Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falb by Jens Juel

Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falb by Jens Juel (1797)
Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falb by Jens Juel (1797)

My featured painting today is one I saw when I was in Copenhagen last week.  It was a large scale work measuring 253 x 336cms, and was certainly very impressive.   The first thought which came into my mind when I stood before it was that it reminded me of the painting  Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough, which I had seen at the National Gallery in London and which I had featured in My Daily Art Display (May 5th 2011).  Today’s featured painting by the Danish painter Jens Juel, like Gainsborough’s work, is what is termed a conversation piece.  Conversation pieces were very popular in the 18th century.  They were informal portraits, usually depicting two or more full-length characters, often family members, who were seemingly engaged in conversation in domestic interiors or garden settings.   In many ways it was a means for the people depicted to show off their wealth and social status.  In some ways the people who commissioned the paintings were often depicted in the work, and wanted to stimulate a conversation about themselves.   Today’s painting also reminded me of the William Hogarth series of six works entitled Marriage à la Mode, which I featured in my blog (May 4th  –  9th 2011) that told the tale of a merchant desperate to be part of the aristocratic class.  My painting today is by the great Danish artist Jens Juel which he completed in 1797.  It is entitled  Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falb, often simply referred to as The Ryberg Family.   Jens Juel, who was mainly known for his portraiture, was active during the years preceding what was to become known as the Danish Golden Age, which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars and lasted until around 1850.   

Jens Jorgensen Juel was born in May 1745 in Balslev on the Danish island of Funen.   It is said that he was born illegitimately, the son of Vilhelmine Elisabeth Juel.  She had been employed at the Wedellsborg estate.  Jens’ father is unknown.  Some believe he was a member of the Wedell family whilst others believe he could have been Lord Jens Juel, the Danish diplomat or that Jens was the son of the local vicar.   For the first year of his life Jens lived with his mother at the house owned by her brother, Johan Jørgensen, a schoolteacher.  When Jens was one year old his mother married Jørgen Jørgensen, also a school teacher who worked and lived in the nearby village of Gamborg and it was here that Jens Jorgensen Juel grew up. 

Like many artists, Jens showed an early fascination with drawing and his parents decided to encourage this interest by arranging for an apprenticeship for their son with the German painter Johann Michael Gehrmann, who had a studio in Hamburg, a city, which at the time was under Danish sovereignty.  He remained at Gehrman’s studio for five years, after which, in 1765, he returned to Denmark and attended the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen and during his five-year stay at this establishment he won two gold awards for his paintings and a travel bursary.   One of Juel’s tutors at the Academy was Carl Gustaf Pilo, a Swedish painter, who had for twenty years been Court painter for King Frederik V of Denmark, and who was famous for his portraits of the Danish royal family.   It could well have been through Pilo’s influence that Juel received his first royal commission in 1769 for a portrait of the Queen of Denmark, Queen Caroline Mathilde, the wife of King Christian VII. 

With the prize money he received from the Academy, Juel left Denmark in November 1772 and set off on a European tour.  He wintered in Hamburg before going to Dresden where he remained until 1774.  From Dresden he went to Rome and it was here he met up with a fellow former Danish Academy art student, the Neo-Classical painter, Nikolai Abildgaard.  Juel remained in Rome for two years during which time he was able, for the first time, to draw directly from a nude model, a technique which was not available at the time in Denmark.   He left Rome in 1776 and went to Paris before moving to Geneva in the Spring of 1777.  It was in Geneva where he stayed with his friend, Charles Bonnet, the Swiss naturalist and philosopher and during his stay he helped illustrate some of Bonnet’s books.   Juel left Geneva in late 1779.  Throughout his European sojourn he completed many portraiture commissions and his reputation as a leading portraitist grew steadily.  Finally in March 1780, after eight years away from his homeland, he returned to Copenhagen via Hamburg.  Whilst living in the Danish capital, he received more royal commissions to paint the portraits of members of the royal family as well as portraiture commissions from leading members of the nobility.  He also completed some landscape works and the royal family were so impressed by his artwork that he was made court painter in 1780. 

In 1782 he was elected a member of the Royal Danish Academy of Art and two years later he became one of its professors.  Jens Juels married in 1790, a time which marked the height of his artistic career.  He held the post of Academy director for two periods during the 1790’s. Jens Juel died in December 1802, at the age of 57 and was buried at the Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen. 

Having looked at the life of the artist it is time to turn our attention to the people in today’s featured painting.   The painting, which he completed in 1797, is considered to be his greatest landscape work.   We see before us three people and of course the title of the work, Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falbe, reveals their identity.   Seated on a park bench, to the left, is the corpulent gentleman, Niels Ryberg and standing before him is his son, Johann Christian and his son’s wife, Engelke.  In the background we have what was probably the most important aspect of the painting for Ryberg, the depiction of one of his vast estates – Hagenskov on the island of Funen.  As was the case in Gainsborough’s work, Mr and Mrs Andrews, which was commissioned by Robert Andrews at the time of his marriage to Frances Carter and featured their estate lands, Ryberg in a way, when he commissioned the painting from Juel, wanted to show everybody what his wealth had achieved.  It sounds as if he was simply a boastful person but his life story is an amazing rags-to-riches tale and you will begin to realise that he was in fact a very generous man who was simply and rightly proud of what he had achieved. 

Niels Ryberg was not always rich and did not come from an aristocratic background.   In fact he was born Niels Bertelsen (but later adopted the surname “Ryberg” after his birthplace) in 1725 in the village of Ryberg on the Salling peninsular of Jutland in north-west Denmark, the son of Bertel Christensen and Vibeke Nielsdatter.  His father was of peasant-class, a tenant farmer on the local estate and young Niels, who like his father, had the lowly status of a serf on the estate.  He left the estate when he was around eleven years of age and went to live with his mother’s brother Axel Moller.  Historians seem to be divided as to why he left his parents home.  Some say it was to avoid military service whilst others believed it was simply to cast off the shackles of serfdom which living with his uncle, who had bought his freedom from the squire and landowner, had achieved.  Axel Moller, who lived in Alborg, ran a successful grocery business and Niels soon became a willing assistant to his uncle.  He remained with him, learning the trade until 1750, when at the age of twenty-five, he moved to Copenhagen where he plied his trade as a merchant, first as a simple stall-holder and then managed to acquire his own fixed premises.  He also dabbled in insurance underwriting.  Still he had not made his fortune, money was tight and he lacked capital to expand.  However his big break came in 1755 when he entered into partnership with a very profitable trading company, Thygesen,  and so the Ryberg & Thygesen company was formed.  The company prospered and grew.  In 1764, Ryberg married Margaret Dorothea Eight, the daughter of a local businessman in Eckernförde. She gave birth to their son Johan Christian Ryberg in 1767 but sadly she died shortly after the birth, aged just 18.   In 1775 Ryberg went into business on his own until 1789 at which time he invited three family members to join him in his newly formed Ryberg & Co.  His business boomed so much so that he was employing more than a hundred and fifty staff.  From being a market stall trader he had now risen to become a prosperous merchant, shipowner, banker and insurance man. 

Ryberg never forgot his poor upbringing and when he bought the Hagenskov estate, now known as Frederiksgave, he did everything to help the life of his workers.  He provided them with finance and materials such as timber and stone to build their farms and provided the money to improve the growing ability of the soil.  He didn’t stop there as he also built them mills and schools for their children and provided them with medical care.  He did the same on another estate, Øbjerggård, on South Zealand,  which he bought, and on which he built a large linen factory in which his people were employed.  It was one of the first of its kind in Denmark.

My featured painting today was completed in 1797 at the height of Rybergs commercial success and at a time when he was about to hand over the control of his business to his son.   Maybe that he is seated symbolises that he was now going to take a rest from the business world.  His son stands with his left arm outstretched behind his wife’s back maybe indicating with some pride what his father had achieved.   Maybe now, knowing the care and time Niels Ryberg had given to his staff and workers, you will look upon him, not as a boastful person full of his own purpose, smug about his own wealth and desirous of being looked upon as being part of the aristocracy (like the merchant character in Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode) but as a man who had, through hard work, had managed to provide a better quality of life for himself and for those around him. 

Niels Ryberg died peacefully in his sleep in August 1804, aged 59.   He was buried in his family chapel of the Dreslette church on Funen.  So what happened to his empire?   When Ryberg died his only surviving son, Johan headed up his father’s business empire but the success of his father was not upheld by his son as Ryberg & Co. went bankrupt in 1820.  Although the collapse of Ryberg’s empire was not caused directly by Denmark’s war with England, it had been supported by numerous loans given to it by the Danish government.  The collapse of the Danish economy culminating in Denmark’s declared State bankruptcy due to the cost of the war meant that they could no longer support the likes of Ryberg’s empire.  They called in their loans and the company eventually collapsed and Ryberg’s beloved estates were taken by the State.  

During my research into this painting I came across a very interesting website which gave me a lot of background information and one I recommend you should visit.   It is:

http://historyman.dk/the-story-behind-the-painting/

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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