Description & Technical information

Watercolour and gouache, heightened with white and gum Arabic, laid down on board.
Painted in 1905, this large landscape in watercolour and gouache was entitled Pax by Carl Johan Forsberg, and was included in his 1913 exhibition at the Konstnärshuset in Stockholm. As the artist noted, this large watercolour was inspired by a sketch made on a journey to the Swiss Alps in 1903, and in particular a visit to the upper Rhône valley in the canton of Valais. At the headwaters of the great river, Forsberg was struck by the majestic form of the Rhône Glacier. As he later wrote, ‘It was the first time I found myself in front of a glacier, alone in the infinite silence and solitude of the snow mountain, surrounded by the overwhelming majesty of nature; my soul was filled with reverence for the divine powers of nature, and it was under these poignant impressions that I composed the sketch for front of my eye spread the rim of the white glacier, from which the river gets its first nourishment, meandering slowly down into the valley, and at my foot the dark, black-blue surface of the ‘Totensee’. It gave me the first idea for my work...a composition that would become the ‘Capo lavoro’ of my life.’

Forsberg associated the grandeur and isolation of this alpine landscape with the fragility of life, and this sense was heightened by an accident that befell the artist and his wife as they were leaving the area which almost cost them their lives. They were descending by horse-drawn carriage from Lake Totensee via the Grimsel Pass when they were caught in a severe thunderstorm. The river flooded and burst its banks and a bridge collapsed just before the carriage crossed it, almost causing it to fall into the raging torrent and its occupants to drown. Forsberg and his companions had to cross the broken bridge, in darkness, on hastily placed wooden planks, before they were able to continue their journey and finally reach shelter in the town of Mieringen. Forsberg was understandably shaken by this experience, and never forgot it. He came to associate the Rhône with the Styx, the mythological river dividing the worlds of the living and the dead in Greek mythology, and saw the name of Lake Totensee (literally ‘the lake of the dead’) as another portent of the accident.

Haunted by the trauma of this close brush with death, Forsberg was determined to translate his sketch from Gletsch into a finished work, but this took some time. As the artist recalls in his book Opera, ‘The sketch for Pax was in my drawing portfolio for several years, waiting to be completed. Every time I saw it again, my mind was seized by anxiety and melancholy, and my hand trembled, as if I had touched a sacred leaf. More and more I became convinced that it would become one of the greatest works of my life as an artist.’ Pax was eventually painted in Stockholm in the early months of 1905, where the artist had organized an exhibition of his work the previous year. The watercolour depicts the Rhône Glacier in the centre distance, with Lake Totensee in the valley below. Barely noticeable, seated on a small island at the left, is the tiny figure of Death with his scythe. 

Forsberg appears to have regarded Pax as his most important work, describing it as a ‘capo d’opera’ in his book Opera, published in 1913. In the book, he describes this work at some length, and the image of Pax was further accompanied by a lengthy poem. Recognizing its importance in his oeuvre, and regarding it as the culmination of his artistic career thus far, he offered Pax to the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm in the spring of 1905 but it was declined. As the artist later wrote, ‘it has saddened me for many years that in my own homeland I have been so poorly received by the very men who ought to have used their influential position to benefit young, modern art instead of being driven by ignorance or egotism to seek, if possible, to kill and trample on the delicate blossoms sprouting in the often barren fields of art.’

Date:  1905
Period:  20th century
Medium: Watercolour and pencil on paper
Signature: Signed and dated CJFORSBERG. MCMV in green ink at the lower right.

Dimensions: 524 x 724 cm (206¹/₄ x 285 inches)
Provenance: Private collection, Sweden
Benjamin Peronnet Fine Art, Paris.

Literature: Carl Johan Forsberg, Opera, Stockholm, 1913, pp.51-60, illustrated; August Hahr, ‘C. J. Forsbergs akvareller. Utställningen i Konstnärshuset, Konst och konstnärer, 1914, p.14; Ulrich Thieme, Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler, Vol.XII, Leipzig, 1916, p.218 (‘Der Tod (in einer Alpenlandschaft sitzend)’); Næstved, Rønnebæksholm, Forestillinger om Skønhed / Perceptions of Beauty: Carl Johan Forsberg & Eva Louise Buus, exhibition catalogue, 2016, p.119; Paris, Benjamin Peronnet Fine Art, Dessins suédois autour de 1900, 2019, unpaginated, no.5.

Exhibitions: Stockholm, Konstnärshuset, Carl Johan Forsberg, 1913; Paris, Benjamin Peronnet Fine Art, Dessins suédois autour de 1900, 2019, no.5.

Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints