The featured painter in my next two blogs is the Danish artist, Christen Købke, who lived in Denmark in the first half of the nineteenth century, a period which was to become known as den danske guldalder (the Danish Golden Age). The paintings I am looking in this blog feature the Frederiksborg Palace, sometimes referred to as the Frederiksborg Castle, the majority of which was built as the royal residence of King Christian IV the ruler of the joint kingdoms of Denmark and Norway between 1602 and 1620.
Christen Købke was born in May 1810 in Copenhagen. He had an unremarkable upbringing. He came from a well-to-do family, at the head of which was his father, Peter Berendt Købke and his mother Cecilie Margrete Købke (née Petersen). Christen was one of eleven children, five boys and six girls. His father Peter, like his father before him, was a baker and owned a bakery in the town of Hillerød, some twenty miles north of Copenhagen, which was also the location of the Frederiksborg Castle. At the age of five, the Købke family moved to Copenhagen where his father had been awarded a fifteen year contract to serve as head baker to the large military Citadel, known as the Kastellet. This was a very lucrative contract for it had a guaranteed clientele and secured the family’s future prosperity.
By all accounts, Christen was a sickly child and various illnesses would trouble him throughout his life. When he was eleven years old he contracted rheumatic fever and was bedridden for a number of months, following which came a long period of convalescence. It was during this enforced resting period that Christen started to sketch and began to formulate the idea of becoming an artist. His parents supported their son’s desire to study art and in May 1822 just after his twelfth birthday, they arranged for him to begin studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, which was housed in the Charlottenborg Palace, close to Købke’s home in the Citadel. It was a slow process and it was not until he was in his fifth year at the establishment that he began figure and life drawing. However one should remember his young age and accept that the time at the academy allowed him to mature and develop at a slow and calculated pace. His lessons covered such things as the theory of perspective, mathematics, anatomy, history, mythology and the history of art. It was an all-round education for prospective artists and its art students included the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich and Johan Christian Dahl.
Initially he studied under the tutorship of the eighty-year old Christian Lorentzen and later in 1828, after Lorentzen’s death, he was taken on by the Danish painter, Christoffer Eckersberg, for his final four years at the academy. Under the tutelage of Eckersberg, Købke’s art thrived and by the end of his studies he had become a gifted artist. With the help of Eckersberg, he had mastered the art of working from nature. In 1832 just before the end of his academic training he, along with a fellow student, the landscape painter, Frederick Hansen Sødring, rented a studio close to the Kastellet. It was to be their artistic base from which they were to launch their artistic careers. During his time at the Academy Købke received a number of awards for his work. He never achieved a gold medal but was presented with the Academy’s small silver medallion in 1831 and a large silver medallion in 1833.
In 1933 his father’s contract with the military came to an end and he, at the age of 62, decided to retire and so, along with his family, moved from the Citadel to a large and grand house in Blegdammen, which was situated just outside the ramparts of the Citadel.
My featured works by Købke depict the magnificent Fredriksborg Castle, which lies some twenty miles north of Copenhagen. It is located on three small islands in the middle of the Slotsøen, the Palace Lake, and is surrounded by large formal Baroque-style gardens. Købke’s paintings of the castle were completed between 1834 and 1836.
Shortly after Købke had finished at the Academy he visited Fredriksborg Castle where he met the art historian, Neils Høyen. Høyen at the time was living in the castle, cataloguing the royal portrait collection. Høyen was to be a great influence on the life of Købke. He was an art critic and art historian, who vigorously promoted Danish nationalistic art, whether it was through literature or works of art. He, like Købke, had studied at the Academy and later returned there and gave lectures to the students. In 1836 he became the first Professor of Art History at the University of Copenhagen. More importantly he was a founder member of the Kunstforeningen, the Copenhagen Art Union in 1827 and in 1847 he established the Nordic Art Society. The Art Union, amongst other things, would sponsor competitions. In its competition of 1834 one of the subjects for that year’s competition was landscape painting, which highlighted a Danish locale. Another that same year called for an interior or exterior view of a noteworthy or characteristic Danish building or public place. Høyen persuaded Købke to paint views of the Fredriksborg Castle and submit them for the competition. For Høyen, this would also be an opportunity for Købke to record, through his art, a piece of Danish national heritage.
Købke completed the first of the castle paintings in 1834. It was a work which just depicted a close-up of one of the small towers of the castle and was entitled One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle. It was a small work just measuring 26cms x 19cms. In this painting we have a birds-eye view of the roof of the castle and see a large stork perched on one of the chimney tops, eyeing his or her mate as they fly off over the fields. Købke so liked the finished work that he produced a larger version of it, which he gave to his parents and which hung on the wall of their dining room. It is currently housed in the Danish Museum of Art and Design in Copenhagen.
Shortly after the completion of those painting Købke finished his large work (177cms x 171cms) entitled Roof Ridge of Fredericksborg Castle with View of the Lake. There is emptiness about this work as the majority of the canvas is virtually taken up by a sky which is both uninspiring and unimaginative. In fact all that we see is the roof line, a chimney, and a tower. Further afield we have the lake and the small town of Hillerød. These paintings did not fulfill Høyen’s criteria that art should record the country’s national treasures and yet people recognized the castle from the simple isolated details in the painting so maybe they did partly follow Høyen’s dictates.
However, Købe’s third painting of the castle, and the one shown at the top of the blog, entitled Frederiksborg Castle in the Evening Light, fulfilled Høyen’s romantic nationalist ambitions. It is a magnificent work measuring 72cms x 103cms. The castle had been the subject of paintings by many artists before Købke. He, like many before him, decided to chose the view as seen from the other side of the lake. Johan Christian Dahl, the Norwegian artist, had painted the same view in 1814 and 1817.
It had been a very trying period in Købke’s life. The time deadline for producing a work for the Fine Art Society exhibition along with the technical challenges thrown up by the work took their toll on him both physically and mentally. He wrote to his sister, Conradine, during this time telling her of the problems he was having and the stress it was causing. It would appear that she was the most sympathetic of his family members and a good listener and it was with her he liked to stay when he found the stress unbearable. In his letter to her, he wrote:
“…I am taking my refuge with you tonight, as I know with you I will find a friendly place and I need to do so once in a while to unburden my mind….I have difficulties lately as my spirit has been under pressure, mainly because of the burden of my work and the bad weather and is always the case with me my body suffers from this…”
Whether he had some doubts as to whether the work would do well in the exhibition one will never know but we do know he started a second version which he was going to enter in to the exhibition instead of his initial painting but he failed to complete it in time for the exhibition deadline so he put forward his original offering. Alas, it did not win. There were some critical comments about errors of perspective in the work and maybe that is why his contemporary, Jørgen Roed, carried off the first prize. However, Købke had the consolation that the Society purchased the work.
The final depiction of Frederiksborg Castle by Købke, which is my favourite was completed in 1836 and entitled Frederiksborg Castle. View near the Møntbro Bridge. This work depicts just part of the castle. Unlike the other works this is not one of architectural accuracy as Købke has use artistic license to change some of the landscape, removing a promontory from the lake and adjusted the foliage in the foreground enabling us to get a clear view of the castle foundations as seen through the arches of the bridge, which in reality was not possible. I like the colours used. The sky is a delicate and pale blue. The trees and the foliage are painted in restrained and somewhat muted greens whilst the brickwork of the castle walls has a pinkish-red tone.
So Høyen was well pleased with nationalist subject matter depicted in Købke’s Frederiksborg Castle works but what of the artist himself. What did he think of Høyen’s views on nationalistic art? From a passage in a letter to a friend we can see he was at best confused by Høyen’s views and somewhat cynical. He wrote:
“…What have politics, nationality and taxes to do with painterly effects and beautiful lines? What does national art mean? Does it mean politically Danish from border to border and all things within those boundaries? Or does it mean Nordic, including Nordic history and the Sagas?…. No, just as the same sun shines over the entire world, art has no boundaries; it serves only beauty and truth…”
In my next blog I will look at the latter years of Christen Købke’s life and his beautifully crafted portraiture.