When you enter The Metropolitan Museum’s latest gallery, you will find two massive maps of Norway marked with red lines. These maps show the various lengthy journeys of Peder Balke, an oft-forgotten Norwegian artist. Thematically, these maps might be the most important aspect of the entire exhibit, providing not only a tantalizing glimpse into the artist’s extraordinary life, but emphasizing that his vision came from experience. “Painter of the Northern Light” is simply an extraordinary collection of landscapes, presenting 17 stirring and moving visions of nature on canvas.
A sense of scope and grandeur is front-and-center in each of Balke’s works, from the large paintings to the maddening small frames. His ability to make nature feel massive is consistently impressive, making his human subjects appear insignificant against the towering peaks and sprawling seas. If there was ever an artist who truly understood how to make nature feel powerful, it is Balke. His ability to add depth through the tiniest bit of fog or with a rogue wave or ship is masterful as well, facilitating an immersive experience. Everything in his frame has an extraordinary weight to it — thick brush strokes and layers make the clouds feel dense and imposing and the sea overwhelming.
It’s rare to find an artist such as Balke who understands the mysticism around nature. A lot of this hinges on his skies, which are breathtaking in every single painting presented. The warm suns, nearly religious lighting, soothing mists and fogs — you could cut out the extraordinary seas and landscapes and still have masterpieces. Balke truly captures the Romantic ideal of nature as an enlightening, religious experience.
Balke also reveals himself to be quite an excellent artist of urban settings. Though under-represented in the gallery, one phenomenal cityscape is on display. His skillfulness is just as manifested here, creating a living, detailed and enthralling world in one image. Balke demonstrates his brilliance by capturing the same spirit and energy in the city as he does in his land and seascapes.
More than anything, Balke captures a sense of adventure and wonder rarely seen. If you have ever wondered what could be on the other side while wandering aimlessly through a city, hiking a trail or simply looking across rolling hills, Balke understands and captures the essence of this feeling. Since Balke spent his life traversing the world, his artistic style gives you the feeling that something unimaginable is always up ahead as long as you’re willing to explore. The result is something heightened and supernatural, all the while honest and grounded.
“Painter of the Northern Light” is Balke’s first solo exhibition in the United States, and frankly, that is a shame. The United States needs more of these extraordinary, invigorating works — works that more than earn Peder Balke the title “Painter of the Northern Light.”
“Peder Balke: Painter of the Northern Light” is on view at the Met Fifth Avenue at 1000 Fifth Ave. through July 9. Admission is pay as you wish.
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