On “Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in Nineteenth-Century Danish Art” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Over the course of the thirty years that I taught Northern Renaissance art to undergraduates at the University of the South, the drawing I always lingered over the longest with my students was Albrecht Dürer’s pen-and-ink sketch of Antwerp’s harbor, made during his visit to the Low Countries in 1520 (Albertina, Vienna). Focusing on the drawing’s left half, I loved to marvel at the skill with which the master’s relaxed but confident hand renders only as much as is needed to enable the viewer to envision the human figures on the near embankment and the unmoored boats and far shore that Dürer saw with his own eyes.
Imagine my delight, then, to encounter a harbor drawing dominating the west wall in the first of the three galleries given over to the New York version of “Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in Nineteenth-Century Danish Art” that immediately brought Dürer’s sketch to mind.1 A rotulus measuring some eighteen inches high and ten and a half feet wide, it depicts a panorama of the Copenhagen roads drawn by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg from 1828 to 1839. The distant sailing vessels, islands, and horizons at both ends of the Eckersberg drawing are rendered with the same masterly economy of line that characterizes the boats and distant shore in Dürer’s 1520 sketch.
The Eckersberg rotulus is just one of the many outstanding objects in the Met’s installation of “Beyond the Light,” which includes ninety-three works produced between 1809 and 1912 by twenty-two Danish artists (plus one Norwegian, Johan Christian Dahl). Twenty-three of the works are oil paintings on paper or canvas, and two are prints (etchings) on paper. The remaining sixty-eight, all on paper, employ and often combine graphite, charcoal, pen and ink, brushed washes, watercolor, and occasionally white heightening. Forty-eight works in the exhibition were lent by the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) in Copenhagen. The three most generous lenders after the SMK are the Met itself with seventeen objects, the private collectors Roberta J. M. Olson and Alexander B. V. Johnson with sixteen, and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York with six.
In the introduction to the handsome and informative accompanying catalogue, the authors note that nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Danish art was not well known outside of Denmark itself until the early 1980s, when a series of exhibition catalogues and monographs brought the Danish and Scandinavian art of that period to the attention of a much wider public. That those publications triggered a rush by American institutions to acquire Danish works can be gleaned from the provenances of the twenty-eight works in “Beyond the Light” that were lent by public collections stateside: the earliest, in the J. Paul Getty Museum, was purchased only in 1985.
But while the body of scholarship from the past forty years on nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Danish art has focused primarily on painting, “Beyond the Light” prioritizes works on paper for the first time, giving a fuller picture of Danish visual culture during the period. The catalogue’s authors play down the view that the era qualifies as Denmark’s artistic Golden Age. Other experts, however, seem to take it as a given; one of them is Magnus Olausson, the director of collections at the Nationalmuseum of Sweden in Stockholm, who is quite matter-of-fact about it in a recent New York Times article on the annual fair mounted by The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF) in Maastricht, the Netherlands.
That all of the pieces on paper and canvas in “Beyond the Light” are exceptionally accomplished there can be no doubt. Oil on canvas and pen-and-ink or graphite on paper aside, most of the works in the exhibition mix media: Eckersberg, for example, employed graphite, pen and black ink, and brush and gray wash for his sprawling view of the Copenhagen roads.
From a wall label in the exhibition we learn that Eckersberg received a professorial appointment in 1818 at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. There he sought to inculcate two passions in his pupils: devotion to both mathematical perspective and drawing from nature. The former directive was religiously followed by his student Wilhelm Bendz, as can be seen in his Room in the Secular Convent of Unmarried Noblewomen in Odense of 1831 in graphite, pen and brown ink, and brush and gray-brown wash. With respect to Eckersberg’s second passion, the Copenhagen rotulus makes clear that the professor practiced what he preached. But while that work is effectively monochromatic, the View of Kronborg from the Coast North of Helsingør (Elsinore) of 1848 by another of Eckerberg’s students, Johan Thomas Lundbye, is rendered in pen and gray-and-black ink, brush and wash, and glorious blue watercolor.
Of the twenty-three works in oil, the most thoughtfully self-reflexive is Wilhelm Bendz’s 1826 portrait of the artist Ditlev Blunck in his studio, examining in a mirror a small portrait-in-progress on canvas of another artist, Jørgen Sonne. Puffing on a long-stemmed clay pipe, the painter bends forward to examine the unfinished portrait in the mirror; the sketch of Sonne that serves as his model is pinned to the easel with a compass. Blunck’s facial expression raises the possibility that he is frustrated by his slow progress on the canvas, an impression supported by the chalk doodle on the easel, which appears to depict two dogs tussling over a piece of cloth.
Among the many works in “Beyond the Light” entirely in graphite, a large number of the standouts are travel sketches by Christen Købke, the first nineteenth-century Danish painter to enjoy a career retrospective in an English-speaking country (“Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light,” which was at the National Gallery, London, in 2010). Just as Dürer could convincingly render any texture in the medium of etching, Købke could capture any surface with only a graphite stylus: as evidence, I submit here, as seen in the exhibition, his Bay of Naples with Vesuvius in the Background of 1843.
The five objects examined in this review are just a sampling of the handsome paintings and drawings in “Beyond the Light.” For those who cannot catch the New York installation, a slightly different version of the exhibition will open in Los Angeles this coming May. I heartily recommend taking in one, the other, or better, both.
New to The New Criterion?
Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.Subscribe