The name of Christen Købke was, I believe, virtually unknown to most English-speaking art historians and sophisticated amateurs until the arrival recently at London’s National Gallery of a small exhibition called “Danish Painting: The Golden Age.”[1] Yet Købke is an early nineteenth-century artist of European stature, comparable, in his innate talent and his expression of the ideals of his time, to Constable in England, Corot in France, and George Caleb Bingham in the United States. As recently as 1981 an exhibition at the Royal Academy called “Painting from Nature: The Tradition of Open Air Oil Sketches from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century” not only failed to show the work of Købke or any of his Danish contemporaries, but did not even mention their names in the catalogue.

The achievements of Danish painting, if not widely known, are occasionally noticed. In the recently published volume Nineteenth Century Art, Robert Rosenblum reproduces a Købke in color and paintings of two of his contemporaries in black and white; moreover, he discusses their work generously, comparing Købke and Bingham as related phenomena in widely separate cultures. In the catalogue of the exhibition “American Light, the Luminist Movement,” which was presented by the National Gallery in Washington in 1981, Theodore Stebbins discussed several of the Danish painters of the Golden Age in his study of European parallels to the Luminist style. And in 1978, William Gerdts, in his introduction to the catalogue for the “American Luminism” show at New York’s Coe Kerr Gallery, mentioned the Danish artists as the Europeans most interested in portraying the clarity of light.

Pride of place for an English-language text on Danish painting’s Golden Age, however, must go to a volume by Fritz Novotny, the Austrian art historian. His Painting and Sculpture in Europe: 1780-1880, which is part of the Pelican History of Art series, includes a section on what he calls “Danish Biedermeier.” At the time it appeared, I thought Novotny’s book favored minor European schools at the expense of the great French tradition. It now seems to me a wonderfully balanced account of a complicated century. Since i960, when Novotny’s book appeared, Caspar David Friedrich, the German romantic artist who studied at the Copenhagen Academy, has nearly become a household name to the sophisticated art public, his work having been shown in survey shows of German art and the exhibition of the Dresden collections a few years ago. (Curiously, no American museum yet owns a significant oil painting by Friedrich.) Novotny’s book, however, was the first general survey to stress Friedrich’s central position and to describe his contemporaries and followers accurately. Novotny gives as much attention to J. C. Dahl, Cams, Kersting, Gartner, Hummel, and Kobell, Germanic small masters of light, mystery, and stillness, as he gives to Ingres, Géricault, Corot, and the Barbizon painters.

It seems clear to us now that a pervasive art tradition took hold in nineteenth-century Europe in the aftermath of the upheavals of revolution and the Napoleonic wars—a kind of small-scale realism charged with naive poetry and marked by wonderment at the rediscovery of the actual world. This was Biedermeier painting. It found expression particularly in landscape, but it included portraits and genre subjects as well. According to Novotny, “In Danish painting during the first half of the nineteenth century, Biedermeier is purer and more exclusive than anywhere else. It followed immediately after Classicism and was not accompanied by any Romanticism.” In the catalogue for “Danish Painting: The Golden Age” it is stressed that Danish artists, unlike Friedrich and the other Germans, painted what they saw without religious or transcendental aspirations. I am not so sure. Friedrich and his Norwegian disciple Dahl retained close connections with the Danish Academy and with the artists who emerged from it. Many of the Danish paintings of this period are so obsessive in their approach to reality that an atmosphere of mystery and unspoken meanings clings to them.

Although the “Golden Age” exhibition officially begins with the Copley-like precursor Jens Juel and with one painting by the fascinating, Fuseli-Iike artist Abildgaard, it only really gets underway with C. W. Eckersberg. Eckersberg was a pupil of Jacques-Louis David’s in Paris; later, he lived in Rome, where, earlier than Corot, he painted on-the-site oil sketches showing a contemporary, matter-of-fact approach to ancient monuments and a virtuoso handling of light. Upon his return to Denmark, Eckersberg became a leading professor at the distinguished Academy of Art in Copenhagen and the father figure for most of the artists of the “Golden Age.” The Eckersberg paintings in the London exhibition reveal a worthy and solid provincial artist whose portraits and later seascapes are delightful but by no means infused with genius. The same, I am afraid, must be said of nearly all the charming pupils of Eckersberg included in the “Golden Age” exhibition: C. A. Jensen, the so-called “Danish Frans Hals,” whose small portraits, with their loose brushwork, are certainly a cut above average; Constantin Hansen, whose most famous work, a group portrait of Danish artists in Rome, is something of a disappointment; and Wilhelm Bendz, whose most accomplished Biedermeier painting, Two Brothers in an Interior, is unfortunately not included in this exhibition.

The great exception is Købke. Here is a real painter!

The great exception is Købke. Here is a real painter! Novotny’s text refers to the “Age of Købke” rather than to a “Golden Age.” Købke painted small, loosely brushed, informal landscape sketches à la Constable, as well as tender, sharply lighted, highly finished genre subjects as beguiling to the eye as early Winslow Homer. His portrait of the artist Sødring is one of the best portraits of the century, comparable in its intensity, mystery, blazing light, and intriguing still-life “props” to Degas’ celebrated small portrait of an artist with a doll in the Gulbenkian Collection. Købke left for Italy toward the end of his short career rather than at the beginning, as was customary; in his case, the experience caused deterioration rather than improvement. He died, back in Denmark, in that fateful year of 1848, at the age of thirty-seven. He had painted near Naples many sunny, blue-skied, largish picturesque views of ruins that only occasionally hint at the magic of his Danish subjects.

The “Golden Age” exhibition, so refreshingly different from our idea of the museum blockbuster, would probably not attract a good enough “box-office” for American museums. In London, however, it was generally well attended and it received excellent critical coverage. It was drawn entirely from the resources of the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen and therefore was less comprehensive than it might have been had it also included works from the Hirschsprung Collection and the Glyptotek. Nevertheless, “Danish Painting: The Golden Age” was an excellent idea for an exchange between national collections. It was also the first exhibition to be shown in the newly created and modestly sized special exhibition galleries within London’s National Gallery.

While I am often impatient with the torrents of revisionism against which we swim these days, struggling constantly to reach a familiar shore, I still consider that one can stay afloat by holding firm to a sense of quality. After wondering sadly about the fashionable claims for Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton, Bouguereau, and Bierstadt, I feel that a small sideward glance at Danish art of the Golden Age is not unrewarding. Some of it is the real thing.

  1. “Danish Painting: The Golden Age” was on view at the National Gallery from September 5 to November 20; it was designed by Robin Kole-Hamilton, the Head of the Design Studio at the museum. Danish Painting: The Golden Age, the exhibition’s catalogue, was written by Kasper Monrad and published by the National Gallery: 272 pages, £7.99. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 5, on page 46
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