Norwegian Rosemaling Tradition is a “Painted Language”

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg

Norwegian rosemaling, or “rose painting” is a form of decorative folk art painting important to Norwegian culture that began originally in the low-land areas of eastern Norway about 1750. Torunn Rød Farsund of Os in western Norway descends from an unbroken line of five generations of rosemalers. In this piece, she shares the history and symbolism of this distinctive Norwegian tradition.

Torunn Rød Farsund Norwegian Rosemaling
Torunn Rød Farsund - Photo: Meg Pier

Neighboring Sweden, also has a long tradition of decorative folk art painting known as kurbits. Meet practitioners of that tradition and encounter the Dalahast Horse!

Os, Norway has been a center for rosemaling in the west of the country since 1850 and is one of only two areas that sustains an unbroken tradition of Norwegian rosemaling. The Os technique is widely appreciated as being a highly distinctive and beautiful form of rosemaling important to Norwegian culture.

Norwegian Rosemaling Tradition Part of National Identity

While Norwegians claim a heritage that dates back to the seafarers and explorers of the Viking age, Norway only became an independent nation-state in the early 20th century. The Black Death had killed a third of the population in the 14th century, and the politically weakened region joined with Sweden and Denmark. Danish kings ruled Norway until 1814 when it was ceded to Sweden.

Norwegian Rosemaling on Chest

When that union was dissolved in 1905, a national culture emerged along with the Norwegian nation-state. With most of Norway being rural, the customs of the countryside became part of the national identity. Local people took great pride in their Norwegian culture through the rural folk tales, architecture, customs, clothing and crafts and the simple lifestyle they reflected.

Norwegian Rosemaling on Chest

Norwegian Rosemaling on Chest
The Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Museum of Cultural History) in Oslo has an extensive collection of antique rosemaling treasures. Photos: Meg Pier

Between 1825 and 1925, more than 800,000 Norwegians immigrated to America about one-third of Norway’s population. The migration was fueled by a desire to escape poverty, as well as religious persecution–many of the emigrees were Quakers. The movement also included craftsmen seeking a larger and more diverse market, and rosemaling began to go out of style in Norway in the late 1800s.

Rosemaling Rediscovered By Norwegian-Americans

Norwegian Rosemaling on Plate
Norwegian rosemaling is a ‘painted language’ with motifs that are influenced by country life, nature. Photo: Meg Pier

But times change. Today, Norway ranks as the second-wealthiest country in the world thanks in large part to the discovery of oil in the North Sea in the late 1960s. And rosemaling was rediscovered by Norwegian–Americans who began to appreciate anew the beautifully rosemaled trunks their ancestors had brought with them on their journey across the Atlantic. Today, there is interest in not only appreciating rosemaled pieces from the past but in enjoying the practice of folk art. Torunn is playing a part in keeping this distinctly Norwegian brand of folk art painting tradition alive and teaches rosemaling both locally in Os, as well as at classes held in the U.S.

The Roots of Norwegian Rosemaling

Meg: Can you explain what Norwegian Rosemaling is?

Torunn: Rosemaling is a special painted language found in the valleys in the eastern part of Norway, and in the small mountain districts and coastal districts in the western part of Norway. Initially, persons who rosemaled for a living were poor, city dwellers who were trained in a “guild” and then traveled throughout the countryside painting churches and the homes of the wealthy for money or just room and board. This was how rosemaling was carried from eastern Norway over the mountains and toward Norway’s western coast.

Norwegian Rosemaling Plate

Norwegian Rosemaling on Painting
Torunn's work is displayed in her home in Os. Photos: Meg Pier

This decorative country art was influenced by Renaissance and Baroque styles, and later, the S- and C- forms from Roccoco. But as the rosemalers got further away from the influence of the guilds, they became inspired by home life, from woodwork, smith work and artistic church-painting which were all old traditions. The rose painters found their motifs and developed untrained county art (bygdekunst in Norwegian) in their own independent and original way.

A Fifth Generation Rosemaler in Os

Meg: How did the tradition get started in your family?

Torunn: I’m the 5th generation rosemaler in Os. But also my great, great, great grandfather Johannes Tveiterås, who lived from 1763 -1842, was a rosemaler. He lived in Samnanger. His son Nils Johannesson Tveiterås Midthus came to Midthus in Hegglandsdalen (in Os) in 1820. He married Anna Margreta Midthus in 1824 and settled down on her farm. They had five children and one of them was my great grandfather Annanias Tveit, who lived from 1847 – 1925.

Norwegian Rosemaling in Book
Torunn points out a passage in a book that was written about her family's history of rosemaling. Photo: Meg Pier

Meg: Nils’ technique became known as the Os style. What makes it distinct?

Torunn: Nils combined Telemark elements with geometric designs and old Hordaland motifs. White, blue or red backgrounds with bright design colors were typical. Annanias further developed the tradition with great creativity and love of color. The Os style is known for bright colors, stylized flowers and roses, in a way that is half botanical and half abstract decorative rosemaling patterns and design, with heavy line detail on leaves. Designs also include geometric shapes such as cubes and squares, and architectural motifs such as churches or fine houses. Saw-toothed borders are also used.

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Two Norwegian Cultural Standard-Bearers Cross Paths

Norwegian Rosemaling Studio
Torunn Rød Farsund’s great-grandfather Annanias Tveit ran a Norwegian rosemaling studio. Photo: Torunn Rød Farsund

Meg: I believe your great-grandfather Annanias Tveit ran a Norwegian rosemaling studio where he had 20 students.

Torunn: Annanias Tveit had students from Vestlandet in his studio and they studied for 1.5 years. He had a lot of orders and the students helped him. He had orders from Husfliden in Bergen and the company – Falster in Drammen- had the distribution in the eastern part of Norway.

Ole Bull Villa Norwegian Rosemaling
Ole Bull's villa on the island of Lysøen in Os, south of Bergen.

A.T. also painted Ole Bull’s house on the small island of Lysøen in Os. Ole Bull was a 19th century violinist and composer who was a beloved figure in Norway and around the world. He popularized Norwegian folk music he learned from fiddle players of the Hardanger region and was seen as a patriot as Norway was establishing its sense of cultural identity. A.T. also painted a children’s bedroom in the house and a beautiful chest for Ole Bull’s granddaughter Sylvea. That was a great job–it’s such a special house. Ole Bull drew the plans for the villa himself–it is inspired by numerous architectural styles, including the Swiss chalet style and Moorish architecture. It has a tower formed as an onion dome, common in Russian architecture, and many wooden carvings.

Rosemaling Ole Bulls House
Torunn Rod Farsen’s great-grandfather created Norwegian rosemaling pieces throughout Ole Bull’s house on the small island of Lysøen in Os. Bull was a beloved national hero in 19th century Norway. Photo: Meg Pier

Meet the Dala Horse of Sweden, a tradition with a colorful and unique past!

Carrying on the Os Rosemaling Tradition

Meg: I understand your father and grandfather were responsible for carrying on the Norwegian rosemaling tradition in Os and taught many others, including you.

Torunn: My father and grandfather taught other people in rosemaling–both women and men, but I think mostly women. Both my father and grandfather were good teachers- very encouraging.

My father told me about a student taking her first class. She said ‘I’m going to make a living doing this painting as a living so you have to teach me!’ I don’t know if she ever became a good painter.

My grandfather enjoyed having people around. Family, friends and many others came to his studio to watch him paint and to talk. He really enjoyed having his grandchildren around and if we wanted to try to paint he was very happy. My father was like his father–enjoyed having people around. Both of them were great inspirations for me.

Meg: Can you talk about your own personal rosemaling style and what about the tradition appeals to you?

Torunn: My rosemaling style is true to my family tradition. I use the same rosemaling patterns but have also developed my own style. I’ve had rosemaling as a hobby since I was young. I’ve participated in several exhibitions but mostly I paint orders. I also work in design and window dressing as a freelancer.

I find the rosemaling “meditative” on both good and less-than-good days. I really enjoy painting–from start to finish. I like the rosemaling patterns, the colors- the special brushes. And while painting I listen to music and political discussions on the radio.

Rosemaling Tradition Evolves But Future is Uncertain

Meg: Is there a lot of interest in continuing the tradition?

Torunn: In recent years the elements of rosemaling have been used in new ways– the Norwegian team that participated in the London Olympics wore scarfs that used the traditional designs.

Rosemaling Sweater Scarf
Photo: Meg Pier

Osfest is a music festival with both local and international artists from different genres. It started in 2014 and is an annual event. The organizer Orbo asked me if I would paint an Oselvar boat as a way to promote the festival–the Oselvar boat is another old Norwegian custom–its construction goes back to the Vikings. Combining the boat and the painting was a great idea. When Orbo asked if I would like the job I answered yes! At once, I started to draw some lines and then I painted freehand. I was satisfied with the result. It was a job I really enjoyed!

I have traveled to the U.S. to teach rosemaling in the Os style and taught classes twice at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, where there is a big population of people of Norwegian heritage and also Swedish and Danish descent. U. S. Rosemalers have gone to Japan to teach the tradition.

But I think the interest in rosemaling among Norwegians is not very high. Not many young people are learning the art today. I have two daughters and four grandchildren–Norwegian rosemaling is a natural part of their life, it has always been around them but they have not had the interest in pursuing it. All of them have tried rosemaling and one of my granddaughters could do it, but she is 13 years old and now is not the right time. It may be something she will come to enjoy.

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