Singer inspired in Scandanavia

August 17, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

Jean Woods, director of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts for more than 20 years until her resignation in July, vacationed in Scandinavia earlier this summer.

She visited friends in Copenhagen, Denmark. Then she traveled to Norway, and for part of her visit, she was the guest of Ambassador and Mrs. John Doyle Ong at the American Embassy in Oslo, where three paintings by William Henry Singer Jr. are on loan from the Hagerstown museum.

She visited Olden on the Nordfjord, the area where Singer painted his greatest landscapes. She also visited the home built there in 1921 by the late Singer and his wife, Anna Brugh Singer.


The couple founded the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in 1929. There is published information about the son of a Pittsburgh steel magnate and the artist's wife, a native of Hagerstown, but Woods remains curious.

"They were an interesting couple, and they did so much," she says.

The pair met at a party in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in the late 1800s. They married in 1895, and a few years later at an artists' retreat off the coast of Maine, they met Martin Borgord, a native of Norway.

William Singer studied in America, later in Paris, later still in Laren, Holland. Their home there now is a museum that houses many of Singer's paintings.

In 1904, urged by Borgord, the couple planned a trip to Norway. They summered there for a few years, and by 1914, Singer had built a studio in Olden.

The outbreak of World War I prevented the Singers from making their usual winter return to their home in Holland. Winter in Olden captivated the postimpressionist landscape artist, and the Singers decided to make Olden their home year-round.

"He really captures the light so beautifully in his painting," Woods says.

There are 25 paintings in his Olden studio, a building separate from the house, Woods says. The studio also houses a library, and Woods saw some of the Singers' books and papers, even some receipts from stores in Oslo.

The large house is a Maryland-style bungalow, Woods says. The couple dubbed it Dalheim, which means Valley Home.

While there, Woods also did some other sightseeing, hiking up to the nearby Briksdalsbreen glacier - although she could have taken a ride in a horse-drawn cart. The temperatures averaged in the 70- to 80-degree range.

The region also offers nighttime skiing - days are long in the "land of the midnight sun" - and horseback riding on mountain trails.

Woods had visited the Singers' Olden complex on two previous trips to Norway, but this summer's travels included her first look at the Tydal region, north and east of Olden, close to the Swedish border and the site of the Singers' hunting lodge.

"It's an area that's not in the normal tourist route," Woods says.

The area is rural, Woods says. Lodging is available - more in the form of lodges and camps than fancy hotels - and the food is good, but certainly not gourmet dining, she adds.

Wear your jeans and hiking boots, Woods advises.

The Singers were good to people of their adopted country. They built a hospital in Olden as well as a road between Olden and the town of Innvik - a project that took 12 years to complete. Singer bought land and gave it to the local farmers.

Their descendants are very much aware of the Singers' generosity, Woods says.

If you're looking for culture on a visit to Norway, the city of Bergen is a good destination.

"It has wonderful museums," Woods says. They include the Permanenten, which has displays of decorative arts - rugs, tapestries, clocks - as well as 35 paintings by Singer.

If Norway's too far to go for some local history, though, visitors to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts can get a glimpse of the Norwegian landscape - as seen through the eyes of artist William Henry Singer. Some of his oil paintings and pastels are hanging in the Singer Memorial Gallery.

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