Born at Galtafell farm in southern Iceland, Einar Jónsson studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, settling in the Danish capital from 1904 following a couple of years spent mostly in Rome, with visits also to Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Vienna, and Florence. At the time, around the turn of the twentieth century, Iceland possessed little in the way of a sculptural tradition, but Jónsson’s experiences in Rome and of the fin-de-siècle culture of Central Europe encouraged him to reject classical forms, and he began to create inspired by German symbolism.
By the end of the first decade of the 1900s, Jónsson was turning too to Norse mythology, theosophy, and the mysticism of Emanuel Swedenborg. In 1909 he made an offer to the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, which would gift all of his works to the state in return for a museum in which to house them. This offer was accepted in 1914, and the Althing set about transporting his sculptures from Copenhagen.
As the site for his museum, Jónsson chose Skolavorduhaed, then nothing more than a ‘desolate hill on the outskirts of town’, looming high above Reykjavik. He hoped that the hill would become the political and cultural Acropolis of an independent Iceland, but although Iceland gained sovereignty from Denmark in 1918 and in 1944 proclaimed a republic, Skolavorduhaed would have to settle instead for Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik’s iconic church with its expressionist tower which was constructed between 1945 and 1986.
With help from the architect Einar Erlendsson, Jónsson designed every aspect of his museum, which also contained a studio and living quarters. Construction began in 1916, and after a couple of years in the United States, Jónsson returned to Iceland with his wife, Anna Marie Jörgensen, in time for its opening on midsummer’s day in 1923. It stood boldly atop the hill as the country’s first devoted art museum.
The Einar Jónsson sculpture garden, carefully tended by Einar and Anna and lying just behind the museum, was formally opened on 8 June 1984. Accessible all year round and free for the roaming of visitors, it features twenty-six bronze casts of Jónsson’s sculptures, including The Wave of Ages, Prayer, The King of Atlantis, Spring, Thor Wrestling with Age, and Christmas.