Emanuel A. Petersen

A crimson light reflects the ice and snow. The colours of the mountains, the water, the sky and the sun. Nuuk Art Museum has a large collection of the painter Emanuel A. Petersen (1894-1948). He painted the overwhelming scenery of Greenland. He is the last painter called “Greenland Painter” (Grønlandsmaler).

Educated as a stage set painter he travelled to Greenland several times from the 1920s and up until the 1940s. His goal was to travel and paint all the way around the coastline of Greenland – and he almost did. He wanted to show an indigenous Greenland and collect his paintings with writing in a book about Greenland. He did not finish that book, but some years ago it was published with the writings he left and illustrated with some of his paintings.

To be called “Greenland Painter” (Grønlandsmaler) is a genre emerging during the 19th century where Danish artists travelled to Greenland and used the landscape and the people of Greenland as motives in their paintings and then became known for this. Before photography gained footing these paintings and this genre played an important role in creating an image of Greenland to a growing curiosity in Europe. By the time Emanuel A. Petersen painted Greenland photography had already taken over from drawings and paintings. In the 1930s Jette Bang – a Danish photographer known for her black and white photographs of Greenlandic people – was making the colour film “Inuit” in Greenland. In that period Emanuel A. Petersen travelled and painted Greenlandic scenery and people in a romantic style.

In his short life he painted between 2000-3000 paintings – a lot on commission. Several were made in numerous copies or with little variation and repeating objects e.g. the sunset/sunrise, the dog sledging or the woman with the topknot.

Even though he depicts different places in Greenland they are not necessary historical correct or a precise view of that place. Rather they are an image with a certain perception of harmony and beautification. In some paintings sizes are changed, in others mountains are moved a bit.

There is no bad weather – we see neither fog, rain nor storms. The fifth time he arrives in Greenland the weather is cloudy and grey. In his diary he writes that if he had come to Greenland the first time in cloudy weather and not in sunshine, he probably wouldn’t have painted Greenland at all.



Emanuel A. Petersen painted not only nature he also painted people, houses and settlements. On a closer look on this is not the central part of the painting rather people and houses are extras. Like props used to make the painting balance or to catch the eye of the viewer.

The people in the paintings are not portraits rather archetypes – a certain idea of the Greenlanders Emanuel A. Petersen uses again and again. He placed for example the woman in traditional Greenlandic outfit with the topknot in numerous paintings sitting or standing – often looking out at sea. In his sketches he actually drew people more like portraits with individual features.

It could be that Emanuel A. Petersen first and foremost wanted to paint the nature – beautiful and overwhelming – and the people and habitations are an eye catcher, a way of getting focal points, a direction or a trace in the painting which creates some sort of balance and composition.


Landscape painting as conquering

Emanuel A. Petersen paints nature, people and settlements from a distance. He is not amongst it or a participator in the ongoing life in the painting. The distance however is not impartiality to the object painted – he is not just recording what he sees.

Emanuel A. Petersen conquers as well – he is making scenery or a landscape out of nature as well as wanting to document what se sees.

In an article called “On Other Pictures; Imperialism, Historical Amnesia and Mimesis” curator and researcher Candice Hopkins (b.1977) writes of landscape painting as territorial expansion; a way of conquering land. Landscape painting was the first art genre to form a school in the independent North America in the middle of the 19th century – a way to appropriate the country.

Candice Hopkins points out that the landscape painted by the conqueror or in a colonial history draws on the ideas of the Western art period called Romanticism:

”Through their use of radiant light and sweeping scenes of natural wonder, the artists equated nature with the sublime and nature became stand-in for God”.*

The beautiful and the sublime lurks in Emanuel A. Petersen’s painting, but whereas nature in the romantic painting has an element of danger and a feeling of engulfing you, Emanuel A. Petersen’s paintings are more related to a period in Danish art history called the golden age (guldalderen). A period in the beginning of the 19th century where artists inspired by the European Romanticism painted and staged the Danish nature – not the wild and engulfing but the harmonious and cultivated.

Emanuel A. Petersen does not emphasize the dangerous or engulfing in the Greenlandic nature. His paintings are like post cards where the beautiful and overwhelming nature is seen at a distance.

Emanuel A. Petersen drew sketches in the Greenlandic nature – sometimes he painted – but most of his paintings are done from sketches in a studio. Often the sketches were drawn in Greenland and the paintings painted in Denmark which inserts a further distance to the life or nature observed. It is not painted on the spot, but far away from it from sketches and memory.


Between World War I and II

Emanuel A. Petersen does not paint the known or the familiar. He maps a new territory painting Greenlandic landscape and scenery in a period where anthropology in Europe is discovering the last islands and territories far away from Western civilization.

Emanuel A. Petersen is in his own way a part of this period where Western anthropologists collect objects from and describe indigenous cultures still untouched by Western civilization. Though Greenland at this time is far from being untouched he is looking for a certain image of Greenland.

In his diary the Greenlanders are his travel companions and just good mates on the long journeys he went on. They’re not an exotic other, a curiosity or idolized nature people. They are mostly just fellow travelers sometimes with different habits. In his paintings the people does not have individual features, instead they all look alike with no features to set them apart.

He wanted to paint the light and colours, and the scenery he thought to be beautiful. He wanted to paint some kind of indigenous Greenland which probably weren’t matching what he actually saw.

His paintings are first and foremost about a certain kind of beauty that Emanuel A. Petersen finds in the Greenlandic nature, which he reproduces again and again from different places in Greenland. He is not painting from the inside out, but from the outside and in.


* Hopkins, Candice: ”On Other Pictures: Imperalism, Historical Amnesia and Mimesis” side 22-32, in: Sakahan – Hopkins m.fl. (red.) : International Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2013