Tied to the Earth: Erik Werenskiold's Peasant Burial

Catherine Fonvielle


Erik Werenskiold’s Peasant Burial captures solemnity, spiritualism, and universal truth in his portrayal of a countryside burial gathering.  This oil on canvas piece, painted between 1883 and 1885, depicts a single woman and several men of varying ages collected at a fresh plot in a countryside graveyard. Werenskiold welcomes the viewer into a landscape that seems interrupted by the funeral shown in the forefront of the image. Through his use of triangular composition; earthy tones and contrasting, harsh black hues; even lighting; varying levels of texture, and balanced forces of line, Werenskiold captures the simultaneous contrast and inherent connection between humans and the earth evident in the event of burial and in the universal nature and solemnity of mourning.

Erik Werenskiold, Peasant Burial, 1883-1885. 
Erik Werenskiold [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Werenskiold creates the initial connection between earth and person through the echoing of the gently sloping triangular composition of the figures in the foreground by the mountainous landscape behind it. The composition balances around the centrally located man who wears black and white dress clothes and stands squarely towards the viewer with a downward glance. While corporeal forms inhabit the man’s proper left side more than the right, they seem balanced by the weight of the spiritual forms to the man’s proper right side of the image. On the viewer’s right side of the image, the pictoral depth created by the fence inherently forms a slight diagonal. Though Werenskiold concentrates forms on the viewer’s right, the close arrangement of the six men continues the soft diagonal of the fence towards the central man. The more sparsely occupied left side of the image mirrors this slant through the upward sloping diagonal of the woman’s shawl, which continues through the arm of a man who appears to be a clergyman holding a religious text to lead the burial. This gentle triangular composition creates visual balance between both sides of the image, connecting it to the balance of nature and nature’s own triangular forms. The balance found in this singular image of death seems to portray the closeness of humans to the earth from which they receive life and to which they return and in doing so depicts the universality of this balanced burial image.

Through light and color, Werenskiold captures the wavering instances of connection and conflict between humanity and the earth in order to convey the balance of loss and life inherent to the burial.  The light source seems to be coming from the viewer’s direction and hits the collection of figures equally. Shining onto them, presumably from the sun, the light grounds the people to the earth through the shadows that fall behind them. Rather than guide the eye through the image, this light contributes to the balance of the scene, adding to death’s sense of commonality.

Furthermore, the burial image conveys a general connection with nature surrounding it through its earthy hues. Amidst a luscious green landscape and distant blue mountains, Werenskiold creates a slight contrast in the forefront between the earthy hues worn by the figures on the viewer’s left compared to the harsh blacks included on the viewer’s right. The division of color seems to split in relation to the burial mound. The figures juxtaposed between the burial mound, notably shaped like a cross, and the cross positioned to the far left of the image, convey more of a spiritual feeling. Tied to the earth, their soft brown, green, and blue hues echo those of the landscape.

Alternatively, the figures collected between the burial mound and the painting’s right border wear stark black and white garbs that stand out from the more natural colors of the background. The contrast of black seems to embody the conflict found in the emotions of loss and solemnity in the funeral setting. The use of harsh black and white tones in these men and in the fence seem to disturb the otherwise natural tones that depict both the landscape and the burial itself. Ultimately, though the use of black adds slight tension to the otherwise balanced piece, it is offset by the earthy tones that surround the collection of people and unite the evenly lit piece in a setting of universal life and death.

Just as the use of black seems to be a pause in the natural colors of the landscape, so does the relative texture between the still figures and their lively background.  While the brushstrokes forming human forms are relatively smooth, loose brushstrokes in the landscaping create visual texture and add energy to the land. Werenskiold’s brushstrokes create contrast between the life of the landscape and the pause of human activity found in the forefront. He portrays the somber feeling connected to the burial scene’s immediate figures through their lack of activity or life that stems from the undisturbed brush strokes. Meanwhile, the fact that energy of the brushstrokes surrounds the more solidly formed figures aids the feeling of universality in the inherent pairing of life with death.

Finally, Werenskiold utilizes force of line to convey a sense of natural balance and spirituality. The repetition of verticals and horizontals throughout the image contributes to the sense of static balance, as if pausing in the midst of life in the countryside for this burial gathering. The rolling hills create slight diagonals, ultimately balancing eachother out to echo the horizontals of the horizon and the stone wall in background. In contrast with these horizontals, the gathered people’s upright stances, the fence in the viewer’s right side of the image, the stake in the burial mound, and the cross collectively provide a vertical countermovement.

Two diagonals guide the viewer towards what seems to be a religious text. First, a diagonal slopes upward and to the right, starting in the diagonal pattern of the woman’s shawl and continuing through the seemingly religious figure’s arm, outstretched and holding the religious text. The cross created by the manipulation of dirt on the burial mound balances this first diagonal, directing the eye upward through the stake and diagonally towards the religious figure’s outstretched arm. The collection of black-wearing men also reinforces the diagonal of the burial mound, leading the eye towards the religious text. The force of line throughout the painting enhances the image’s balance while guiding focus towards the spiritual elements of the image and contributing to the sense of a solemn, spiritual pause.

Erik Werenskiold’s Peasant Burial conveys a sense of somberness, highlighting the balance of death while contrasting humans with their earthly surroundings. While the humans are connected to and contribute to the earth’s balance, they also stand out with their black tints and consistent verticals. The only diagonals points to what seems to be a religious text, highlighting the somber, spiritual undertone of the burial scene. Rather than the dramatics of a painting dominated by verticals, which would emphasize the specific death being recognized, Werenskiold paints with a stillness and balance that not only gives anonymity to the death, but makes the image a recognition of the universal truth of death. Overall, the juxtaposition of the earthly with the human and the spiritual creates a balanced image founded on triangular composition, static forms, and dispersed, natural colors throughout the image. These elements ultimately tie the figures to the landscape around them and, witth this foundation, the image displays Werenskiold’s comparison of the solemnity of this individual burial with the nature and inherent balance of death.

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