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Art that's a feast for the heart

Swedish artist Carl Larsson (1853-1919) painted, with scrupulously detailed affection and charming humor, many images of his home, his wife (Karin), and their large family. In these works, he appears to have found real compensation for the misery of his own childhood, which he describes at length in his autobiography.

He also tells how, in 1894-97, he came to paint the first series of these watercolors, which were exhibited to great acclaim and published as an album of 26 pictures called "Our Home" (Ett Hem). "There were those rainy weeks at Sundhorn [their rural house] when Karin encouraged me to realize an old idea, to draw all the walls of our little cottage as a family keepsake...." He "put in one child here and another one there just to get some life into the pictures." But the children do not look incidental, and particularly not in "Luncheon Under the Big Birch," above, where the house serves as mere background. Larsson loved the birch tree. His and Karin's initials are carved in its bark, with two hearts. But it is the eating family (including the dog, Kapo) that is the main event.

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Most of the pictures in "Ett Hem" are interiors, and Larsson told his readers that his intention was to offer "a model for those who feel the need to furnish their homes agreeably." But he was depicting - with delicate lucidity - his wife's taste as much as his own. Karin, also an artist, contributed crucially to the character of Sundhorn. She wove material for curtains and coverings. She made the children's clothes. This was in line with the Arts and Crafts ideas coming from Britain, which equated happy living with a return to handcraftsmanship in the face of industrialized vulgarity.

Nevertheless, few artists have been as capable of recording the appeal of his children - and of young children in general - as Larsson was. He really understood the way small boys sit at the table like little old men, and how even smaller girls, rather than eat, much prefer to play ... or just watch their father paint.


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