Harald Moltke (1871-1960)

Nuuk Art Museum has a small collection of paintings by the Danish artist Harald Moltke (1871-1960). Harald Moltke was of the Danish aristocracy and partly grew up in South Carolina, USA.

Harald Moltke first came to Greenland as an illustrator on a geological expedition in 1898, but it was The litererary Greenland Expedition with Knud Rasmussen from 1902-04 which supplied him with images for the rest of his life and made him famous. In between the two expeditions to Greenland Moltke studied and painted the Northern lights in Iceland and Lapland.

Arctic expeditions were part of the enlightenment in Europe as collecting knowledge and mapping the world outside of the well-known Europe. In the 19th century these expeditions became prestige projects for seafaring and great power nations. In the last part of the 19th century Scandinavia left a mark on these Arctic expeditions. From being national initiated prestige projects, scientists began planning and initiating these expeditions out of scientific value. In this last category was The Literary Greenland Expedition, but that does not mean that there was no prestige in it.*

The object of the expedition was to collect and establish Inuit’s own myths and understanding of the world. The participants on the expedition were Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen, Knud Rasmussen, Harald Moltke, Alfred Berthelsen og Jørgen Brønlund.

Moltke was the expedition’s illustrator and painter. As an expedition painter your art and expressions were bound to documenting og recording. Later Moltke illustrated the books of both Knud Rasmussen and Mylius-Erichsen. Moltke took an interest in the people he met – it is not sceneries of nature that dominate his paintings in Nuuk Art Museum’s collection. He himself said: My models interest me as people – not as ethnographic curiosoties. **

The paintings in Nuuk Art Museum’s collection are all related to The Literary Greenland Expedition. Some are from the expedition, other painted shortly afterwards and two large paintings are painted 40 years after. These two paintings are distinctively more dramatic and staged than the other paintings made during and shortly after the expedition.


Inside the hut

In a painting from 1903 we visit a family or are inside a turf hut. The window and it’s light catches the viewer’s eyes. Outside there’s blueish icebergs and a dark yellow sky.

Two men sits infront of the window and are lit up from behind by the light outside which creates yellowish spots of sun on their clothes. In the right side of the painting sits a woman holding a toddler standing on her lap. The light from the window reflects a red warm light in their clothes nuances of the brown interio to the left in the painting.

The men and the woman are clothed for the outdoors as if they were visiting; the men with anoraks, and the woman in kamiks, sealskin shorts and anorak. The child only in a light kind of dress.

They sit all in a row. The man in the middle are turned towards the viewer as he was saying something – it could be a conversation for the painter or a pose. In the left side of the painting is some interior in brown colours. The party is encased by a warmth and a domestic feeling created by the colours. The painting is like a picture caught in a moment of everyday life. It might be christmas or some other festival as the traditional oil lamp is in the window sill.

Moltke’s brush strokes are wide – he is creating details by using colour.

The men sit in continuation of the window – the outside – whereas the woman and child are placed further inside the hut. Even though it seems to be a picture caught in the moment the placement of the men and the woman with child might be read as inserted gender roles. The woman at home; the man outside in the rugged nature.



A row of wandering Inuit forms an image on a painting dated both 1903 and 1945. All are they in fur clothes in light and dark earth colours. In the background are snowcovered mountains and fjord or sea with pieces of ice.

Nuuk Art Museum knows of a painting alike with the same title ”Polareskimoer på vandring” (polar eskimoes wandering) dated 1903 privately owned. It is more detailed and not so dramatic and staged as the one in Nuuk Art Museum’s collection where you can almost hear the singing and the footsteps of the wanderers. The one at Nuuk Art Museum is most propably a new version of that from 1945. Maybe commissioned – we don’t know.

There is a play of lines through the painting created of bodies and glances and gazes. A beginning of this play could start with the man with the spear across his shoulder forming a cross with his body. From there we are unnoiticeable guided down the line, through glances and gazes, through arms, legs and movements – all the way down back to the main character. The one voicing the singing with his head laid back and open mouth. He seems to be singing or calling something out.

These lines creates the movement in the image – and the feeling of the picture being paused almost as if the viewer pressed play on a remote controll the entire procession would resume wandering and singing.


In his time

Moltke was actually on his way southward – where the Danish painters through the 19th went – but Mylius-Erichsen persuaded him to go to Greenland. Moltke was trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts from 1888-1893.

By the time Moltke entered the Academy it was criticised by numerous artist and critics for being conservative and old fashioned; alternative art academies and schools emerged in Denmark. At the same time the first women entered at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

The time was marked by a critical views on society in the arts. A period of the rise of many –ism’s and a period where the avantgarde challenged the painting and what it could be.

Even though Moltke’s work s of art are part of some kind of realism as a documenting/recording painting – and even though the Literary Greenland Expedition was critical to the Danish colonial power in Greenland – it is not a critical view that marks the paintings at Nuuk Art Museum.

However, the Danish journalist and writer Henrik Wivel argues that Moltke’s Northern light paintings from Iceland and Lapland are part of the main currents in his time, e.g. symbolism. The Swedish writer and painter August Strindberg called these artist the aristocracy of nerve as they painted with an immense sensibility and registering even the smallest molecular movements in air – as light in the dark.***

Some of Harald Moltke’s paintings at Nuuk Art Museum is finished 40 years after the expedition and seems retrospective, staged and romantic – the paintings during and following immediately the expedition seems marked by a moment in time and by the people he met.


* Olsen, Ann Katrine: ”Da det skrivende folk kom til Grønland”, Københavns Universitet, 2015

** Olsen, Ann Katrine: ”Da det skrivende folk kom til Grønland”, Københavns Universitet, 2015

*** Wivel, Henrik: ”Himlens Flammeskrift”, in: Weekendavisen, nr 10, 12.-18. marts 2010