The last years (1930-1944)

As we know, the late 1920s and the early 1930s saw economic crises all over the world.

Johs. L. Ness too got into serious economic difficulties, mainly because his shop, not really flourishing at the best of times, suffered from the reduced turnover typical of the period. The increasing sale on trust did not improve the situation. Sometimes he had to wait for weeks and months before the bills were settled, and at times his customers were not able to pay at all. Then the village rose to the occasion. Johannes Sigfusson Hatteberg arranged a subscription, seeing to it that calls were made at every door in the neighbourhood. As it seems, everybody contributed something. The money collected was given to Johannes Ness and his wife as a token of gratitude for all they had done for the village over the years.


In 1932 Ness completed his 67th year, and a new generation - his son Ragnvald and his

Son-in-law Anthon Martin Nygård - took over the firm. It was understood as well, that Ness’ career as leader of the local choir would come to an end fairly soon. But before this happened, the choir wanted to honour him, and on the 5th of October 1935 a celebration was arranged in Turnhallen, the gymnasium and old assembly hall of Rosendal. In June 1939 perhaps a greater honour was conferred upon him. On the request of Rosendal Song Club and Sunnhordland Organisation of Singers the Royal Medal of Merit was awarded him. For a man who for many years had given so much time and attention to the musical activities all over the district without charging anything for his services, this must have made him feel that after all it had been worth his while.


From 1930 to 1943 Johs. L. Ness painted more assiduously than ever before. During these fourteen years he made upwards of a hundred pictures - roughly one third of his total production. Exception must be made for the years 1931 and 1932, when he nearly stopped wielding his brush. We know that he was suffering from gout at the time, and probably the economic difficulties of the early thirties tended to exhaust him mentally. Still there was quite some demand for these pictures in and around the village. He sold some of them from his shop or brought them around personally to customers whom he thought might be interested. Also, many commissions for specific subjects came from relatives of Norwegian settlers in the United States. As one would expect, most of them wanted representations of the farms and hamlets where they had their roots. So far we have been able to trace several works of the kind in the states of Illinois and Washington, but probably more are to be found elsewhere in America.


The artist Lul Krag (1878-1956) made two good portraits of Ness in charcoal, and she also attempted to make his pictures known in artistic circles in Oslo. Having brought some of his paintings to the capital, she made a point of showing them to other painters and to art experts. In particular she tried to involve Henrik Sørensen, a former pupil of Matisse and a leading figure on the Norwegian art scene. He actually bought a painting of the Hatteberg waterfall, and wrote in a note to Lul Krag: "Do thank him for the pure, heavenly light radiating from his pictures. Which have brought me much joy and consolation." It is of more importance, perhaps, that Axel Revold, professor at the Norwegian Academy of Arts, saw the qualities in Ness' pictures. Back in Rosendal, Lul Krag received a letter from one of her friends in Oslo, containing among other things, this passage: "You must tell Ness the following, which may please him. Professor Revold has seen the pictures at Sørensen's, and he took quite an interest in them. In particular he was enthusiastic about the waterfall, which I too preferred. Revold will make an attempt at arranging an exhibition of Ness' best works as soon as this may be possible (after the war) if Ness himself would be interested and would send his best and earliest works. Ness will perhaps not be interested in the proposal, but in any case it is very flattering that professor Revold should suggest this."


At long last it seemed that Ness' old dream was to come true. Better late than never, we might add, considering that by now the artist was in his 79th year. He was ailing and in the world the war was raging. In the circumstances nothing came of the exhibition, but it must have been a real triumph for the old painter to learn that his art was at last accepted by leading experts in Oslo.


Probably, only one exhibition of works by Ness has been arranged before now. In 1980 the Rosendal Youth Club endeavoured to put together quite a number of works by Johs. L. Ness and Lul Krag. The exhibition was shown in the new assembly hall during the weekend

15th-17th August 1980.


And then in 2006 a new exhibition was held at the Barony of Rosendal. A total of 47 of Ness` best and most important paintings and drawings were shown there. At the same time the biography “Det løfter livet. Soga om kunstnaren Johannes L. Ness” was published.


In 1943 Ness made his last few pictures. In their different way they represent the essence of what he stood for. We are speaking of one portrait in charcoal, one painting called Windjammer in a Storm, and finally a painting of his beloved Rosendal and its surroundings, called Rosendalsbygden. Generally speaking, his works show a great interest in cloud formations and, as Sørensen noticed, in the brilliant light of nature. Also, he had a preference for reddish evening clouds, which we may see examples of several places in this book. As for his so-called "heavenly light" which has been repeatedly commented upon, we do well to remember that the Norwegian language has one word only for "heaven" as well as "sky". It was above all the limpid atmosphere of a clear summer day he tried to catch in his paintings. The same light seems to penetrate his marine paintings too, most of them showing a proud vessel in a fresh breeze. Further, precision is a quality often ascribed to his pictures; it seems fairly adequate although it needs some modification. We have reason to believe that Ness was quite conscious of how his paintings might be looked at by later generations. Therefore he tried to render subjects of local and historical interest exactly as they appeared to him, while in representations of less specific subjects he would sometimes give the reins to his imagination, and even opt for a somewhat freer brushwork.


Many pictures by Ness are still not identified and registered. There are mainly two reasons for this; either the owners are ignorant of the present project for a publication and an exhibition of his pictures, or they have not been able to recognize his works. Over the years Johs. L. Ness signed his works in different ways, the most common being J. N., J. L. N. and J. Næs. Some of the oldest works are not signed at all. We have found photographs of several paintings whose whereabouts are still unknown.


After fifty years of married life Magnhild and Johannes could celebrate their golden wedding on November the 2nd, 1944. Crowds of people flocked to Nesheim on this special day; song clubs and music bands honoured a couple seemingly still in great shape. Johannes had been looking forward to this jubilee for months, a prospect which kept him in spirits in spite of his failing health. The gout had worried him on and off for several years, but worse was a painful gangrene in his legs. Throughout his long life Ness had been bursting with energy and in continuous activity, but after this glorious celebration his strength was spent. He had to keep his bed during the following days and expired quietly towards the evening on the 15th of November 1944, at the age of 79. Johannes L. Ness was buried on the 23rd of November in his beloved Rosendal, in view of the majestic Melderskin and the quiet Hardanger Fjord. Magnhild Ness died on April 25th 1953.


The text is mainly from the book

Det løfter livet. Soga om kunstnaren Johannes L. Ness”, 2006.

Morten Nygård


English translation by Professor Magne Malmanger.




(1865-1944) frå Rosendal

Contact: Morten Nygård, P.O.Box 70, 5486 Rosendal, Norway  Tlf: 53 48 19 02  Mob: 971 13 075