Gustav Vigeland and Images of Modern Fatherhood

Gustav Vigeland
The Norwegian Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) was a great artist.

Anyone who has ever visited the Vigeland Park with its massive sculptures, one of the major tourist attractions of Oslo, will probably concur – regardless of whether they are to everyone’s particular taste. Many of Vigeland’s sculptures represent the ages of man (childhood, youth, adulthood and old age) and family ties.

Admittedly, Gustav Vigeland was just a vague name for me for many decades. I might never have had the incentive to get to know his work had I not come as a visiting researcher to Oslo in August and had I not been living in the proximity of the Vigeland Park. However, after I got better acquainted with the artist’s work both in the open air and at the Vigeland Museum, I became curious about his life as well. Some of his sculptures seemed to portray so well the new, more modern emotional ties between fathers and children: fathers romping with their children and demonstrating paternal tenderness and protectiveness towards them.

Father playing with his child
Father carrying infant
Perhaps Vigeland himself was like that: a tender father like some of his contemporaries, Finnish and Swedish male artists of the period (e.g., the Swede Carl Larsson 1853-1919)? Perhaps because of this, he could encapsulate the essence of the new ideals of fatherhood so well? I wanted to know more.

Gustav Vigeland was born Adolf Gustav Thorsen in a small commune on the southern coast of Norway in 1869. Vigeland and his Pietist artisan family came to experience hardships when his father, a master carpenter, first lost considerable sums of money in unsuccessful shipping investments and then took to the bottle. Vigeland’s mother took the children and moved back to her parental domicile. The following year, Vigeland’s father sired an adulterous child out of wedlock – the parents were never divorced – and was convicted for a misdemeanour.

As so many other male artists of his time, even Gustav Vigeland became physically attracted to a string of his models. By 1894, he had met Laura Mathilde Andersen (1869 or 1870-1957), a seamstress who modelled for him. A love affair developed between the two apparently also leading to cohabitation. Their daughter Else (Elsa) was born in Oslo (then, Christiania) in 1899. Pressured, it appears, Vigeland agreed to make an honest woman out of his lover in July 1900, and the couple contracted marriage. Laura seems to have become immediately pregnant again and their son, christened Alf Gustav Vigeland, was born on 27 March 1901.

However, in 1900, Vigeland had become infatuated with a young and beautiful girl, Inga Syvertsen (1883-1968), thirteen or fourteen years younger than his wife Laura. The troubled relationship between Vigeland and Laura ended in practice in 1901, but they only divorced officially after a five-year separation in 1906. By that time, Inga had been Vigeland’s muse, model and assistant – as well as common-law wife under the guise of being his housekeeper – for several years.

Later, Laura Vigeland and the children lived in Sandefjord, a small town south-west of Oslo, close to the town of Larvik where the Vigelands had contracted marriage. Laura had been born in Sandefjord, and she had returned there to give birth to her and Gustav Vigeland’s son Alf Gustav. It seems that although Gustav Vigeland paid child support to his children, he did not keep any contact with them after the separation. Nor did he have any children with Inga Syvertsen or any other of his later young model lovers (e.g., Marie Nordby and his later second wife Ingerid Alise Vilberg [1902-1976]).

Earlier, I blogged about the Finnish author Ilmari Kianto (1874-1970), Vigeland’s contemporary, who wrote so touchingly about fatherhood. Like Kianto, Vigeland had complex attitudes towards sexuality. According to the short biography on Vigeland’s by Tone Wikborg in the Norsk biografisk leksikon, among Vigeland’s works, “the erotic motifs describing especially male sexuality, often with elements of desperation and despair, form a group of their own” (“En egen gruppe utgjør de erotiske motivene, som beskriver særlig mannens seksualitet, ofte med innslag av desperasjon og fortvilelse.”).

Like Kianto since his fourties, Vigeland also showed a tendency to become enamoured in very young women from his thirties on – something both artists continued to do even in quite mature years. But whereas Kianto had an emotional relationship with his many children – legitimate and illegitimate alike – and enjoyed playing the role of a gentle father from time to time, Vigeland apparently considered family life a completely unwelcome distraction from his own artistry.
Father, mother and child

So, the real Gustav Vigeland was hardly the perfect doting father I had briefly imagined him to be. Nevertheless, he was able to capture something essential of his time, an evolution of parental ideal roles when the traditional nurturing mother had by her side an affectionate and tender father sharing his children’s every-day life. This is a talent that great artists have even if they lacked such feelings in their own personal life.

Mia Korpiola

Further reading:

Tone Wikborg’s article on Vigeland in the Norsk biografisk leksikon (Norwegian Biographical Encyclopedia, accessed 24 October 2014)
Population registration data on the Vigelands from 1910 (accessed 24 October 2014)