The Golden Age of Danish Painting, 1790-1850
By Jason Edward Kaufman
Few museumgoers were aware that there ever was such an epoch as “The Golden Age of Danish Painting” when an exhibition by that name opened recently at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, promising to edify with exposure to the best of an unfamiliar and distinct national school (roughly 1790-1850). Edifying though it was, the 100 or so works on hand were less unusual than expected. Despite their diversity of authorship, subject, and style, and their having been loaned from comparatively remote Scandinavian collections, quite the contrary, they were exceedingly familiar, if not in actuality, then at least in feel. One was struck by their resemblance to better known works by painters from other periods or places, a congruence that contradicts the notion of coherent artistic identity circumscribed by national borders.
That such should be the case is hardly surprising. Style is not so much an aspect of nationality as of culture, and European culture in many instances is trans-national. This is especially the case with regard to artistic culture, for the pursuit and appreciation of aesthetic excellence typically traverse political as well as temporal barriers. Courts, clerics, and collectors habitually have lured talent and treasures from beyond their immediate environs. And the well-to-do have always coveted creations of an earlier age, commingling the modes of many eras in a pluralistic present. The constant penchant of middle-class taste for the same reassuring quotidian themes — genre, landscape, and portraiture — has elicited surprisingly similar images from artists of disparate periods and polities. Like the market, training too is international and inter-generational. Each era’s leading academies attract a multinational mix of artists, and expose them to a common range of values, practices, and antique and old-master sources. The students return to their homes and pass their learning on to others who may themselves constitute what become known as “national schools.” Because so much depends on the rich hume of shared artistic traditions, the uniqueness of derivative “schools” is often less pronounced than art historians endeavor to convince us. This is manifestly the case with the Danish school, whose internationalism and relationship with earlier masters is abundantly evident.
Consider the work of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, the father of Denmark’s golden age. His wanderjahre brought him first to Paris, where he painted A View from the Château Meudon, Near Paris (1813) — essentially a Claudian or Poussinesque landscape with figures in contemporary dress — and later to Rome, where he sketched Porta Angelica and Part of the Vatican (1813) — a work whose casual naturalism and limpidity of atmosphere (notwithstanding condition problems) anticipate the work of Corot in the next decade. Only a specialist could distinguish the nationality, let alone the specific hand, of Eckersberg’s A View through Three of the Northwestern Arches of the Third Story of the Colosseum (1815 or 1816). Artists all over Europe were executing this kind of plein-air sketch (this one happens to have been finished in the studio), beginning with the Frenchman Pierre-Henri Valenciennes and the little-known Englishman Thomas Jones in the 1780s, and continuing in the early nineteenth century with the German Carl Blechem and the Swiss Barthélemy Menn. The latter were among the northern Romantics from the Oskar Reinhart Collection in Winterthur, exhibited at the Metropolitan concurrently with the Danish show. Eckersberg’s marines, with their exquisitely pristine light, accurate naval architecture, and impeccably balanced compositions, call to mind luminist paintings by English and American contemporaries such as Salmon, Bradford, and Lane, as well as by their great seventeenth-century Dutch antecedent, Willem van de Velde.
As a figure painter Eckersberg remained staunchly NeoClassicist. His best portraits, as of the celebrated Danish expatriate Thorwaldsen (1814), and Madame Frederikke Christine Schmidt (1818), demonstrate a debt to J.-L. David, with whom he studied in Paris. And the much later Woman Standing in front of a Mirror (1837?) has an Ingresque quality, as if one of the Frenchman’s odalisques had retired to a powder room. Eckersberg deftly conveys the textures of satin, upholstery, and polished wood, but at times his drawing and rigorously contrived compositions undermine the intended illusionism. The double portrait of Mendel Levin Nathanson’s Elder Daughters, Bella and Hanna (1820) stiffly locks the sitters into classic frontal and profile views, and renders their faces naive idealized masks, bereft of distinctive personality. Despite careful delineation and tonal modeling, these frozen figures are as characterless as subjects by third-rate artists in the Napoleonic court.
More amusing is the casual approach to portraiture exercised by Eckersberg’s disciple William Bendz. His symbol-laden freundschaftsbild (friendship picture) of A Young Artist [Ditlev Blunck] Examining a Sketch in a Mirror (1826) has an element of play that would not have been allowed in a formal commissioned likeness. The repoussoir devices, warm palette, and theatrical lighting recall northern Caravaggism. These traces of the Baroque are dispelled in The Waagepetersen Family (1830), a Biedermeier paean to the domestic unit in which mother and children are shown interrupting the father at his desk, set within a well-appointed high-ceilinged apartment. Equally snapshot-like in its recording of a period setting is Bendz’s wonderfully understated Interior at Amaliegade with the Artist’s Brothers (ca. 1830). The plotting of every detail within the perspectival scheme, the acute observation of the gradations of late-afternoon light, and the informality of the young men’s activities draw the viewer into the pensive atmosphere within a slice of early nineteenth-century Danish bachelor life.
Those with a taste for the American Hudson River School find much to please the eye in Johan Chrstian Dahl’s Norwegian Landscape with Waterfall (1821). Its pioneer cabin deep in the coniferous woods conjures the kind of rugged but nurturing wilderness Thomas Cole admired. The earthy palette and attention to botanical detail relate closely also to Constable, Rousseau, and van Ruisdael (whose work was available in the Copenhagen Academy), though Dahl fails to similarly exploit the expressive possibilities of sky. But the most striking parallel is with his German colleague Caspar David Friedrich, who himself studied in Copenhagen and with whom Dahl later lived in Dresden. “Many have imitated him,” wrote Dahl, “yet none has understood how to recreate that silent sense of the spirit of nature that was characteristic of Friedrich’s art.” This is somewhat belied by Dahl’s own Evening Landscape with Shepherd (1822), a piece worthy of his renowned Romantic friend. Its wispy pine and gnarled oak silhouetted against the gloaming sky are signature motifs of Friedrich’s eldritch evocations of mortality. As is often the case, a work of the so-called Danish school could pass for a quintessential example of another national school.
The greatest Danish artist, Christian Købke, achieved arresting visual clarity and verisimilitude of atmosphere. His deservedly famous Portrait of Frederik Sødring (1832) captures the young painter in a buoyant mood, pausing from his work on a still life, partially reflected in the mirror on the wall above him. Købke has precisely delineated the shadows and more importantly exactly controlled the colors in order to evoke the strength and clarity of natural sunlight as it pores over the figure and the objects on the adjacent table. On the wall he includes sketches of cows and of classical ruins, emblems of the competing forces of naturalism and Neoclassical idealism. There is no question which path Købke chose. His superlative style is evident even in an academic study of a
Male Model (1833), executed in Eckersberg’s class at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. The model’s body (positioned perhaps to evoke the Belvedere Torso) is starkly illuminated to emphasize its sculpturality, yielding planar effects reminiscent of early Velàzquez. Though the subject is anatomy, Købke finishes the mise-en-scène down to the woodgrain of the floorboards and the wooly nap of the striped rug. This is an artist whose ability to provide the sense of continuity with the viewer’s space places him in the exclusive company of Vermeer, Chardin, and a few others. With the possible exception of early Corot, his optical realism was of a quality that set him apart from his contemporaries, in any school.
Whereas Germans such as Friedrich were inclined to render nature as symbol, embodying their Lutheran communion with deity and Romantic longing for something greater, this sort of content was far less overt in the work of Danish artists, including Købke. In his recent monograph on the artist (Timken Publishers), Sanford Schwartz observes, “Some of his pictures represent for Danes what pictures by Winslow Homer represent for Americans: images of the nation at a bright and confident moment that manage not to be sentimental.” View from a Grain Loft in the Citadel (1831) is a case in point, depicting the artist’s sister self-absorbed in her knitting as she ambles up a ramp before a lush summer landscape. However, not all of Købke‘s work is without deeper resonance. Frederiksborg Castle in the Evening Light (1835), a view of the queen’s residence north of Copenhagen, is imbued with a feeling of remembrance, as if seen in the mind’s eye. The large canvas was submitted to an architectural painting competition held at the Copenhagen Fine Arts Society, which called for an image of a “public place or building.” The red and gray monument stands resolute between the placid moat and glowing sky, reflecting a nationalist sentiment more generally associated with German Romanticism. But Købke‘s unofficial and less grandiose version, Frederiksborg Castle Seen from the Northwest (1836), is the more Danish portrayal of the site, a sunny place for middle-class leisure rather than a solemn embodiment of nationhood. In his lake scenes, with their sense of pervading stillness and suffused northern light, Købke tinged the commonplace with a poignancy that hints at something immanent. But whereas contemporary German and American artists made the leap of faith to surmise that nature is brimming with deity, Købke seems less attuned to the divine. He sees a more secular order whose outward expression is more subdued than sublime.
Notwithstanding such distinctions, the continuities between these national schools tend to be more powerful than the contrasts. Throughout Europe and America, the art of the period is characterized by the Biedermeier penchant for sentiment and nostalgia, the immersion in domestic life, the attention to landscape, and the Romantic impulse. Specific subjects differ, but general categories often are consistent; stylistic nuances vary, but technique remains closely related; members share the same instructors, allegiance to the same Old Masters, and in some cases even the same patrons. At least to some degree, the world of art comprises not nations but academies. No wonder there are paintings from Denmark that are so closely akin to others from Germany, England, America, Holland, Switzerland, and even Russia.
The catalogue of “The Golden Age of Danish Painting” might have more thoroughly situated the work within its international and historical context by tracing the influence of the Copenhagen Academy of the Fine Arts, detailing which Old Master and contemporary paintings were seen by which artists, and exploring the philosophical currents of the time. Perhaps this is asking too much of a temporary exhibition. After all, certainly the general public can be satisfied with yet another golden age.
Jason Edward Kaufman
[Note: This piece was originally published in the short-lived journal, The New York Review of Art, Summer 1994, pp. 10-11.]