Work on this project began in 1996. The main challenge, and the most time-consuming part, has been to trace the pictures. By now I have put together a catalogue of 240 items, but the total production of Johs. L. Ness probably amounts to more than 300 paintings and drawings. Although the project is now finished, I shall be thankful for further details on pictures by Ness. Relevant information is available on my website www.johannes-ness.com.
The early years (1865-1895)
Johannes Larsson Næs was born at Rosendal on the 3rd of August 1865. The family sang prayers and hymns every morning and evening, and as a consequence all the nine children took an interest in singing. The father, Lars, had inherited a talent for singing from his forbears and was often employed as a master of ceremonies on different occasions, mainly weddings and funerals. Already before his confirmation Johannes attended funerals to join in the habitual singing, and soon he was given the task of leading the chorus.
From an early age Johannes gave proofs of his talents in other fields as well. As was to be expected, he had to work on the farm most of the day. But as soon as he found time and leisure, he would draw or try his hand as a joiner. He dreamed of becoming a painter, possibly a famous one, although being well aware that being a peasant lad in an out-of-the-way village, he had not much of a chance to realize his ambition. Instead he had to settle for some less glorious profession. Around 1881/82 he got a job as a shop assistant at a local grocer's. In 1887 he was licensed as a shop-keeper and started his own business. This was the origin of the firm Johs. L. Ness, still existing today. In 1894 Johannes had a new house built for himself and his business, giving it the name of Nesheim. About the same time, however, he was seriously considering the possibility of emigrating to the United States, as four of his brothers had already done. But when Marcus Gerhard Hoff-Rosenkrone, owner of the Barony of Rosendal, offered to pay for the construction of a new veranda at Nesheim, Ness decided to remain in his home village.
About this time something more than a close friendship had developed between Johannes and Magnhild Larsdotter Hjortaas from Hatlestrand, on the other side of the Hardanger Fjord. Magnhild was born on the 26th of August 1872. During her childhood she had lost many of her closest relatives. Her parents died comparatively young - her father being 54 years of age and her mother only 47. Her three eldest brothers died already in childhood, and the youngest one, Hans Christian, left for the United States in 1909. Johannes and Magnhild were married on the 2nd of November 1894.
As Johannes grew more self-confident and more assured of his own talents, his artistic dreams did not seem quite as impossible as before. What he mainly needed, it seemed, was more training and experience, and, not least, contacts with and support from professional painters. During the latter half of the 1880s these wishes were to some extent fulfilled. Quite some acquaintances about the village, and persons connected with Rosendal, became aware of his talents and seemed disposed to help him realizing his artistic aspirations. The bank manager Axel Lea wrote to the well-known painter Johan Jakob Bennetter, at the time living at Sola near Stavanger, and asked him to give his professional opinion on Ness' paintings. Bennetter showed himself quite willing to do so, and off Johannes went to Sola.
Johan Jakob Bennetter (1822-1904) has won his own distinct position in the history of Norwegian art, particularly as a marine painter. Later on, Ness was to comment on his stay at Sola in the following way: "... I went there, copied some paintings for him, and got a very good recommendation: no doubt I should seek instruction in the art." This happened in 1886 for about one month. Seascapes and pictures of ships and harbours were Bennetter's specialities, and it was probably works of this kind the youngster from Rosendal had to copy. Although these paintings can hardly be identified today, many other marine pictures by Ness still exist, most of them in a satisfactory state of conservation. Very exact depictions of sailing vessels and steamships add up to a substantial part of his catalogue. He always loved the sea and boats, and would probably have treated such subjects anyway, but Bennetter's proficiency in this line of painting, no less than the value he set on truth to nature, must have been quite important for his young pupil.
However, proceeding with his studies and dedicating himself wholeheartedly to the art of painting required more than sympathy and friendly words; without some solid money the way ahead seemed blocked. This was of course a difficulty he shared with most aspiring artists at the time. People willing to support him promised some money, but the amount was insufficient. Building Nesheim proved to be a turning-point in his career. From then on Ness was established at Rosendal. There seemed to be no better alternative, neither in America nor in some of the bigger Norwegian towns. When reluctant to give up his ambitions, he must by this time have realized that if he wanted to become an artist, he would have to resign himself to remaining a self-taught artist working mainly for the local market.
In 1883 the Rosendal Song Club was founded, and Ness became a member from the outset. In September 1885 the conductor of the choir, Andreas Meidell, was to marry. His choir had, of course, to perform at such an occasion, while the leader himself had the best of excuses for not performing as usual. Thus Johannes was charged with the honourable task of wielding the baton. How Meidell and Ness shared their responsibilities in the Song Club after this occasion is not altogether clear; possibly Meidell stepped aside and Ness became the regular conductor at the early age of twenty. This position he was to retain for more than a generation. Early in his career he began to write down the scores to be used, musical notation being a proficiency he had picked up mainly on his own. His sheets of music were mostly copies of well-known songs for use in the choirs he was to direct. Later on, he began to write his own texts to old tunes, or new melodies to old texts. In some cases he made the text as well as the music himself.
Andreas Meidell was not the only one to marry in 1885. In the same year the ship-builder Tørris Skaaluren remarried. Instead of turning to an older and more experienced man, Tørris wanted his young nephew for his master of ceremonies. He knew that Johannes could sing well enough, but was he confident that his nephew had sufficient authority, equanimity and sense of humour for such a task? There proved to be no reason for concern; the young man rose to the occasion with brilliance. Afterwards, Tørris thanked him and declared to everyone willing to listen: "I am very pleased to have found such a young master of ceremonies." The rumour spread quickly, and from then on Johannes L. Ness was to be the obvious master of ceremonies in all celebrations of importance in the village.
In mid-life (1895-1930)
Magnhild and Johannes were by now well established at Nesheim, and it was time to found a family. They were to have five children: Anna, Marcus Gerhard, Laura Katrine, Ragnvald and Magnhild. In spite of his new responsibilities, Ness had the drive to join in the founding of the Rosendal Music Band in 1896. He also was its conductor from 1901 to 1914.
During the last years of the 19th century his artistic output consisted of oil paintings only. But after the turn of the century he took up drawing again, and during the first decade of the new century he concentrated on portrait-drawings. In most cases he used charcoal, but to obtain some variation of effect he would occasionally work in crayon as well. His most well-known subject is a landscape scene called September Evening. The first version dates back to 1910. Some time that summer he rowed over to the island of Snilstveitøy, and from there he looked back towards Rosendal and the mountain range behind, with Melderskin as its highest ridge. The calm fjord, disturbed only by a steamship, a small boat, and a flock of gulls, reflects the magnificent mountains. The composition pleased the painter himself as well as other people having the opportunity to see it. In 1918 he drew two versions of the composition in charcoal, of which he had also a series of photographic reproductions made in Oslo. Most of these were sold in his shop, while some were given away as presents or handed over as compensations for assistance or occasional services (page 89).
If one painting were to be singled out as "the master-piece of Johannes L. Ness", the choice must fall upon the large-scale portrait of his wife and his daughter Laura, of 1902. Measuring 125 by 79 cm this is a magnificent composition further distinguished by rich colours and a beautiful handling of detail (page 79).
If September Evening is his best known composition, another picture made in 1924 is more interesting from the point of view of cultural history. This composition seems to be the only one he worked on during that year. He had set himself the difficult task of making an accurate prospect of the hamlets Skåla and Vang, as they looked before the enclosure (or more exactly redistribution of acreage) of 1890. The picture was entitled Skaale & Vang 1874. In the main he drew on his own memory, but he discussed the project with old people of the hamlet, and he checked particular points against old photographs (on page 107 is a newer version).
One day in the summer of 1910 the well-known actor Stub Wiberg dropped in at Ness' shop. They had a long conversation, and talked much on matters of art. Wiberg relates that; "In a modest way, he showed me quite some of the things he had made, paintings that undoubtedly revealed talent, and not an inconsiderable talent. A charcoal drawing I found quite excellent. All the time I asked myself: Why on earth has this man never had the occasion to come out in the world to learn something? Professional training is what he lacks." Wiberg goes on to comment more closely on some of the pictures he had seen: "All these mistakes, these irregularities that instruction would have made him see and avoid, still cling to him - and in spite of all, one could see his sense for things, the eye, the feeling, the perceptiveness, in the whole; the strange little something, which never must be lacking, he had it."
The gist of Wiberg's comments is that although Ness' style was unpolished, he did possess the basic qualities necessary for a painter. 1910 was still fairly early in his career. Many of his best paintings he was to make only in the years to come. Stub Wiberg thought it exasperating that Ness had not been given the possibility to move on in the world, and asked him if he had ever obtained scholarships or any kind of private support. Ness answered: "Well, when it comes to that, various attempts have actually been made, but invariably without success. And now I am getting on in age, being close on fifty, thus it is all too late. From what I understood and what I was told I might have deserved to obtain a bit of instruction. But you know it is hard to get on in the world, above all when it comes to art, and then being a peasant lad - it is not all that easy." After a while he added: "But then, things being what they are, as time goes by and nothing further comes of it, one starts doubting." The possibility of an artistic career had obviously become a painful topic. Since childhood Ness had dreamed of painting, learning the craft, exhibiting. Fearing that for him art would never be more than a hobby, he was still reluctant to forgo his hopes altogether. But now, at forty-five, he realized that time had passed him by. His hopes vanished, but the dream he was to cherish for the rest of his life!
As the conversation went on, Wiberg asked if Ness was still painting. "Well, yes, I am still painting - but then I have my shop which must to be looked after. And I am caught up in many other activities. Song and music - that's what I love; I direct the choir here in the village. It is a blessed gift of God to have interests of the kind; many hours and many days gain their lustre in this manner. Also, I often sit here in my shop with my palette. You know how it is; but I should have learned, learned, learned -." Wiberg ends his relation with a few Consolatory comments: "Cheerful and melancholy. Yes. But in quiet hours when our longings turn to what we did not attain in life, those are the happy ones who spread the gift - God's blessed gift, as he called it. The gift to find new ways in life, even though they be modest, activities that still throw their light on our days and hours."
Painting was not the only craft Ness mastered. He also made musical instruments and pieces of furniture. We know that he made his first fiddle in the early 1880s, but not how many instruments of the kind he produced in all. He always brought his self-made fiddle with him when rehearsing the choir (page 26). We are better informed regarding the organs, as he himself claimed to have made three pipe organs and three harmoniums. A pipe organ made in 1907 was acquired for the church at Ænes three years later, actually the first church organ mounted in this medieval building. It served its congregation till 1955. Ness made everything with his own hands: "Everything – keys – flutes. Every bit and particle, every single thing", as he was to tell Stub Wiberg. Quite an achievement, considering the organ consists of 54 keys and 216 pipes. The leather bellows is still perfectly close after all these years (page 27).
It is told that the wood used by Ness for making fiddles and organs, had to be stored in the church loft for a period of time before use. The idea was that the sound of the church bells tolling would improve the sonorous quality of the instruments. Formerly, this seems to have been a common belief and Ness simply followed the established tradition.
Requests for his services as master of ceremonies were numerous. In his most active period Ness directed as much as three wedding celebrations in one week! He once told to the newspaper Folgefonn: "One autumn I guided seven wedding celebrations only in Rosendal. At times people came to the hotel at Rosendal for their wedding feasts without bringing their own master of ceremonies, and as a consequence I had to attend to them as well. It still happens that people greet me in the street, telling that I was master of ceremonies at their wedding, and still I am unable to recognize them." Considering that a wedding in those days might last for several days, we understand that they were anything but easy to prepare and carry through. The parson Nils Andreas Andersen once wanted to know how often Ness had been master of ceremonies in weddings and funerals. Making a rough estimate he came to about 1500 days in all! And that was at a time when he was still going strong. Later on he reckoned he had spent five years of his life conducting ceremonies.
JOHANNES L. NESS
(1865-1944) frå Rosendal
Contact: Morten Nygård, P.O.Box 70, 5486 Rosendal, Norway Tlf: 53 48 19 02 Mob: 971 13 075