Vigeland Sculpture Park

Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) was born in the south-coast town of Mandal in Norway. For centuries, his ancestors had lived as farmers in a nearby valley, but his father became a master carpenter with his own furniture workshop. He was a devout follower of the Protestant Pietistic movement and the artist’s childhood was spent in a strictly religious atmosphere.

Vigeland’s artistic talents were first revealed in his drawing and woodcarving and at the age of fifteen his father took him to Oslo to apprentice him to a master. On the death of his father only two years later, Vigeland was compelled to return to Mandal and relinquish all hopes of becoming a sculptor. Helping his mother to support his family took most of his time, but every free moment was spent in reading and drawing. his favourite literature was Homer and the ancient Greek dramas, but he also read about and studied a great deal of anatomy and art, particularly the sculptures of the Danish neo-Classicist, Bertel Thorvaldsen.

In 1888 Vigeland was again back in the capital, this time taking with him a bundle of sketches for statues, groups and reliefs, their motifs mostly deriving from Greek mythology and the Bible. It proved impossible to earn a living as a woodcarver and after a period of severe hardship, he finally decided to contact the sculptor Brynjulf Bergslien. Impressed by Vigeland’s drawings, Bergslien took him into his studio and gave him his first practical training. Some months later, Vigeland was able to exhibit his first sculpture at the State Exhibition of Art in 1889. For a short period he attended the School of Design.

Vigeland’s talent was soon recognised and he received several grants that enabled him to travel. He never attended an art academy but worked and studied on his own. He spent 1891 in Copenhagen where he was allowed to work on his own sculptures in the studio of Vilhelm Bissen. In 1893 he was in Paris where he remained for six months. The work of August Rodin, seen by Vigeland on visits to the artist’s studio, made a perceptible impact: inspiration from the Gates of Hell can be seen in Vigeland’s relief “Hell”, the magnum opus of his early years.

Gustav Vigeland: Hell, 1897, bronze relief. National Oslo Museum
Resurrection, 1900 – plaster, incomplete

Rodin’s intimate treatment of the relationship between man and woman was also influential in Vigeland’s lifelong development of his theme.

Man with woman in his lap, 1905 – plaster
One of Vigeland’s most beloved subjects and one which he modelled repeatedly.
Mother and child, 1909 – marble

A long-standing wish to visit Italy became reality in 1895. On his way to Florence he spent a few months in Berlin, mixing there with an international Symbolist circle. Among these was the Polish author S. Prszybyszewski who wrote the first monograph on Gustav Vigeland, entitled “auf den Wegen der Seele” (“The Path of the Soul”), in which he considers Vigeland as opponent of Realism in art. In Italy, to which he returned again in 1896, he devoted himself to art studies of Antiquity and Renaissance. “Every day I realise that sculpture must be stricter”, he wrote home, revealing ideals of a more monumental sculpture, different from the modern Rodinesque style. Many years were to pass, however, before such ideals found an outlet in his own sculptures.

The grants came to an end and in order to make a living, Vigeland took on commissions for the restoration work of the medieval cathedral in Trondheim from 1897-1902. Among his works here are the sculptures for the choir and gargoyles for the towers. Inspired by fantasy sculptures from the Middle Ages, he took up the motif of Man in combat with dragons and lizards which, according to Christian tradition, are symbols of evil and hostile powers. This theme was to reappear in several later sculptures.

No hostile dragons here!

Vigeland modelled more than 100 portrait busts of prominent Norwegians, contemporary or from the recent past. The most striking feature is not always the likeness to the person portrayed, although Vigeland took particular care of its resemblance. He sought the immediately expressive and characteristic in his models. At the same time, the modelling gave him the opportunity to study man, for free; the costs for professional models were high.

He modelled the first busts in 1892, at the age of 23, and the last was made in 1941. He worked with busts in two distinct periods separated by a pause between 1908 and 1915. The busts reflect his change of style from a naturalistic rendering, via an impressionistic expression to an almost abstract, stylistic form.

The busts were in general modelled on Vigeland’s own initiative and he was seldom paid. The early family and friend portraits gave him the opportunity to experiment. From 1901 to 1905 he wanted to portray a number of well-known people. Several of his late busts are symbols of his gratitude to friends.

Bust of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, 1901

Vigeland also designed the statue of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson standing in front of Den Nationale Scene in Bergen.

Bust of Edvard Grieg, 1903
Bust of Henrik Ibsen, 1903
Bust of Fridtjof Nansen, 1903

His most remarkable creation as a sculptor, however, is the wealth of statuary in Vigeland Park.

The Municipality of Oslo was to show Vigeland exceptional generosity, not only in connection with the park. In 1921 an agreement was drawn up in which Vigeland was to be provided with a new and spacious studio. In return, Vigeland would bequeath to the city all works of art in his possession as well as all original models of future sculptures. Vigeland lived and worked in the palatial building from 1924 until his death in 1943. In 1947 the studio was opened to the public as a museum of his works – some 1,600 sculptures, 12,000 drawings and 420 woodcuts. The present Vigeland Museum also serves as the mausoleum of the artist; the urn containing his ashes is placed in the building’s tower. Vigeland was appointed Officer of the Order of St. Olav in 1901, and received the Grand Cross of the Order in 1929.

Sculpture of Camilla Collett, 1909
Henrik Ibsen on sarcophagus, 1906
Sculpture of Henrik Wergeland, 1907
Gustav Vigeland, self-portrait, 1942
Room 8 contains all of the original full-size plaster models for the bronze fountain in the Vigeland Park. The central group with the six giants supporting the large basin are surrounded by twenty “fountain tree groups” and 60 reliefs
Fountain tree group
Model of the bronze fountain and the fountain tree groups in Vigeland Park

By far the most interesting sculpture 🙂

Lekande björnar, 1915 – plaster
Detail of Lekande björnar, 1915 – plaster

Unfortunately, Lekande björnar (presumably playful bears) was purchased by Marabouparken in 1939 and therefore is in Sweden. The group was originally made as part of a fountain.

Lekande björnar (1915), by Gustav Vigeland
Marabouparken, Sundbyberg, Sweden

Vigeland Park, which has partially become an integrated part of the older Frogner Park, covers an area of 80 acres. It functions both as a sculpture park and a public park, open all year round.

The park contains 214 sculptures with more than 758 figures, all modelled in full size by Gustav Vigeland without the assistance of pupils or other artists. He also designed the architectural setting and the layout of the grounds with their expansive loans and long, straight avenues bordered by maple trees.

Vigeland Park map

The park in winter…

Even the statues are cold 🙂

The main entrance consists of five large gates and two smaller pedestrian gates in wrought iron. Railings curve outwards on each side and are terminated by two small gatehouses. The final designs for the wrought-iron gates were made in 1926 and exhibited in 1927 together with some details executed in iron.

Main entrance

From the entrance gates, paths skirt either side of a spacious lawn leading up to the Bridge which is 100 metres long and 15 metres wide. On the granite parapets stand 58 single figures or groups in bronze (1926-33). The sculptures on the Bridge potray people of widely different ages. Many characteristic representations of children are noticeable. Dominant motifs among the groups are the relationship between man and woman and between adults and children. The representation of mother and child has a long and popular tradition in art. A more unusual theme is the father and child relationship, which is the subject of several sculptures.

The Bridge

Beyond the Bridge, the path continues through a rose garden to the Fountain, the earliest sculpture unit in the park. In the centre of the basin six giants hold the large saucer-shaped vessel aloft and (in summer!) from it a curtain of water spills down around them.

The Fountain

The twenty tree groups on the surrounding parapet symbolise “the tree of life”. The tree groups represent a romantic expression of Man’s relationship to nature. They also form the setting for life’s evolving stages, evolving from childhood and adolescence through adulthood to old age and death.

Fountain tree group

The theme of the different ages of life and life as part of an eternal cycle are repeated in the frieze of sixty bronze reliefs on the parapet.

The Fountain

The ground around the Fountain is paved with mosaics in black and white granite and not visible in winter!


From the Fountain the path continues upwards to the highest point in the sculpture park. The Monolith plateau is reached by ascending three terraces.

View of the Fountain and the park from a terrace
Monolith plateau

As in the Fountain, the principal theme of the Monolith plateau is the circle of life. The monolith consists of 121 figures and was modelled by Vigeland in the years 1924-25. It has been named the Monolith because it was carved out of a single block of stone. Vigeland carved the Monolith on site and he finished it just before he died.

Gustav Vigeland, self-portrait, 1942

Little bears have been keeping warm in the cafe near the main entrance 🙂

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