Frida Hansens Hus–Coming up Soon!

I’ll study the life and works of Frida Hansen, and in particular, her distinctive transparency weaving technique.

My suitcase is almost full; my American Scandinavian Foundation sponsored trip to Norway begins May 1. I haven’t accomplished my best-laid plans to have a great deal of research and study accomplished before I leave, but that’s why I am going, right? To have concentrated time to think and write and weave and design and test. Read more about the grant here.

I am staying at Frida Hansens Hus from May 4-May 21. It was built up the slope from Frida Hansen’s childhood home, Hillevåg, when Frida and her husband moved there after her father’s death. Frida Hansen’s mother moved into the new house. Now the main house is owned privately, but the “mother-in-law” house is owned by the county.  Meeting rooms and a studio with Frida Hansen’s loom are on the first floor, and an apartment on the second floor is used for artist residencies. That’s where I’ll stay.

Image from the Frida Hansens Hus website:

The website for Frida Hansen is primarily in Norwegian.  Since the English summary of the biographical piece about Frida Hansen is so short, I have included my translation of the Norwegian biography below, along with photos I took on a previous visit to the Stavanger Museum.


Frida Hansen, born Frederikke Bolette Petersen, was one of the pioneers of modern textile art, not just in Norway but internationally. She was born in Stavanger, the daughter of Peter Petersen and Mathilde (maiden name Helliesen) in 1855. Peter Petersen was one of the city’s most enterprising businessmen and head of the prestigious firm Køhler & Co. in Hillevåg.  The family lived in Stavanger (Laugmannsgt. 7 and Nedre Strandgatet 27) in the winter and moved to  the country home in Hillevåg in the summer. 

Frida Hansen went to Wieses private school in Stavanger, and was confirmed in 1871. She grew up with a strong desire to be an artist, and received private instruction from Kitty Kielland and the marine painter Johan Bennetter.  She traveled abroad several times, including to Paris where she saw the works of Puvis Chavannes, Monet, and Manet. 

In 1872 she was engaged to Wilhelm Severin Hansen, who came from one of the other large trading houses in Stavanger at that time, Plough & Sundt.  They were married in 1873; she was 18, Wilhelm S. Hansen was 32. In 1875 they moved to the Køhler property in Hillevåg  when her father, Peter Petersen, died. Wilhelm S. Hansen took over his father-in-law’s businesses. Frida’s mother, Mathilde, moved into a new building which later had the name “the widow’s house,” which is today Frida Hansens Hus. The main building was expanded, and other buildings included two farmhouses, two outbuildings, a mill, and a barn with room for 100 cows. 

The period from 1860 to 1875 was a booming economic time for Stavanger. The city’s ship owners sailed in all the seas and the herring trade provided a good income. 

Frida Hansen was very involved in planning extensive gardens on the property. They were established, and they obtained peacocks, turkeys, and Guinea fowl. Fish dams were constructed down by the shore, along with cod ponds, where servant girls could get fresh fish for the household. Hansen came back to this garden throughout her life in her art. 

“Roser i landskap.” (Roses in the Landscape, 1903) Surely she is weaving her garden?

Her husband’s business, Kohler & Co., encompassed shipyards, fishing, shipping, milling activities, beer brewing, and more. In 1880 a school was built for common people and employees of the businesses, the first in Hillevåg. But Hansen’s luck turned. When the economy crashed in 1883, many businesses went broke, including Køhler & Co. The family had to leave Hillevåg soon after. 

Frida Hansen moved from Stavanger to Kristiania (now Oslo) in 1892 and started a weaving school, “Atelier for National Tæppevævning” (Studio for National Weaving), and a dye business (1893). Hansen partnered with and had contracts with Den Norske Husflidforening (the Norwegian Handcraft Association), but the collaboration did not go well.  After several conflicts, including copyright issues, the relationship broke off in 1894. 

This time period was marked by a search for national identity and artists such as Gerhard Munthe and Frida Hansen were fascinated by Norwegian folk tales and songs. Munthe’s tapestry based on the folk song “Olav Liljekrans” was done in 1893. But those sorts of national motifs were not in the majority of Frida Hansen’s weavings. She was captured by European influences of the time and as a result, her pieces received a more lukewarm reception from the arts and crafts museums in Norway that were striving to revive Norwegian traditions. Munthe’s work represented a more nationalistic line.

Frida Hansen used an upright loom in her work, a type of loom with long traditions. With the newly-newly-awakened interest in Norwegian identity and traditions at the end of the 1800s, the upright loom on which you could weave in the “old Norwegian method” was rediscovered. The most well-known was Kjerstina Hauglum’s loom from Sogn in the 1880s. Frida Hansen became acquainted with this loom in 1880 and only one year later showed her first work woven on this type of loom, “Birkebeinerne” (1890), at an exhibit in Kristiania. After the exhibit, Den Kvindelieg Industriskole (The Womens Industry School) bought a “Opstadvævstol” (upright  or vertical loom), but it was when Frida Hansen opened a weaving school that interest in this type of loom increased; by 1893 there were 50 such looms in the capitol city. 

Frida Hansen’s loom is now at Frida Hansen’s Hus. Photo: Robbie LaFleur

Hansen’s breakthrough happened outside of Norway.  In 1894/95 she received many new impulses during an extensive trip abroad. In Cologne and Paris Frida Hansen met symbolism and Art Nouveau in both fine art and decorative art. On her return she wove several large pieces with the period’s typical use of woman as a symbol of nature, including “Havfruer som tenner månen” (Mermaids Who Light the Moon), “Salomes dans” (The Dance of Salome), Libellenes dans” (Dance of the Dragonflies) and not least, one of her most famous tapestries, “Melkeveien” (The Milky Way, 1898), which hangs today in Hamburg.  After her stay in Paris her plant motifs became important, also inspired by the floral Art Nouveau style of the time. 

“Melkeveien” Photo: Robbie LaFleur

Frida Hansen had a relatively small production of large woven tapestries.  Most hang in museums around Europe and the USA; a few are in the National Museum in Oslo or in private ownership. In 1895 she participated in an exhibit in Stockholm with her weavings “Pinsekor” and “Faraos datter finner Moses” (Pharoah’s Daughter finds Moses). They were purchased by museums in Helsingfors and Budapest.  In 1897 “Det Norske Billedvæveri” (The Norwegian Tapestry Studio) was established, with Frida Hansen as its leader for seven years. The same year she took out a patent for her transparent weaving technique, which was very popular as soon as it was introduced. In Bergen (1898), and the same fall in London, she displayed her large work “Melkeveien” (The Milky Way), which was purchased by the museum in Hamburg, Germany. Exhibits in foreign countries followed quickly—in Paris, Florence, and the United States—as well as Norway. The tapestry “Salomes dans” (Salome’s Dance) was sold to a museum in Zurich and “De Syv kloke og de syv dårlige jomfruer” (The Seven Wise and Seven Foolish Virgins) went to Rome. Her curtains in transparency technique became very popular, in Norway and abroad. 

Detail from one of Frida Hansen’s transparency hangings, showing her use of open warp threads in the design. Photo: Robbie LaFleur

Frida Hansen’s breakthrough as a textile artist came at the Paris Worlds Fair in 1900, where she received the gold medal and a great deal of attention. European museums commissioned woven tapestries and transparencies, and her works today are found in Copenhagen, Basel, London, Chicago, Stockholm, Berlin, Hamburg, and other places. She was interested early on in an international flow of influences. She became familiar with the work of artists such as Puvis de Chavannes, Monet, Mareau and Manet during foreign travel in her youth. For her, a renewal of Norwegian textile art meant using the old techniques and motifs as a springboard for weaving modern tapestries. She became one of our most noted representatives for Art Nouveau in Norway. 

A detail from “Salome,” (1900), beautifully Art Nouveau.

In 1904, the same year she wove “I Rosenhavn” (In the Rose Garden), she built a stately house for her family at Bestum, with large studios. In the years from 1904 to 1914 she wove a large tapestry each year, which were first exhibited in Kristiania before sending to foreign countries for exhibition and sale. She took up again both rose garden and folk tale motifs, now more freely interpreted in Art Nouveau style, in “Soria-Moria slott” (Soria-Moria Palace, 1907), “Svinedrengen” (1909), and not least “Semper Vadentes” (1905), with clear symbolic images. The tapestry’s inscription is in Latin, but she translated it with the words, “Always hurrying, never resting. Away from the cradle. Out in life. Out forever.” The tapestry’s motif is four women who wander on different life paths. 

“Semper Vadentes,” 1905. Photo: Robbie LaFleur

In 1913 the arts and crafts museum in Kristiania arranged a large exhibition of Norwegian textile art and Frida Hansen was hailed as one of the pioneers, along with Gerhard Munthe.  In 1915 she received the king’s medal of merit. She moved more to the background with the advent of functionalism, until attention to her importance as an artist was renewed through research in the 1970s.  Anniken Thue curated a large retrospective in 1973, and wrote a book on Hansen’s life and  work. At the same time young textile artists learned of an important and internationally significant predecessor. 

Detail from “I Rosenhavn,” 1904. Photo: Robbie LaFleur

Frida Hansen died in 1931.