Carl Larssons’s most controversial painting is the huge Midwinter Sacrifice, measuring some 6.5 by 13.5 meters. It was to have been the last in the suite of murals Carl Larsson painted for Nationalmuseum. The first part was finished in 1896. Most pictures in the suite show motifs from Swedish art history. But for the final work, Larsson chose a scene from Swedish antiquity.
Carl Larsson found his subject matter in the works of the Icelandic writer, Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), best known for the Edda. The scene shows a pagan sacrifice outside a temple in Ancient Uppsala. The sacrificial victim is the mythical King Domalde. There is no basis in history for the incident, but in Snorri Sturluson’s mythology, the sacrifice was to appease the Gods and ask for their interception in a succession of crop failures.
Midwinter Sacrifice shows very clear Art Nouveau influences. The form is strictly linear and the colour scale intensive, with large, gilded sections. The relief-like composition shows the square in front of a pagan temple, the instant before the sacrifice. The king to be slaughtered has been dragged, unclothed, to a gilded sled before the High Priest. The executioner conceals his blade behind his back. The king is escorted by heavily armed warriors; women perform an ecstatic dance to the left and men blow into serpentine bronze wind instruments.
When the first sketch was made public, it provoked immediate reactions. Partly because it was historically inaccurate, partly because of the motif which was considered offensive. On top of this, the whole idea of historical paintings was becoming old fashioned because of the approaching advent of modernism in Swedish art. Finally, in 1915, the painting was rejected, following a debate all the way up to government level.
In 1983–84, Midwinter Sacrifice was put on show at the Museum of National Antiquities. After the show Nationalmuseum was offered to acquire the painting. The museum’s administration was not interested. It was then offered to the Museum of National Antiquities. This museum had to back down because of the high asking price. There was some discussion of a national campaign to raise money to keep the painting in Sweden, but without result. There were also voices raised for the purchase of the painting by the state and a permanent place for it where Carl Larsson had first wanted it – along a wall at Nationalmuseum.
In 1987 the painting was sold to a Japanese collector at Sotheby’s auction in London. Now the painting would forever disappear from Sweden. In 1992, however, Nationalmuseum inaugurated its 200th anniversary celebrations with a large exhibition of Carl Larsson’s paintings and Midwinter Sacrifice was lent to the museum for the occasion by its Japanese owner. Those previously sceptical were now convinced of the painting’s artistic merits and vital role as final part in the decoration of museum’s magnificent upper staircase. A clear majority of the record-breaking 300,000-plus visitors to the Carl Larsson exhibition was positive to Midwinter Sacrifice.
Through the kind permission of its owner, the painting has ever since hung in Nationalmuseum. Followed lengthy negotiations and with generous financial support from private donors and foundations, the painting was purchased in mid-1997 and placed in Nationalmuseum.