Sæmundur Hólm: The first Icelander to study at an art academy

A remarkable feature of this area is the number of notable artists it has produced. One such individual was Kjarval, a fine 20th century landscape artist who often came to paint in the locality. When he stayed at Kirkjubæjarklaustur there was a young lad who became his regular companion, wishing to learn all he could from the master. In later life this boy went abroad to study art and would achieve international acclaim under the name Erró.

Undoubtedly one of the most talented and least recognized of the other painters associated with this locality is Sæmundur Hólm. Born Sæmundur Magnússon in 1749 he grew up on the family farm at Hólmasel in Meðalland. He was already the deacon of Kirkjubæjarklaustur when with the backing of a benefactor he moved to Copenhagen to study.
Changing his name to Sæmundur Hólm, his initial intention was to study philosophy, but he ended up studying art and was the first Icelander to enter the Danish Royal Academy. Also attending the academy at this time was a student by the name of Bertel Thorvaldssen. Thorvaldssen´s father was Icelandic, his mother Danish. In later life Thorvaldssen went on to become one of Denmark´s most famous sculptors. Hólm studied at the academy for four years but would never achieve the same recognition as Thorvaldssen despite receiving the same prizes and critical admiration.

Hólm would do sketches of many contemporaries which are still to be seen. A keen naturalist, he also drew images from nature and later in his career would become a cartographer. Most famous is his map of volcanoes in the Skaftafell district both before and after the massive Laki eruption of 1783. Hólm´s maps are unique in that no Icelander had ever undertaken such work.
Hólm wrote a book on the Laki eruption based on letters written by people who had experienced this terrible natural disaster. He wrote it in Danish and very soon the work was translated into German. Interestingly, it was not translated into Icelandic since certain influential people in Iceland considered it lacking in merit.

Hólm was also a poet but little of his work has ever been published. Despite being a man of considerable talent Hólm didn´t fair well in life. Upon studying theology in Copenhagen he had hopes of being given a parish in Iceland but met with little success. Eventually he was appointed as minister at Helgafell church in Snæfellsnes, a position he held until his death.
During his life Hólm was involved in endless disputes with his neighbours and the authorities. In his eulogy on Hólm, the poet Bjarni Thorarensen stated that Hólm had been badly treated by his fellowmen. Others however were of the opinion that Hólm was a cantankerous and confrontational individual.  

 Stories written by Lilja Magnúsdóttir Translation and narration by Neil McMahon

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