. Her clothes, tools, the chair she is sitting on, everything is correctly formed. This sculpture is not only an outstanding work when it comes to sculpturing, but also original in choice of topic: The idea was to display the situation of working girls at a time when industrial workers had very few rights. The model might have been Skeibrok’s own sister, as she worked at home. This sculpture was the first to introduce the Realism, the dominant art style in Paris at the time, into Norway.
Another realistic sculpture of Skeibrok is “The mother watches a sick child”. It has no roots in history or classicism, but is showing the daily life of ordinary people.
In 1885 Skeibrok won a competition for decorating the front wall of Oslo University. This work was in a classic style. It shows him in the phase of styles between historic romantic and realistic to naturalistic.
While “Tired” (Træt) was perhaps depicturing Mathias’ sister, the little playing child in “Ride, ride” is his daughter. His first wife died in 1886 after one year of marriage. He married again in 1892.
Skeibrok was a man of great talent, and after his time in Copenhagen and Paris he returned to Norway where he taught at the art academy in Oslo. One of his students was the famous artist Gustav Vigeland, the most well-known sculptor in Norway, ever.
A collection of the works by the great sculptor Mathias Skeibrok is exhibited in a little museum close to Lista, where he was born.
Information taken from Norwegian Artist Dictionary. Photos are from Vestagdermuseet, Lista.
Text: Alfred Vaagsvold