Introduction | Gallery

Olaf Gulbransson 1853-1978
Olivia and Robert Temple purchased from Maria's Estate many portraits of the Norwegian Bjornson family, which include Maria's father, uncle and aunt, grandmother and grandfather, and great-grandmother (the widow of the 1903 Nobel Laureate for Literature, Bjornstjerne Bjornson, who was Maria's great-grandfather). All of these portraits were done by Maria's uncle, the famous Norwegian artist Olaf Gulbransson, who married Maria's aunt, Dagny Bjornson, as his second (and younger) wife. Most of them were gifts for Christmas or birthdays, with intimate inscriptions containing family jokes. For instance, Maria's grandfather Einar Bjornson was teased by being called 'Big Belly', not because he had a big belly himself (he was actually very lean, which made it all the funnier to call him by that name), but because the famous Earl Einar of Norwegian legend was called that. That is also why Olaf teased his wife Dagny by calling her 'an earl's daughter'. The glamorous young man, even shown in one portrait as a young Roman emperor, is Maria's father, Bjorn Bjornson. Olaf liked in particular to sneak up on his subjects while they were having naps in sofas and armchairs, or even in bed, and draw them in repose. None of the portraits are of dead people, - they are of sleeping people! Also shown in some portraits is the family Nanny. Taken together, these pictures show a unique glimpse of the intimacy of a famous family as depicted by the artist in their midst. What makes the collection all the more extraordinary is that the Bjornsons were rather cold and formal people (as shown most clearly in the face of Einar Bjornson, Maria's grandfather), and these pictures almost make them look cozy and endearing, which was quite a feat on Olaf's part, considering how non-cozy and unendearing they really were as people. Olaf was clearly a romantic, who carried his romanticism about his second wife's family to extremes of humour and even fantasy. From these intimate glimpses of the glacial Bjornsons, the person who emerges with the most credit is the eccentric, almost childlike, Olaf himself. It is touching, almost pathetic, that he found these people to be so fascinating, when it was really he who was the interesting one, though he always relegated himself to the background in an almost abjectly humble manner. Who knows, perhaps when he depicted himself with a ring in his nose, led by Dagny, he was engaging in some wish-fulfillment.

It is believed that, with the obvious exception of the Royal family, this may be the largest existing group of portraits of any famous Norwegian family. It is hoped one day to return the collection to Norway.

The captions are in a mixture of southern German dialect and Norwegian. Gulbransson lived most of his life in Germany, but as a foreigner, his German was not of the highest literary quality and included many bizarre local Bavarian words and usages which are certainly not in any dictionary. However, as he was not discussing philosophy, it was possible to translate his strange comments from his barely comprehensible patois.

Full captions of all of these portraits will be posted when the translations of all the Norwegian inscriptions are complete.

We are grateful to Olemic Thommessen, MP, Maria's close friend and distant cousin, for the translation of the Norwegian inscriptions.