Bruno Liljefors once recounted a story from his early childhood, when he held two dead grouse chicks in his hands: 'I was transfixed by looking at their grey and brown spotted feathers. My earlier ideas about beautiful and ugly colours were turned upside down in front of these amazing combinations, which seemed to derive from grey primordial times, and tell us about the forest, the pond, the moss on the stones, and the night sky between the branches. You could look into this world through to the infinite, where there was no bottom or no end, where everything was perpetually new.' (B. Liljefors, Bruno Liljefors 1860-1939, Blaafarvevaerket, 1991, p. 14.)
Throughout his life, Liljefors sought to capture the enigma of the Swedish landscape in all its changing seasons. The coastlines, the wilderness, the seascapes, all far away from the buzzling, modern civilization, are represented in his paintings as untouched refuges, where animals live according to their own rules - barbaric and crude yet at the same time tender and gracious. He offers us close-up, intimate views of wild ducks nesting in horsetail reeds, foxes hunting hares by snow-covered spruce bushes, eiders in flight, and black grouses displaying in the marsh. At times highly dramatic, capturing the moment an animal succumbs to another, his subjects reflect an ecological synthesis of evolutionary principles and instinctual behaviour. The viewing experience is that of the unnoticed spectator, who has silently sneaked upon a scene and avoided stepping on the dry leaves and branches in the undergrowth - a pursuit Liljefors often commented on in his many writings. Predominantly painted outside, the often asymmetrical composition and obstructed perspective of many of his works add to the feeling of a sudden encounter - creating a parallel to Gustave Courbet's landscape and animal paintings. Like his French counterpart, Liljefors did not strive towards zoological representations, but he nonetheless wanted a degree of accuracy to show viewers the animals in their natural surroundings. An avid hunter, prey was often used as models for detailed study, but throughout his career he avoided the affiliation with academic realism, emphasising brushstrokes and the process of painting as a way to present his paintings as lived experiences.
Sildemaker pa klippe ved solnedgang (Black-backed gulls on a rock at sunset) reveals Liljefors' intense and almost meditative observation of the animal kingdom. The scenary is probably from the Stockholm archipelago, the islands and rocky islets surrounding the city, where Liljefors bought his own private area, Bullerö, in 1908. Consisting of more than three hundred and fifty islets and treeless skerries, he kept it intact as a wildlife reserve and used it summer and winter as an outdoor studio. In this painting, he beautifully captures the long, lingering Nordic twillight and its colourful impact on the ocean. With visible brushstrokes, he signals the movement of the waves and the clouds disappearing in the horizon. Often using photographs for preparatory anatomical sketches, he depicts the characteristic poses and gestures of the birds in a scrupolulous, almost psychological manner (fig. 1). Portraying them at close range, he invites the imaginary participation of his audience and facilitates an allegorical reading of the subject matter. His work has often been associated with national romanticism, and the resting gulls, at ease in their wild, natural environment, become symbols of freedom and independence. As with many of his paintings, he manages to encapsulate an underlying, universal spirit beneath the simple and quiet scenery. The tranquility in this painting becomes zen-like, exuding natural order and goodness.