If you have 30 free minutes dedicate them to art. Peder Balke’s show at the National Gallery, London, requires 30 minutes precisely to be seen, and yet it gives you a powerful dosage of inspiration that lasts for life.
If this is the first time you hear the name Peder Balke, then don’t worry: you are not the only one. In fact, very few people outside his native Scandinavia recognize the name of this remarkable 19th-century seascape painter. In an attempt to correct this injustice, the National Gallery is currently holding the first-ever UK exhibition focused on Peder Balket’s art. With over 50 paintings on display from private and public collections across Europe, the show follows almost encyclopedically every step of the artist’s career.
Peder Balke (1804–1887) was born on the Norwegian island of Helgøya. In 1832, during his adventurous journey to the Finnmark: the far north of Norway, he visited the breathtaking lands of the North Cape. This experience predestined Balke’s legacy and he built his entire career painting his dreamlike memories of the deserted Arctic Circle seascapes. While being extraordinary in their artistic values, sadly Balke’s paintings didn’t have any commercial success. Not being able to sell, he was forced to abandon his career as a painter. He continued to paint small scenes for his own creative satisfaction, which ironically are now recognized as his finest masterpieces and are worth millions.
Balke was a true visionary. He was dashing and confident, not afraid to improvise and make experiments with new styles and manners. Staying somewhere between the Chinese landscape tradition and the ethereal misty works of the late Turner, Balke’s paintings were centuries ahead of his time. His experimental improvisations of using brushwork and sometimes even his hands to suggest seascapes, more typical for the impressionism or the late expressionism, won Balke the name of a ‘proto-Modernist’.
The Tempest (1862) is the only painting by Peder Balke in the National Gallery’s collection. Yet, the entire show is build around that tiny image. The painting is a brilliant representative of the late Balke. In fact his latest works are the most impressive ones and are definitely the highlight of the National Gallery’s exhibition. In Balke’s earlier works the Romanticism influences come very straightforward. His dramatic tonal contrasts create almost surreal atmosphere in his paintings. In fact they look like something at the very edge of human experience. In his late works the subjects remain the same: dramatic seas, lone mountain peaks, surreal skies. The mysticism and the evocation of the sublime are very present as well. The two things that change entirely are the manner and the palette. Instead of overloading the canvas with impasto, Balke uses a very delicate thinned paint. His palette becomes very minimal and monochromatic, focusing on soft greens, whites and greys. While reducing the scale of his works substantially, and simplifying his etudes, his images become even more powerful. They tempt the visitor to go closer, to deep deeper, and stay longer contemplating. Intimate: this is how this experience feels. Balke’s latest extraordinary sense of light, color and freedom of the touch, make his images more airy and floating than his earlier ones. And here he is: already more of an Impressionist rather than Romanticist, one step closer to the future and the vigorous world of Modernism.
Balke is definitely not the first genius celebrated only after his passing away. That’s not the magic of this show. What is significant about it is that it changes one fundamental perception about the romantic period that had been leading in England for too long: that Constable and Turner are the only two masters of the expressive landscape of the Romantic period that deserve to me celebrated. This exhibition is meant to bring recognition to one brilliant practitioner of the period from a different part of Europe whose name deserves to be back on the art map. And it doesn’t fail in this: now we all know who Peder Balke is.
 The show is on display until 12 April 2015, Sunley Room, National Gallery, London. Admission free.