Realism enjoyed only a brief flowering, and from the mid-1880s on the young Nordic artists who had fled abroad to escape the academies and artistic life of their native countries began to return. Meanwhile, Symbolism had begun to regard Realism's insistence on truth as an unacceptable restriction of artistic freedom. Nordic artists were quick to respond, and between 1892 and 1894 a major change of direction occurred among the former Realists. The result was an almost complete breakthrough for the mood-evoking landscape and for Symbolism around the middle of the 1890s.

The first clear examples of this new, evocative approach to landscape were created by a group of young Norwegian painters who had gathered in the summer of 1886 at Fleskum farm, west of Oslo. Among those who have since become well known were Harriet Backer, Kitty Kielland, Eilif Peterssen, Christian Skredsvig and Erik Werenskiold. Most of them had returned a few years earlier from studies in Munich, Karlsruhe, Paris and Italy. Back home, they were able to draw on an indigenous landscape tradition which, ever since the time of Johan Christian Dahl, had been important in shaping the Norwegian identity. But these young painters were interested not so much in the mountains as in the less spectacular scenery of the lowlands, at the same time as the light nights of the Nordic summer became a central theme.

In Eilif Peterssen's Summer Night, 1886, we see a depiction of the peace of a light summer's night which conveys an intensity of mood and the sense of a presence beyond what is visible. It is through this vague impression of something beneath the surface that landscape here takes on a new emotional dimension which sets it irrevocably apart from Realism. Whether nature is in fact possessed of a soul, or the mood we sense is simply a projection of our own emotions, however, is a question that is left unanswered, imparting a special tension to the picture. Petersen's image speaks a new and subtle language, in which it is only the evocation of a mood that sparks the viewer's imagination.

The Swedish painter Richard Bergh, who was among those who began to embrace the evocative approach to landscape, described this kind of painting as a self-portrait - an idea typical of the period:

Instinctively, the mood painter seeks a light, a mood of nature, a place, behind which he can install a spirit that possesses the agonies and joys of his own soul, its dreams both light and dark. In this way he endows nature with a spirit and gives her a speaking tongue, whose speech his art then interprets.

Despite a good deal of common ground, the movement towards mood painting and Symbolism followed quite different courses in the different Nordic countries. Typically, though, this deeply personal interpretation of landscape was often coupled with a renewed interest in nationality. Now, though, it was less a matter of national self-assertion, and more a quest for national identity. In Finland, the national dimension assumed particular political significance in the 1890s. Since 1809, after almost five hundred years as part of the Swedish kingdom, Finland had been a grand duchy of Russia. When a Russification campaign in the late 1890s threatened its autonomy, the Finnish landscape proved a useful symbol of national strength.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela was to be more important than anyone else in articulating the national sentiment of the Finns. Firmly resolved to renew his art through the vehicle of Finnish nature and the mythology of the national epic Kalevala ("Land of Heroes"), he began work on two major paintings: The Great Black Woodpecker, first known as Wilderness, and The Mäntykoski Waterfall. These works can be seen as symbols of nature which attempt in different ways to interpret the soul of the landscape.

Summer Night, Eilif Peterssen, 1886

Eilif Peterssen
Norwegian, 1852-1928
Summer Night, 1886

The Great Black Woodpecker, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1892-94

Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Finnish, 1865-1931
The Great Black Woodpecker, 1892-94

Lake Keitele, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1905

Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Finnish, 1865-1931
Lake Keitele, 1905

Riddarfjärden, Stockholm, Eugène Jansson, 1898

Eugène Jansson
Swedish, 1862-1915
Riddarfjärden, Stockholm, 1898

The Cloud  , Prince Eugen, 1896

Prince Eugen
Swedish, 1865-1947
The Cloud , 1896

Flower Meadow in the North, Harald Sohlberg , 1905

Harald Sohlberg
Norwegian, 1869-1935
Flower Meadow in the North, 1905