Adolph Tidemand was the first Norwegian artist to achieve figure painting of an international standard. The Orphan shows the interior of a farmhouse based on details and motifs that Tidemand had sketched on a journey to Dalarna in Sweden in 1852. The subject was a popular one, and he used it in five different works. The triangular composition of the figures creates an atmosphere of harmony and stability. The picture resembles a scene in a play, with its main and subordinate characters, and with the light directing our attention to the main theme. The narrative is underlined by the figures’ expressive faces and gestures. This was a common approach to the depiction of historical and genre scenes at the time, and recalls the use of imagery in renaissance painting. The theme, with its allusion to charity, also has biblical overtones. Tidemand’s use of the rhetoric of classical history painting elevates his depiction of peasant life above the level of mere genre painting.
Tidemand studied at the Danish Academy of Fine Arts (1832–35) and Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (1837–41), where together with Hans Gude he founded the Norwegian artistic community. In 1842–45 he lived in Christiania, and in summer 1843 made his first journey to Gudbrandsdalen, Sogn and Hardanger, after which he abandoned history painting and began taking his subjects from everyday life. Tidemand regarded his work as part of the national effort to discover and record the country’s cultural heritage. He was one of Norway’s most prominent national romantic painters.