Hans Michelsen 1789-1859

Hans Michelsen came from farming stock, and was born at Hegstad in the centre of today's Heimdal. His father was a crofter under the direction of Trondhjems Hospital, and the family was not among those with the poorest means. Hans was among the youngest in a large number of siblings. Under the revival movement around 1800 the people at Hegstad Søndre became active supporting players for the revivalist preacher Hans Nielsen Hauge, and several family members were witnesses for the defence during the court case that was to follow. Hauge wanted Christians to "make use of the world". Hans' life interest, on the other hand, went in an artistic direction.
In 1810 he was a conscripted soldier, and this gave him a forum where his abilities came more into the public eye. His woodworking impressed his co-soldiers and officers alike. The time was right for a young artist, Norway wrote its Constitution in 1814 and the nation's young talents needed encouragement and acknowledgment. Fortune smiled on the young man from Trøndelag, and with active assistance from Prime Minister Peder Anker he was admitted to the Art Academy in Stockholm. With generous grants he remained there for five years. Michelsen chose sculpture as his main expression. This was a prestigious but also challenging way to make a living. There was a small market for portrait busts, and Michelsen received some assignments in this genre, for example modelling his early benefactor Peder Anker.
After considerable success he went to Rome in 1820. Here he came into close contact with the great Danish master, Bertel Thorvaldsen. He kept developing his talent, but in 1826 the public grants ceased and Michelsen returned to Norway. This turned out to be disappointing as it proved to be difficult to find assignments and tasks that he could make a living from. In 1828 he returned to Stockholm where he worked for other artists for a period of time. Eventually he obtained his own assignments, and got back on his feet. He stayed in Stockholm until 1842.
He then looked to Nidaros Cathedral, where the restoration work was now under way. Here he realised his biggest project: 12 large format apostle figures in plaster of Paris. These were put in place in the octagon in 1840. They were later moved around, and in the 1960s they were transferred to the Archbishop's Palace. All the figures ("the greatest plaster works in Norway") were destroyed by the fire there in 1983. But the work is well documented, and today there are a couple of copies in the permanent exhibition at the Archbishop's Palace.
Hans Michelsen stayed in Trondheim and its surroundings from 1842 to 1844. Some romanticising rumours allege that he was sick and poor, and needed to go back "to the plough" to keep going. In reality he was by now a well-regarded artist, with wide and broad contacts. He finished a bust of Thomas Angell, which belongs to Trondheim Katedralskole.
Michelsen spent his last 15 years generally in Kristiania [now Oslo], where he carried out work in the Chapel of the Royal Castle. He was nominated as a Knight of the Order of St. Olav in 1855, and died four years later. He is on the list of the most important visual artists from the nineteenth century.
Works of his can be found in Trondheim, such as sculptures in Katedralskolen and the Restoration Works of Nidaros Cathedral/the Archbishop's Palace, and many drawings and sketches in the
National Museum of Decorative Arts and Design and in the Gunnerus library. In Heimdal a street has been named after him.
Recommended reading: Håkon A. Andersen: Hans Michelsen 1789-1989. Trondheim, 1989.

Author: Einar Rædergård