NIKOLAI ASTRUP (1880-1928)
Nikolai Astrup was born in Bremanger in 1880, and moved to the parsonage at Ålhus in Jølster in 1883 when his father, Christian Astrup, was appointed as vicar there. As the oldest son, Nikolai was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, and at the age of 15 he began studying at Trondheim Cathedral School. Two years later he left the school in order to become an artist. While in Trondheim he encountered original art for the first time, and as a teenager he admired the art of Erik Werenskiold, Theodor Kittelsen and Gerhard Munthe.

He began attending Harriet Backer’s private school of painting in Kristiania (later Oslo) in 1899, and with the support of art collector and patron Olaf Schou he travelled through Germany to Paris in 1901-02. In Paris he studied at the Académie Colarossi under Christian Krohg, but as early as May 1902 he returned to Jølster to begin his lifelong art project. He would later explain that it was while he was in Paris that he became aware of the potential Jølster had as an artistic subject, probably due to the inspiration of artists Henri Matisse, Maurice Denis, Paul Gauguin and Henri “le Douanier” Rousseau. Rousseau claimed that nature was his teacher, and the same could be said of Nikolai Astrup; the landscape of Jølster, especially around the areas of Ålhus and Sandalstrand, served as Astrup’s preferred artistic motif for the rest of his life. He exhibited pictures from Jølster in Kristiania for the first time in 1905, and was praised by the critics for having captured “the distinctive, peculiar nature of western Norway” in a new way. 

Astrup was very concerned with keeping up to date in the world of art. He subscribed to both Norwegian and foreign journals, and went on several study tours, including journeys to London in 1908, Berlin in 1911, and Copenhagen and Stockholm in 1916. In 1922-23 he and his wife Engel went on a long trip through Germany, Switzerland and Italy to Algeria, and returned to Jølster via Spain and France.

Astrup suffered from asthma and lung ailments throughout his life, and died of pneumonia in January 1928. At his home, Astruptunet, he left behind his wife, Engel Astrup, whom he had married in 1907, and eight children from 17 to 2 years old.

Sandalstrand, today best known as Astruptunet, was Nikolai Astrup’s home for 15 years. The artist purchased the old smallholding in September 1912 to be used as outlying land, but after a conflict with the landowner at Myklebust, where Astrup and his family had lived since 1911, they moved to Sandalstrand in January 1913. 

In 1912 the farmstead, which was situated along a steep slope, was in very poor condition. There was no access road, the house was dilapidated, and small landslides occurred regularly down the steep hill. Astrup nonetheless decided to make this place a future home for himself and his growing family. During the following years he built a road, a new hay barn, several new houses and an artist’s studio, and began to cultivate a garden. The steep slope was fashioned into terraces, which Astrup called “green walls”, and here he cultivated seedlings, vegetables, berry bushes, fruit trees and rhubarb. He called rhubarb “the grape of the North”, and was well known in the nearby village for the rhubarb wine that he brewed. In addition to growing the family’s food he also explored the world of plants by crossbreeding and grafting. His garden was full of braided birches and trees that were shaped into otherworldly figures. But he claimed that all of this experimentation was a “vice”.

Astrup created a magical home, and by the 1920s he began to feel contented with “what these hands made”. When artist Ludvig Ravensberg and writer Hans E. Kinck visited Sandalstrand in 1922 they gaped in amazement:

Astrup, this peculiar man, has imbued the entire place with a soul; he has built houses, pollinated and crossbred plants, built up earthen embankments, battled the harsh nature, constructed stone caves and terraces. Here he alternates as a carpenter, farmer, lover of nature and man of culture. Kinck and I walk around entirely awestruck. (Ravensberg, 12 July 1922)

During the 1920s the new home at Sandalstrand also became a central motif in his art. In 24 paintings, including five still life interiors and 19 landscapes, as well as two woodcuts in a variety of versions, one can gain a panoramic view of what was perhaps Astrup’s most all-encompassing artwork: Astruptunet. 

Engel Astrup lived at Sandalstrand until the year she died, 1966. The previous year she had sold the entire establishment to the municipality of Jølster, and the contract, agreed on in 1965, stipulated that all the movable property and artworks that belonged to Astruptunet were included in the sale. The municipality also contracted to “maintain Astruptunet – the property, house and everything included in the agreement”, with particular focus on keeping the interior of the house as it was during Nikolai Astrup’s lifetime “to the extent that this is appropriate”. For her part, Engel Astrup had been operating Astruptunet virtually as a museum since the 1930s. Among the improvements she had organised when the main house was being renovated was the construction of a staircase enabling the public to view the artist’s studio. 

The sale also included a unique collection of Astrup’s printing plates. Since the museum’s official inauguration in 1986, Astruptunet has accepted several generous endowments and loans from the Astrup family, the Gjensidige insurance company, the bank Sparebanken Sogn og Fjordane, the Sunnfjordlaget association in Bergen and several private collectors. In 1991, 51 works from the former Reksten collection were purchased through the Sogn og Fjordane county administration, including Juninatt kl. 3 (June Night, 3 AM), which is a combination of painting and woodcut techniques. The museum holds several textile works, among others two banners painted by Nikolai Astrup and eight tapestries that he designed. The collection also includes printing equipment and a selection of Engel Astrup’s textile art – work that bears witness to an innovative interpretation of traditional wood carving designs.

by Tove Kårstad Haugsbø
senior curator
Nikolai Astrup research centre for art and landscape, KODE Bergen