Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 2 – Rome (1813 – 1816)

C.W.Eckersberg by Christian Albrecht Jensen (1832)
C.W.Eckersberg by Christian Albrecht Jensen (1832)

In my last blog I talked about Christoffer Eckersberg travelling to Paris in 1810 where he studied under the tutelage of the French painter, Jacques-Louis David.  The year 1810 was an important year for Eckersberg for a completely different reason for it was in this year on July 1st that he married Christine Rebecca Hyssing.  The two had been lovers for a number of years and in September 1808 she had given birth to their son Erling Carl Vilhelm.  It is thought that the reason for the marriage was more to do with expediency and the desire to legitimise their son than love and devotion and it was soon after his marriage that Eckersberg left the marital home to travel to France.

Erling Eckersberg
Erling Eckersberg

The marriage was doomed to be a failure and in 1816 the couple’s divorce papers finally came through whilst Eckersberg was away on one of his travels. In my next blog about Christoffer Eckersberg I will look at his excuisite portraiture.would follow in his father’s footsteps studying at the Danish Art Academy in Copenhagen and at the age of twenty-six he, like his father, received the Academy travelling scholarship for three years and during which time he journeyed to Paris and Parma in Italy.

The Israelites Resting after the Crossing of the Red Sea by Christoffer Eckersberg
The Israelites Resting after the Crossing of the Red Sea by Christoffer Eckersberg

Christoffer Eckersberg left Paris in June 1813 and arrived in Rome in July.  He rented a room in a house which was also home to the Danish sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen.  History paintings continued to be his favoured genre and in 1812 he had received a commission from a Jewish merchant, Mendel Levin Nathanson to depict the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses and the Jewish people and for two years whilst he was in Rome he worked on the painting which was entitled The Israelites Resting after the Crossing of the Red Sea.  This large work which measures 203 x 283cms (80 x 112 ins) can be seen at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen.  The depiction is not the actual crossing itself but what happened after the event – the Israelites resting after their crossing.   In the book of Exodus (14: 26-29) it was written:

“…The Lord told Moses, “Stretch your arm toward the sea—the water will cover the Egyptians and their cavalry and chariots.” 27 Moses stretched out his arm, and at daybreak the water rushed toward the Egyptians. They tried to run away, but the Lord drowned them in the sea. 28 The water came and covered the chariots, the cavalry, and the whole Egyptian army that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them was left alive. 29 But the sea had made a wall of water on each side of the Israelites; so they walked through on dry land…”

 It is testament to Eckersberg’s artistic ability that he has been able to include such a large group of people in such a natural manner and once again he has added a landscape dimension to the biblical painting in the way the people are shown within a real landscape setting based on his studies and meticulous observations of nature which served as the basis for the depiction of the morning sun and cloud formations.  This methodology was contrary to the teachings he received from his professor,Abildgaard back at the Copenhagen Academy, whose landscape works were often somewhat murky and had no relevance to the time of day of the depiction.

Rome, at the time of Eckersberg’s sojourn, was a hive of artistic activity.  Many young artists had travelled from all over Europe to congregate in the Eternal City to be with like-minded painters and this offered them a chance to exchange views on art.  Many were inspired by what they learnt from their contemporaries who, like themselves, had escaped the clutches of their Academies and the strict academic training.  It was a chance for them to try out new artistic ideas.  For landscape artists it was a vital stage in their education and the one main decision many undertook was to paint plein air.  This technique allowed them to sit before their chosen subject in the open air and paint what they saw rather than just sketching out doors and then taking the sketches back to their studios for completion.  For these artists plein air painting afforded them the chance to capture on canvas the existing weather conditions and observe how that affected the light and shadow.  It also gave artists the opportunity to produce topographically correct depictions rather than idealized versions conjured up in their studios.  One of the founders of this en plein air idea around 1780 was the French painter, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes who produced many oil studies en plein air, which were not meant for exhibitions but for his own private collection.

The Marble Steps leading to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1816)
The Marble Steps leading to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1816)

At this time in Rome, landscape and cityscape paintings, especially ones with the city’s most famous sights were in great demand with the tourists so much so it was a struggle for these artists to come up with a subject or a point of view of a subject which had not already been recorded artistically by a previous painter.  One of Eckersberg’s plein air paintings featuring a well-known building in Rome is The Marble Steps leading to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome.  It was completed in 1816 and we can see that he took up a position with his easel at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and that allowed him to produce a composition of vertical and diagonal lines.  From the way and the direction of the shadow cast by the church we know the time of day was around ten in the morning and so Eckersberg would return numerous times at this time to build up the painting on the canvas.

View of the Capitoline Hill with the Steps that go to the Church of Santa Maria] d’Aracoeli) by Paranesi (c.1757)
View of the Capitoline Hill with the Steps that go to the Church of Santa Maria d’Aracoeli by Giovanni Piranesi (c.1757)

It is interesting to note that the structures we see in the painting were real and yet what was untrue about the depiction is what was left out – the omission of Michelangelo’s Palace which was atop the hill to the left of the church.  We know this by looking at Giovanni Piranesi’s etching of the same scene made half a century earlier, one from his collection entitled Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome).

View of the Cloaca Maxima, Rome by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1814)
View of the Cloaca Maxima, Rome by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1814)

Many of Eckerberg’s paintings featuring the city of Rome avoided the iconic locations which featured in many of the other artists’ paintings.  He seemed to favour depicting less famous parts of the capital.  One such work which he completed in 1814 was entitled View of Cloacia Maxima which was bought by the NGA in Washington in 2004.  Cloacia Maxima, which means Greatest Sewer, is one of the world’s earliest sewage systems, thought to have been built around 600 BC as an open air canal.  It is a highly elaborate depiction packed with rich detail.  Some of the buildings we see are very old and many are decaying.  There is no uniformity in the architecture for most of the buildings would have been erected in different eras.  The viewpoint for this painting was the eastern slopes of the Palatine Hill looking towards the Capitoline, one of the Seven Hills of Rome.  It is a painting which depicts the transition from the “countryside” in the foreground which then leads towards the city itself.  It is a realistic depiction for although the foreground is a mass of verdant vegetation, it has been continually crossed by people on foot carving out rough paths.  Our eyes follow the two figures that walk down the path and lead us into the city.

View of the Garden of the Villa Borghese in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814)
View of the Garden of the Villa Borghese in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814)

Even when Eckersberg chose a well known location for his painting, he chose to depict a view that in his mind didn’t become “yet another view” of a famous place.  In his painting View of the Garden of the Villa Borghese in Rome which he completed in 1814 he chose to depict part of the decaying and unexceptional 18th century aqueduct rather than the famous gardens themselves.  The ancient reliefs on the wall to the left are foreshortened and are almost unrecognisable. Having said that, it is a beautiful work, which combines a detailed depiction of the angular ruins of the aqueduct in the mid ground.  Our eyes follow the path which runs under the aqueduct arch to an area of the garden albeit it is hidden from view by the ancient arch itself and the trees.   Again, like the previous work, Eckersberg is making the comparison between the harshness of architecture and the softness of nature in a single painting.  The way the artist depicts the sunlit and shaded areas leads one to believe that this was another of Eckersberg’s plein air paintings.

A Courtyard in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814-16)
A Courtyard in Rome by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814-16) (34 x 28cms)

Another interesting painting during his stay in Rome is one entitled A Courtyard in Rome.  It is a depiction of a nondescript courtyard which could have been in any city so what made Eckersberg paint this one.  There is some conjecture about this and one line of thought is that it is the courtyard of Casa Buti a lodging house in which he and Thorvaldsen stayed.  If that was the reason for painting this scene then it would make it a more personal depiction and one he would have seen every day for three years.  However it and could equally be one he passed by one day when walking around the city and was just a random choice of depiction for the work.   There is nothing breathtaking about the scene and yet it is a beautifully crafted work.  It is interesting to note that the aspect of this scene, the loggia, which could have added colour and variety to the depiction, can barely be seen in the upper background.  The painting is housed in the art museum of the town of Ribe in western Denmark.

A View through Three of the North-Western Arches of the Third Storey of the Coliseum by Christoffer Eckersberg (c.1816)
A View through Three of the North-Western Arches of the Third Storey of the Colosseum by Christoffer Eckersberg (c.1816)

Probably the most famous of Eckersberg’s paintings was one he completed during his three year stay in the Eternal city and is entitled A View through Three of the North-Western Arches of the Third Storey of the Colosseum in Rome, which he completed around 1816.  It is a relatively small work just measuring 32 x 50cms and is currently housed in the Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Denmark) in Copenhagen.  Eckersberg had depicted the ancient monument in a number of sketches and paintings but he never depicted a view of the outer structure of the amphitheatre in its entirety unlike many other artists.  It was this painting that he will be remembered for.  He set up his easel high up on the third level of the Colosseum looking out across the city which we see through the three arches of the structure.  The background details of the city in the distance are so precise it is thought that he may have used a telescope to ensure accuracy.  Look at the foreground of the painting and the authentic way in which he precisely depicted the crumbling structure.  This aspect of the work encompasses a thoroughness not seen in many landscape works.  This attention to detail serves to highlight the slow disintegration of the ancient monument.   However the greatest attribute to this work is the way he has made the three arches of the Colosseum act as picture frames for the cityscape in the distance.   he painting is sometimes referred to as “The Beautiful Lie” for if we stood in front of the centre arch, as seen in the depiction, then we would not see views of the city of Rome depicted through the other two arches.  To see those views we would have to move to the left or right and look through other arches.  Eckersberg also rid himself of many of the intervening structures which he thought inconsequential and would detract from the beauty of the view.  However this straying from realism does not take anything away from the work.  Eckersberg just wanted his viewers to experience the beauty of Rome as he envisioned it.

In my next blog about Christoffer Eckersberg I will look at his exquisite portraiture.

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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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