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Johan Nordhagen grew up in the cotters place of Nordhagen under the farm of Flisaker. His father was from Grue, and had his relatives in Finland. He worked as a cartwheel-maker. His mother Ahlis was from Veldre. Johan grew up in poverty.
Nordhagen drew a lot in his childhood, and was often told to do something useful instead. It was just a coincidence that Nordhagen in his youth made contact with persons who helped him making a career in art. Around the age of 17 he came to the capital Kristiania, and started working in the bookstore of the Christian organization Lutherstiftelsen.
People noticed his talent for drawing, and it was arranged that he should study at the Royal School of Drawing with sculptor Middelthun. Later he was employed by the Norwegian Mapping and Cadastre Authority (then known as Norges Geografiske Oppmåling) as litographer and terrain drawer and won two scholarships that enabled him to travel to study abroad, fist to Copenhagen and then to Paris. In Norway there was no art printing expertise so a committee was established to work towards establishing a study of graphic art at Kunst og Håndverksskolen (art and crafts school). Johan Nordhagen's background in lithographic portraits and etching, made him the obvious leader and teacher of this education. In 1897 he got a substantial grant from the Parliament of Norway to go to Germany to obtain even more knowledge for the assignment.
The King's order of merit
On 1 October 1899 the class for etching was established. Nordhagen headed it for 20 years, and without his work Norwegian graphic art would not have been able to obtain the position it holds today. Nordhagen is one of the few to have received The King's order of merit from two different kings. He received the first (in silver) from <Swedish> king Oscar II in 1892, and (in gold) from <Norwegian> king Haakons in 1929. He also received several medals and recognition from exhibitions around the World. In his older days he often visited Veldre, where he had a vacation house until 1937. Even after selling that, he often visited acquaintances in the community to make sketches and studies for later artistic work. Nordhagen had an enormous graphic production (lithography and etchings), but also drawings and paintings, his artistic and productive career spanned over 80 years.
The art book
Many of Nordhagen's motifs were from Ringsaker and Veldrebygda. His portraits of both famous and unknown persons, of local community originals, clothing, work situations, interiors and building customs has a tremendous cultural historic value and means a lot to his descendants.
Veldre Historielag (historical society) in 1988 published a richly illustrated book on the graphic artist Nordhagen where the author describes the artist's adolescence and artistic life. The society has also over the years acquired quite a lot of etchings and one big painting from Nordhagen's substantial production. Some of Nordhagen's motifs have been published as postcards.