The art of rosemaling

This exhibit was created in collaboration with Emily Nelson, an undergraduate History major at UW-Madison graduating in May 2015. She’s volunteering with Recollection Wisconsin in order to gain experience in historical writing and social media. Emily is a native of Ladysmith, Wisconsin and her Norwegian heritage inspired her to explore the art of rosemaling.


Rosemaling is an art style preserved thanks in part to 19th century immigration from Norway’s farming communities to those of Wisconsin. Since that journey, rosemaling has worked its way into the identity of the state. Made famous by Per Lysne of Stoughton, Wisconsin, in the early 20th century, the art continues to impact cultural media today. The winner of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, Disney’s Frozen, draws heavily on rosemaling traditions to create the fictional world of Arendelle, inspired by Norwegian culture and history.

A common misinterpretation of the meaning of the word rosemaling is that “rose” refers to the flower of the same name. The word is actually derived from the Norwegian term rosut, or applied decoration. The translation gets to core of the art: painting a floral design with great liberty in creativity. There are no specific flowers that inspire rosemaling artists – many plants are completely made up.

Rosemaling grew out of the flowing styles of the Baroque and Rococo, which reached the valleys of rural Norway in the 18th century. Guilds taught techniques of decorative painting to artists who then traveled the countryside to earn their bread. Some farmers also took up rosemaling to supplement their incomes, especially during the winter.

Norwegian bentwood box, McFarland Historical Society

This bentwood box, made in Norway in the 19th century, is painted with simple green and yellow scrolls around the sides and a floral design in white, yellow and black on the lid. McFarland Historical Society.

This bentwood box, made in Norway in the 19th century, is painted with simple green and yellow scrolls around the sides and a floral design in white, yellow and black on the lid. McFarland Historical Society.

Norwegians immigrants to the United States in the 19th century carried rosemaling with them across the ocean. In addition to small painted wooden pieces like plates and jewelry boxes, these immigrants traveled with trunks covered with the art of their homeland. Rosemaled art objects found their resting place in the cupboards and on the shelves of many Wisconsin homes. The state was a popular destination for settlers from Norway, who were attracted by the similar climate, excellent opportunities for farming, and the pamphlets and newspaper ads distributed in Norwegian by the Wisconsin Commission of Emigration. By 1850, Norwegians made up the second largest ethnic group in Wisconsin.

A trunk from 1775 decorated with two rosemaled panels. Many painted trunks were already heirlooms when Norwegian immigrants brought them to the United States. Skare Collection, McFarland Historical Society.

A trunk from 1775 decorated with two rosemaled panels. Many painted trunks were already heirlooms when Norwegian immigrants brought them to the United States. Skare Collection, McFarland Historical Society.

Rosemaled bentwood box attributed to Paul Skavlem, Town of Plymouth, Rock County, ca. 1841-1866. Old World Wisconsin.

A rare example of rosemaling by a first-generation 19th century Norwegian immigrant in the United States is this bentwood box attributed to Paul Skavlem, Town of Plymouth, Rock County, ca. 1841-1866. Old World Wisconsin.

For the most part, the challenges of adapting to life in America meant that the tradition of rosemaling faded. But a revival of the art in the United States was launched by Per Lysne of Stoughton, Wisconsin beginning in the 1930s. Lysne was trained in rosemaling in Norway before immigrating to Stoughton in 1907. His artistic talent helped him get a job painting wagons in a factory, but when the Great Depression slowed business, he turned to his roots for support. His skilled and intricate designs soon popularized the tradition worldwide.

Per Lysne rosemaling a smorgasbord platter, Stoughton, ca. 1941. Photo by Arthur M. Vinje. Wisconsin Historical Society image ID 38105.

Per Lysne rosemaling a smorgasbord platter, Stoughton, ca. 1941. Photo by Arthur M. Vinje for the Wisconsin State Journal. Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 38105.

Lysne first gained recognition for his painted smorgasbord platters. Smorgasbord is a Swedish term referring to a large meal consisting of a variety of foodstuffs, both hot and cold, on the same surface (the Norwegian word for the same practice is Koldtbord).

One of Lysne’s earliest major commissions was several works for Ten Chimneys, the summer retreat of celebrated film and theater actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne outside Genesee Depot, Wisconsin. A feature on Ten Chimneys published in Vogue in 1933 highlighted Lysne’s work, including one of his smorgasbord platters. The American public associated the art style with the sophistication of the Hollywood couple, and demand for Lysne’s creations went through the roof.

PerLysne_chair_TenChimneys

One of a pair of three-legged chairs painted by Per Lysne for the Cottage at Ten Chimneys, Genesee Depot, ca. 1933. Ten Chimneys Foundation.

One of a pair of three-legged chairs painted by Per Lysne for the Cottage at Ten Chimneys, Genesee Depot, ca. 1933, and Lysne’s stenciled mark on the underside of the chair. Ten Chimneys Foundation.

The rosemaling revival inspired many hopefuls to start their own painting businesses, while others took up the craft as a hobby. Artists painted common household items other than just dinnerware. As Lysne had shown, chairs, cabinets, boxes were fair game – if it was wooden, it could be painted.

A recipe box decorated by Ethel Kvalheim, a student of Lysne's who became an award-winning expert rosemaler. McFarland Historical Society.

A recipe box decorated by Ethel Kvalheim, a student of Lysne’s who became an award-winning expert rosemaler. McFarland Historical Society.

Shorewood Hills Community League rosemaling class, Madison, 1952. Photo by Arthur M. Vinje. Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 79716.

Shorewood Hills Community League rosemaling class, Madison, 1952. Photo by Arthur M. Vinje for the Wisconsin State Journal. Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 79716.

This bowl decorated by Lou Dahl of McFarland in 1984 was included in an annual exhibition of the Wisconsin State Rosemaling Association. McFarland Historical Society.

This bowl decorated by Lou Dahl of McFarland in 1984 was included in an annual exhibition of the Wisconsin State Rosemaling Association. McFarland Historical Society.

Rosemaling continues to be popular throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest. A second revival of the rosemaling trend occurred following the opening of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American museum in Decorah, Iowa, in the late 1960s. Vesterheim continues to offer rosemaling classes, exhibitions and competitions today. The Wisconsin State Rosemaling Association teaches and exhibits the craft in Stoughton, and the Stoughton Historical Society holds a large collection of work by Lysne and other Wisconsin rosemalers.


Sources

The images in this online exhibit come from the following digital collections. Click the links to browse the full collections.

Related resources

 

5 Comments

  1. jane:

    I have a quote painted along the rim of a rosemaling bowl written in Norwegian. Can anyone translate this:

    Som blomen seg opnar mot sol og mot var, slik spirer og gror alt det gode du sar.

    Thank you,
    Jane

    • Frode:

      The translation is (freely translated):
      In the same way the flower opens towards the sun and spring,
      all good things you seed will sprout and grow…

  2. Nancy Morgan:

    Per Lysne did not teach, but since Ethyl lived near him, he allowed her to watch him paint. Great article.

  3. Rose Hittmeyer:

    I wish I lived closer to Wisconsin! ( NYC) Looks like a great Exhibit. I posted the link on my Rosemaling group facebook page and maybe that will bring you a few more visitors. The article was a great introduction to Rosmaling for New Comers. Thanks for that.

  4. Steve:

    My grandfather was related to Per’s wife.
    She gave him a chair very similar to the one above.
    I would never sell it as it is a family heirloom , but I would be interested in its value for insurance purposes. Any info would be appreciated.
    Steve

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