Appreciating Art in Copenhagen’s National Gallery Part Two: The Danish Collection

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Danish Golden Age 

The art historian/critic and professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Niels Lauritz Høyen, became the curator of the royal collections in 1839. He used his power and influence to buy Danish art.  He was instrumental, therefore, in the creating the fine collection of works by CW Eckersberg and his followers.

That Denmark was able to produce such good quality works is partly thanks to the establishment of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1754.  Funnily enough, it was set up as a ‘gift’ to King Frederik V – yes, he who wasn’t that interested in art but collected anyway.  One of the most important figures at the Academy was Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, who taught there from 1818-1853, and was therefore a massive influence on the next generation: he taught most of the leading artists of what became known as the Golden Age.

Since most of the art produced in this period has actually remained in Denmark, the painters aren’t that well known elsewhere.  I was really taken by the realism, and also by the stylishness of the paintings.  I’m not generally that keen on 19th century art, but the Danish artists seem to use the generic artistic styles fashionable elsewhere, while making them elegant, thoughtful and personal.

I thought I’d be a bit organised and go through the Danish artists that I particularly liked.

Jens Juel (1745-1802)

Seen as the leading 18th century Danish painter, Juel trained in Rome and Paris, and spent some time in Geneva, where his reputation as a portraitist led to a successful two years in that city.  When he returned to Denmark he continued to paint portraits of the local well-to-do (he was made court painter) but he also had a nice line in landscapes and genre pictures.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783-1853)

Eckersberg is known as the father of Danish painting.  He was accepted at the Royal Danish Academy of Art and studied under Jacques-Louis David in Paris in 1811/2.  He also lived in Rome for three years with other Danish artists, including Bertel Thorvaldsen, who became a loyal friend.

He married the daughter of Jens Juel when he arrived back in Denmark, and was made a professor at the Academy in 1818.  Through his own experiences during his travels, he understood the importance of taking students out to do studies from nature.  He was also a good teacher because he encouraged his students to develop in their own ways, encouraging their own unique styles.

On a completely irrelevant note: when his wife died, he married her sister.  He had children with both.  Christmas must have been interesting.

Wilhelm Bendz (1804–1832)

Bendz was considered to be one of the most talented painters of his generation – but he sadly died at the age of 28.  He specialised in portraits and genre works, and from what I saw at the SMK and online, he had a really cool eye for composition, as well as having a nice line in adding interesting cultural details to his works, which makes them fun to explore.

Christen Købke (1810–1848)

Købke was an artist who benefited from Eckersberg’s influence at the Academy.  He was also influenced by the art historian Niels Lauritz Høyen, who called on young artists to show Danish life.  He travelled to Italy and spent time in Rome with other Danish artists.

It’s sad that Købke also died young – he was admired by his contemporaries but didn’t have as much success as some of the others.

Wilhelm Marstrand (1810–1873)

Encouraged by Eckersberg to study at the Academy, Marstrand also travelled to Italy, where he spent four years.  On his return to Denmark, he became a professor at the Academy, where he, like his teacher, encouraged individuality in his pupils – one of whom was Carl Bloch, whose pictures are coming up.

Marstrand is also unique in that he left a diverse oeuvre, including historical, religious and genre scenes as well as portraits.  He also painted grand scenes in Roskilde Cathedral and the Celebration Hall of the University of Copenhagen.

Martinus Rørbye (1803-1848)

One of Eckersberg’s favourite pupils, Rørbye travelled widely, visiting remote areas of Norway and Jutland, as well as having the inevitable stay in Rome.  He even travelled to Constantinople, which was a rather unusual destination.

Christian Albrecht Jensen (1792-1879)

Despite having considerable commercial success early on in his career, Jensen was not popular with critics or the Academy.  This ended up by having an impact on his career, and when he was unable to get commissions, he worked as an assistant at the Royal Print collection.

Julius Exner (1825-1910)

The son of a Czech musician, Exner became a popular genre painter, having studied with Eckersberg at the Danish Academy.  He was particularly interested in Danish themes and travelled around the country doing live studies from nature in the summer – and polishing the paintings up in the comfort of his studio in winter.  The painting “A Gondola” was painted during his two year study trip to Italy.

Carl Bloch (1834-1890)

Bloch’s parents wanted him to join the Navy: but no.  He went and studied at the Danish Academy under Marstrand, before travelling to Holland – becoming influenced by Rembrandt – and then to Italy – where he met his wife.  They had eight children.

Bloch is most famous for his 23 scenes from the life of Christ, for the King’s Chapel at Frederiksborg Palace – apparently the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints have been using these works in their media for over forty years.

Anyway the painting that particularly fascinated me was of a scene from a Roman osteria.  Half amused, half threatened, the Roman man turns away from his two lady friends and glares at us.  It’s probably good that he can’t now see the very coquettish way the two ‘ladies’ are looking at us.

It’s also very disconcerting to have a glaring cat.

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916)

Studying at the Danish Academy, Hammershøi is perhaps one of the better known of Danish painters outside Denmark – I’ve certainly been a fan since going to an exhibition of his works at the Royal Academy in London.  He has a very distinctive style, using muted colours and painting slightly mournful interiors.  His paintings are melancholic, a bit mysterious – but invariably elegant.

Erik Henningsen (1855-1930)

Another graduate of the Danish Academy, Hennigsen was particularly committed to showing the miserable conditions that people lived in.  He was part of a group, Bogstaveligheden, which wanted to create a better society and his paintings of the 1880s and 1890s show scenes of unemployment, exploited workers and the misery endured by women, children and the elderly.  At the same time, he showed lighter aspects of life in his paintings of Copenhagen’s street life.

Henningsen’s repertoire included historical paintings and he also worked as an illustrator of magazines and posters.

Wilhelm Freddie (1909-1995)

The final individual painter that interested me is perhaps the weirdest.  Freddie (real name Christian Frederik Wilhelm Carlsen) experimented with various artistic styles before finding his niche in creating surreal art – with a penchant for the controversial.  His exhibition in 1937, curiously named, “Sex Surreal: Take the Fork out of the Butterfly’s Eye”, was labelled as pornographic and the police closed the show, confiscated three works, and threw Freddie in jail for ten days.  The paintings were subsequently placed in the Police Museum of Copenhagen – so on display – until they were returned to Freddie in 1963.

I found the paintings on display in the museum interesting in showing Freddie’s range – he wasn’t just a pornographic artist, after all.

Some Randoms

So In Summary

The Danish National Gallery was a joy.  It was an eye-opening and illuminating experience.  It felt like a new world of artists was opened up to me, and that doesn’t happen very often.  Anyone who likes to look at paintings, regardless of whether they are known names, will, I’m sure, find something to enjoy in this eclectic and very fine collection.

Further Information

The museum has a great little website, with all the usual information available in English (as well as other major European languages – yes, they’re that wonderful): – but they also have biographies of artists and excellent entries about their paintings.  Really worth exploring.

There are regular exhibitions held at the museum, including on contemporary art, and they have workshops for adults as well as children.

How to Get There

The museum is centrally located in Copenhagen but for specific to/from information, the Danish transport site is available in English and is easy to navigate:

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