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A misunderstood painting

Posted March. 23, 2023 07:49,   

Updated March. 23, 2023 07:49


A young man in nude plays the violin in a waterfall. This eccentric scene, painted by Ernst Josephson, triggered intense debate when the painting was finished. Who is the man in the painting, and what made the artist draw such a picture?

Josephson was born in 1851 to an affluent Jewish family in Sweden. He grew up in a cultivated environment influenced by his uncles, who were playwrights and composers. However, he suffered the tragedy of losing his father and sister when he was in his teens. He joined the Royal Institute of Arts at 16, and at the age of 20, he determined to "become the Rembrandt of Sweden or die."

This painting (titled “Water Sprite, 1882, photo), which was created in his early 30s when he was greatly successful, depicts water sprite of Northern European mythology. According to myths, water sprite is frightful in that he tempts people with excellent violin performance, leading them to drown. In the painting, the water sprite plays under the moonlight. Behind him, the sound of water splashing down is mixed with the music.

Waterweeds flow around his head and legs, while white flowers tickle his bank and legs. Young and sound, water sprite has his eyes half-closed and his mouth half-open. He looks like he is caught up in his music rather than tempting others. When the painting was unveiled, it was severely denounced by critics and was declined by the Swedish National Arts Museum.

Despite such a response, Josephson created several versions of the same theme. He believed that water sprite symbolized humans in his uncontrolled, free state. The painter regarded water sprite as an ego of a romantic artist that did not rely on society but pioneered his own way. Thus water sprite is a self-reflection of the artist who feels lonely and suffers but is happily immersed in his artistic world.

As realism and naturalism were mainstream back then in Swedish art, such subjective paintings were difficult to be accepted. The Swedish National Arts Museum purchased the painting in recognition of its innovation and work in 1915, 33 years after its creation.