For over a hundred years, Midwinter Sacrifice by Carl Larsson has provoked fascination and debate. The work has been in Nationalmuseum’s collections since 1997 and hangs permanently on the upper staircase. The enormous painting has now been temporarily taken down for storage during the renovation of the museum building.
The artwork, on two canvases, measures a total of 6.4 x 13.6 metres. Over a couple of days in April, conservators, curators, technicians and packing technicians worked to take down the canvases and roll them up on specially made wooden reels. The fact that Carl Larsson painted on good quality material and added the oil paints in thin layers means that the large canvases can be rolled up without causing any damage. While the museum is being renovated by the National Property Board, Midwinter Sacrifice will be carefully stored away under the perfect conditions.
Many of the people at Nationalmuseum who helped to take down the almost 90 square-metre painting were also involved in putting it up in 1997. One of them is Britta Nilsson, conservator at Nationalmuseum.
"When it arrived at the museum we said we were going to mount it securely because it would be there for a very long time. I had no idea then that just 16 years later, I’d need to take it down again and pick out all the tacks that we used," says Britta Nilsson.
Midwinter Sacrifice is one of artist Carl Larsson’s most controversial works. It was the last in the suite of murals Carl Larsson painted for Nationalmuseum in 1896. Inspired by Swedish antiquity, the motif shows the mythical King Domalde being sacrificed to appease the gods and ask for their intervention in a succession of crop failures.
The first sketch provoked immediate criticism for its historical inaccuracies, but this simply fuelled Carl Larsson’s determination to complete the work, which was first hung at Nationalmuseum for a trial period in 1915. The painting was then debated all the way up to government level, and was eventually rejected.
After Larsson’s death in 1919, the painting was given a home in what is now the Museum of Sketches in Lund, Sweden. In 1983-84, Midwinter Sacrifice was restored and exhibited at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. It was then purchased by a Swedish art dealer, who offered it to Nationalmuseum, but the museum’s administration declined to buy. The Swedish History Museum was also offered the painting, but was unable to meet the high asking price.
In 1987 the work was sold at auction and acquired by a Japanese collector. The owner then lent the work to Nationalmuseum as part of a major Carl Larsson exhibition in 1992 and it was returned to its intended location. Following lengthy negotiations and with generous financial support from private donors and foundations, the painting was finally purchased by Nationalmuseum in the summer of 1997 and has hung there ever since.