The Art of the Nobel Prize

The thought and effort that goes into each piece of folio art is incredible—particularly given the speed at which Nobel diploma artists must work.

The prestige of winning a Nobel Prize is an award in and of itself, but the recipients receive more than the distinction. The prize consists of a monetary reward, a ‘green gold’ medal plated with 24k gold and, for winners of the Nobel prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Economics and Peace, an original artwork.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liberian Pres
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Artist: Jan Trygve
. Photo credit should read CORNELIUS POPPE/AFP via Getty Images

Art is arguably the defining feature of the modern laureate diploma but has been part of the Nobel Prize since the beginning. In 1901, the very first year the prize was awarded, Norwegian painter Gerhard Munthe created a lithograph for the Peace Prize that was used through 1969, before it was replaced in 1970 with a woodcut by Norwegian artist and illustrator Ørnulf Ranheimsæter.

Early Nobel Prize art was often inseparable from the body of the diploma. Sofia Gisberg’s designs for Chemistry prize laureates (including Marie Curie in 1911) were more ornamental than artistic, though adeptly done. Her 1918 work for laureate Fritz Haber stands out as quite different with its beautiful renderings of manors and parklands in the diploma’s wide margins.

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Elsa Örtengren’s art for the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics (awarded to Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac) took second stage to the calligraphy, which fully overlaps the art, yet her work was in no danger of fading into the background thanks to its strikingly scientific subject matter.

Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. Artist: Ruth Elisiv Ekeland. Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

For well into the 20th Century, it wasn’t unusual for the same artist (who might also be the calligrapher) to be tapped to create Nobel Prize art year after year.

Bertha Svensson-Piehl’s artwork appears on 45 Nobel Prize diplomas, in both literature and medicine, which used artwork in the laureate diploma through 1964. Her artwork for the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (awarded to George Beadle, Edward Tatum and Joshua Lederberg) and 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (awarded to Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet and Peter Medawar) take up more room on the page than the lettering, presaging a future in which Nobel art became distinct from the Nobel diploma.

The art of the Nobel Prize folio would eventually be uncoupled from the calligraphy and grow to take up half of the custom leather folio laureates receive, but that transition—from illustration or decoration to work of art—took many years.

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi.
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi’s Nobel Prize diploma, awarded in 1937. Artist: Jerk Werkmäster. Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Pablo Neruda’s 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature folio featured a vivid full-page work by Gunnar Brusewitz paired with lettering by calligrapher Kerstin Anckers, while the recipients of the 1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (Christian Anfinsen, Stanford Moore and William H. Stein) received a folio that treated Brusewitz’s work as a decoration.

By around the 1980s, however, the artwork typically took up the entire left-hand page of the Nobel Prize folio, though the art wasn’t necessarily unique to a recipient’s contributions except in the case of the Literature diploma. Historically, the art in the Physics and Chemistry diplomas was often characterized by an annual theme. And Ranheimsæter’s aforementioned woodcut adorned the Peace Prize folio through 1990—it wasn’t until 1991 that the Norwegian Nobel Committee began commissioning original art by contemporary Norwegian artists including Jakob Weidemann, Ørnulf Opdahl, Jens Johannessen and Håkon Bleken.

National Academy Of Sciences Presents Nobel Prizes To Physics, Chemistry, And Economic Sciences Laureates
Physics laureate Syukuro Manabe. Artist: Gunnel Moheim. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Today, Nobel Prize artists generally create works—mostly paintings but sometimes photographs—that align in some way with each laureate’s contribution to the sciences, literature or the well-being of the world.

In Brusewitz’s book with Birger Christofferson, Antecknare, he offered insight into the Nobel Prize for Literature diploma artwork he created for the Polish-born Jewish-American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978:

“The diploma is dominated by a Star of David, whose six tips point toward characters and events in Singer’s books. The pictures in the upper left portion were inspired by “The Magician of Lublin”. A parrot appears there, but can also symbolize the bird that flies away with people’s sins. Beneath it, a couple of rabbis with a Torah roll and ritual ram’s horn. Next to it, Jacob in “The Slave”, living in captivity as a cowherd. The bottom portion of the diploma is based on “Satan in Goray”, with its wild ecstatic atmosphere in anticipation of Shabbetai Zvi – the false “Messiah.” The flower symbolizes the recovery of Goray from devastation. And above it, New York rises as the never-realized paradise for tormented Jews. To the right, the pogroms of the Nazi era.”

Daily Life in Ramallah
The Nobel Prize diploma awarded to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Artist: Anne-Lise Knoff. Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The thought that goes into each piece is notable, particularly given the speed at which Nobel diploma artists must work. After receiving the commission, the artists find out who the year’s awardees are at the same time as the general public. From there, they have just a few weeks (from early October through mid-November) to determine how best to represent what are oftentimes extremely complex or nuanced accomplishments in a work of art no doubt treasured by laureates for a lifetime.

“I think [the art] is a very neat and a very meaningful thing,” 2012 Chemistry Nobel winner Dr. Robert Lefkowitz told NPR. “That’s something which, like everything else about the Nobel Prizes, appears to distinguish it from other awards.”

As of today (October 4), the artists tasked with creating pieces for 2023’s Nobel laureates in the categories that include art in the diploma—Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier in Physics; Moungi Bawendi, Louis E. Brus and Alexey Ekimov in Chemistry; and Jon Fosse in Literature—are likely already hard at work. And in December, at the Nobel awards ceremony that honors the contributions of the world’s great thinkers, each artist’s contributions to the rich history of the Nobel Prize will also be unveiled.

The Art of the Nobel Prize