Aasta Hansteen (1824 – 1908)

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Portrait of a Woman with a Rose in Her Hair 1853

Aasta Hansteen was a Norwegian painter, writer, and early feminist. The daughter of a Danish mother and Christopher Hansteen , a professor of astronomy and geophysics at the University of Oslo, she started her art education in Copenhagen in 1840, and continued her training for several years in Düsseldorf. She exhibited her work at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris.

She returned to Norway and settled in Kristiania where she for several years was the in huge demand as the city’s only portrait artist. Her most famous painting is possibly the portrait of her father, which is on permanent exhibit at the National Gallery of Norway.

Overwhelmed by the interest, she resigned from her craft for several years and moved to Telemark, where she developed an interest in Norwegian dialects. When she moved back to Kristiania, she studied with the linguist Ivar Aasen. In 1862 she published anonymously a small book written in nynorsk and has the distinction of being the first woman to publish in this language.

In 1880 she emigrated to the United States, where she lived for nine years and returned with a renewed interest in the women’s movement. She joined the The Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights and became an active contributor in the press on women’s rights. Hansteen was a vocal critic of the Judeo-Christian and Pauline perception of women, which she felt was denigrating of women’s spiritual worth.

A strong and controversial personality, she became the model for Henrik Ibsen’s character Lona Hessel in his play The Pillars of Society, as well as for the title role Gunnar Heiberg’s Aunt Ulrikke. She frequented cafes and markets on her own, and became one of the more colorful fixtures in Oslo. In her time, she was accused of misandry, but posterity has largely vindicated her.

Her grave is in Vår Frelsers gravlund in Oslo, marked with a bust made by Gustav Vigeland. Still wondering about a Norwegian painting in your family collection? Contact us…it could be by Aasta Hansteen.