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Nordenfalk, Carl

    Full Name: Nordenfalk, Carl

    Other Names:

    • Carl Nordernfalk

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 13 December 1907

    Date Died: 13 June 1992

    Place Born: Stockholm, Sweden

    Place Died: Stockholm, Sweden

    Home Country/ies: Sweden

    Subject Area(s): Medieval (European) and Modern (style or period)

    Career(s): curators


    Medievalist with interests in modern areas, especially van Gogh; museum curator. Nordenfalk studied at the university in Uppsala between 1926-1928 and Göteborg University 1928-1929 for his doctorate. He was appointed assistant curator at the museum in Göteborg, Sweden in 1935. Several articles on Insular (British Isles) illumination appeared in the early and mid 1930s. His Ph.D. was awarded in 1938 with a dissertation topic on illuminated manuscript canon tables, decorated borders surrounding Gospel concordences constructed by Eusebius of Ceasarea. He developed an early and strong friendship with the British medievalist Francis Wormald. In 1944 he moved to the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, in charge of loans, exhibitions and education. Like a number of art historians outside the modern field, the work of van Gogh held a particular fascination for him. His 1946 on the artist was translated into multiple European languages and, eventually, in English in 1953. In 1949 he was promoted to the department of painting and sculpture. At the nomination of Erwin Panofsky, Nordenfalk spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, 1949-1950. A 1950 article on the Ottonian illuminator Meister der Regristrum Gregorii (fl. 970-980) was a model of stylistic analysis of the spatial construction of the leaves (owing to the artist’s name), according to Morgan Library scholar Jonathan J. G. Alexander. Nordenfalk and André Grabar wrote the volumes in the Skira (publishers) series on early medieval art, published in English in 1957 and 1958. Nordenfalk rose to director of the Nationalmuseum in 1958. As director he oversaw several important shows for the museum, including the Queen Christiana of Sweden exhibition of 1966. He retired in 1968, spending a second term at the Institute for Advanced Study, 1968-1970. The result was his 1970 book on illuminated initials which both broke new ground and disputed paleographic findings (Alexander). In the United States he taught as guest professor at the University California, Berkelely, 1971-1972 and at the University of Pittsburgh, 1971-1976, interrupted by the 1972-1973 year as both Slade professor at Cambridge, UK and Kress Professor in residence at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. His Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Painting, 1976 brought another underpublished subject to English readers with intelligence and economy. He furthered taught at University of California, Los Angeles 1977-1978 and was a fellow at the National Humanities Center, North Carolina, 1980-1982. Nordenfalk returned to Sweden. His wife, Cecilia, died in 1991. Nordenfalk possessed an excellent narrative style taking somewhat dry topics and turning them into engaging discussions by, among other things, describing the search for evidence (Alexander). His English-translations of manuscript painting were the finest and most accessible in the language for many years. Nordenfalk’s research emphasized Celtic influences in Insular illumination over Northumbian influence, felt to be the predominent origin at the time. His dissertation became the standard work on canonical typologies of Gospel illumination (Williams). He also emphasized this style’s contribution to continental illumination. His colleagues and friends Hugo Buchthal of the Warburg Institute and Otto Pächt of Oxford (later Vienna). Most unique, however, were his numerous forays into the art periods of the Baroque (Rembrandt) and the modern era (van Gogh).

    Selected Bibliography

    [disseration:] Die spätantiken Kanontafeln: kunstgeschichtliche Studien über die eusebianische Evangelien-konkordanz in den vier ersten Jahrhunderten ihrer Geschichte. Göteborg: O. Isacsons boktryckeri a.-b., 1938; [complete bibliography:] Bjurström, Per, and Hökby, Nils-Göran, and Mütherich, Florentine, eds. Florilegium in honorem Carl Nordenfalk octogenarii contextum . Stockholm: Nationalmuseum, 1987; Vincent van Gogh: en livsväg. Stockholm: P.A. Norstedt, 1946, English, The Life and Work of van Gogh. New York: Philosophical Library, 1953; and Grabar, André. Le haut moyen âge, du quatrième au onzième siècle. Geneva: Skira, 1957, English, Early Medieval Painting from the Fourth to the Eleventh Century. New York: Skira, 1957; and Grabar, André. La peinture romane du onzième au treizième siècle. Geneva: Skira, 1958, English, Romanesque Painting from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Century. New York: Skira, 1958; Die spätantiken Zierbuchstaben. Stockholm: [privately printed, distributed by Egnellska boktr.], 1970;Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Painting: Book Illumination in the British Isles, 600-800. New York: G. Braziller, 1977; “Art History–The American Way.” in Bauer, Göran, and Kastrup, Allan, eds. Partners in Progress: a Chapter in the American-Swedish Exchange of Knowledge: Essays. Sumner, MD: Swedish Council of America, 1977, pp. 147-164; The Batavians’ Oath of Allegiance: Rembrant’s Only Monumental Painting. Stockholm: Nationalmuseum, 1983.


    The International Who’s Who. 55th ed. London: Europa Publications, 1991; [obituaries:] Alexander, Jonathan J. G. “Carl Nordenfalk (1907-92).” Burlington Magazine 135, no. 1078 (January 1993): 38-39; Williams, John. “Carl Adam Johan Nordenfalk (13 December 1907-13 June 1992).” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 138, no. 4 (December 1994): 555-557; Kitzinger, Ernst, and Mütherich, Florentine, and Cahn, Walter. “Carl Nordenfalk.” Memoirs of Fellows and Corresponding Fellows of the Medieval Academy of America. Speculum 68 no. 3 (July 1993): 940-941.


    "Nordenfalk, Carl." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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