Biography of Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Johan Ibsen, born in 1828 in Skien, Norway, was the eldest of five children after the early death of his older brother. His father, Knud Ibsen, one in a long line of sea captains, had been born in Skien in 1797 and had married Marichen Cornelia Martie Altenburg, the daughter of a German merchant, in 1825. Though Ibsen later reported that Skien was a pleasant place to grow up, his childhood was not particularly happy. He was described as an unsociable child. His sense of isolation increased at the age of sixteen when his father's business had to be sold to meet the demands of his creditors. On top of this, a rumor began circulating that Henrik was the illegitimate son of another man. Although the rumor was never proven to be true, it manifested itself in the theme of illegitimate offspring that runs throughout Ibsen's later works.

After Knud's business was repossessed, all that remained of the family's former estate was a dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts of Skein. It was there that Ibsen began to attend the small, middle-class school where he cultivated a talent for painting, if nothing else. He was also taught German and Latin as well as drawing. In 1843, at the age of fifteen, Ibsen was confirmed and taken from the school. Though he had declared his interest in becoming a painter, Ibsen was apprenticed to an apothecary shortly before his sixteenth birthday.

Leaving his family, Ibsen traveled to Grimstad, a small, isolated town, to begin his apprenticeship. He maintained a strong desire to gain admission to the university to study medicine. Meanwhile, he fathered an illegitimate son with the maid of the apothecary. Despite his unhappy lot, Ibsen began to write in earnest in Grimstad. Inspired by the European revolutions of 1848, Ibsen wrote satire and elegant poetry.

At the age of twenty-one, Ibsen left Grimstad for the capital. While in Christiania (now Oslo), Ibsen passed his exams but opted not to pursue his education, instead turning to playwriting and journalism. In Christiania he penned his first play, Catiline (1849), written in blank verse about the failure of Catiline’s conspiracy against ancient Rome in the time of Cicero. It sold only 45 copies and was rejected by every theater Ibsen submitted it to for performance. Ibsen also spent time analyzing and criticizing modern Norwegian literature.

Still poor, Ibsen gladly accepted a contract to write for and help manage the newly constituted National Theater in Bergen in 1851. Beginning his work untrained and largely uneducated, Ibsen soon learned much from his time at the theater, producing such works as St. John's Night (1852). The majority of his writings from this period were based on folksongs, folklore, and history.

In 1858, Ibsen moved back to Christiania to become the creative director of the city's Norwegian Theater. That same year, Ibsen married Suzannah Thoresen, with whom he fathered a child named Sigurd Ibsen. Though his plays suggest otherwise, Ibsen revered the state of marriage, believing that it was possible for two people to travel through life as perfect, happy equals. During this period, Ibsen also developed a daily routine from which he would not deviate until his first stroke in 1901: he would rise, consume a small breakfast, take a long walk, write for five hours, eat dinner, and finish the night with entertainment or early retirement to bed.

Despite this routine, Ibsen found his life difficult, though he did pen several plays, including Love's Comedy (1862), a close relation of A Doll's House (1879) in its distinction between love and marriage. Luckily, in 1864, his friends generously offered him money that they had collected, allowing him to move to Italy. He felt like an exile. He would spend the next twenty-seven years living in Italy and Germany. During this time abroad, he authored a number of successful works, including Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867), both (significantly) written to be read rather than to be performed.

Ibsen moved to Dresden in 1868 and then to Munich in 1875. In Munich in 1879, Ibsen wrote his groundbreaking play, A Doll's House. He pursued his interest in realistic drama for the next decade, earning international acclaim; many of his works were published in translation and performed throughout Europe.

Ibsen eventually turned to a new style of writing, abandoning his interest in realism for a series of so-called symbolic dramas. He completed his last work, Hedda Gabler, abroad in 1890.

After being away from Norway for twenty-seven years, Ibsen and Suzannah returned in 1891. Shortly afterwards, he finished writing The Master Builder (1892), after which he took a short break. In late 1893, seemingly in need of moist air to help cure her recurring gout, Suzannah left for southern Italy. While his wife was away, Ibsen found a companion in a young female pianist, Hildur Andersen, with whom he spent a great deal of time. He continued to correspond with her even after Suzannah's return. Ibsen's relationship with Andersen was characteristic of his larger interest in the younger generation; he was famous for seeking out their ideas and encouraging their writing.

Ibsen's later plays tended to meet with controversy on the occasions of their first performances: Hedda Gabler was reviled by critics of the published script and of the first production in 1890. It is at about this time that Ibsen's work, partly as a consequence of George Bernard Shaw's lecture The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1890), became extremely popular in England.

After suffering a series of strokes, Ibsen died in 1906 at the age of seventy-eight. He was unable to write for the last five years of his life, following a stroke which also left him unable to walk. Reportedly his last words, after his nurse suggested he was doing better, were, “To the contrary!”


Study Guides on Works by Henrik Ibsen

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), written while Ibsen was in Rome and Amalfi, Italy, was conceived at a time of revolution in Europe. Charged with the fever of the 1848 European revolutions, a new modern perspective was emerging in the literary and...

Hedda Gabler was published in 1890 before opening in Munich, Germany in 1891 to terrible reviews. Indeed, Ibsen was not happy with the premiere, citing the overly declamatory inflections of the lead actress. The play seemed destined to fail. Hedda...