In past blogs I have looked at some of the well known Norwegian painters such as Edvard Munch, Thomas Fearnley, Johan Christian Dahl and Peder Balke. In today’s short blog I am going to examine the life and work of another artist from that country, one less well-known, Thorolf Holmboe.
Thorolf Holmbloe was born in May 1866 in Vefsn a municipality in Helgeland which is the most southerly district in Northern Norway. He was the eldest son of Othar Ervigius Holmbloe, a Customs cashier and Sofie Birgitte Andrea Hall. He had two sisters, an elder one, Halfrid and a younger one, Gudrun and four younger brothers, Othar, who was also an artist and illustrator although he trained as a chemist and Birger, Jens and Thorvald. Around the age of eight Thorolf and his family moved to the coastal town of Tromso and it was around this time he received his first watercolour painting lessons. His father, who had an interest in art and was a founder of a local gallery, and probably encouraged his son to take up painting.
Thorolf attended school in Christiania (now called Oslo) and graduated in 1884. He then attended the military academy where he was a reserve officer in 1886. In 1886, he studied marine art under the Norwegian marine painter, Carl Wilhelm Barth. That year he travelled to Berlin where he enrolled, for a year, at the Berlin Academy of Art and studied under the professorship of the Norwegian romanticist artist and revered landscape painter Hans Gude. After returning to Norway he studied at the Drawing School in Christiania under the sculptor, Julius Middelthun.
In August 1888 Thorolf married Julia Caspara Nilssen and the couple went on to have two children, a son, Erik Oscar born in 1895 and a daughter Erna Johanne who was born in 1899.
In 1889 he again left home to study art. This time Holmbloe travelled to Paris where he remained for two years and studied at the atelier of the French painter, Fernand Cormon, who was a regular exhibitor at the annual Paris Salon. Cormon had in the past had Toulouse-Lautrec, Louis Anquetin, Van Gogh and Émile Bernard as former students. Holmboe also attended classes at the École des Beaux-Arts where he was tutored by the French painter, Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat .
Many of the Norwegian artists at the time completed paintings which formed what was termed a “Norwegian style” as they focused wholly or in part on aspects of Norwegian heritage. Holmboe avoided this style and instead focused on Norwegian nature especially around his former home in the north of the country. For him the beauty of his homeland is what he wanted to bring to the fore and this style was very popular with buyers in Norway and the rest of the world.
He completed many seascapes and it was probably his early life around Vefsn and Tromso that had such a great influence on his art. He developed a strong affinity for the ocean and the power of the sea and this empathy with the power of nature stayed with him for the rest of his life.
He exhibited in Munich in 1891 and Paris in 1900 and went on to exhibit internationally and was granted solo exhibitions in Paris, Antwerp, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Copenhagen and London. In his 1907 exhibition in London he exhibited many of his snow scenes. More recently his work appeared in an exhibition entitled Symbolism in Norwegian Landscape Painting at the Palazzo del Diamanti in Ferrara, Italy in 2001.
Between 1906 and 1925, Holmboe came up with designs and artwork for the famous Norwegian pottery maker, Porsgrund. The pottery with some of his designs were used as decoration in the exhibition halls of the 1913 Prima Esposizione internazionale d’arte della Secessione Romana (First Roman Secession Exhibition).
Many of Holmbloe’s paintings featured seabirds, rocky cliffs and the rough coastal waters
Around the start of the twentieth century Holmboe’s paintings took on a more gloomy appearance. It was also around the time that he completed paintings featuring the River Akerselven which flows through the city of Oslo. One such work is his 1902 painting entitled Fra Akerselven (From Akerselven). It depicts the River Akerselven which flows through the Norwegian city.
Another painting featuring the river was done in 1903 entitled Utsikt over Akerselven (Overlooking Alerselven). Once again it is a painting made up of dark and muted colours and this has added to the realism of the depiction.
One of the most original Norwegian writers of the nineteenth century was the Lutheran priest and poet, Petter Dass, whose most famous work was Nordlands trompet (The Trumpet of Nordland), a versified topographical description of northern Norway. It gives a lively picture, in verse, of the life of a clergyman in this part of the country. In the 1892 the edition of Petter Dass’ book, with its descriptions of the people and nature of Northern Norway, it was accompanied by the illustrations of Thorolf Holmboe. Holmboe also designed many book covers, folders, telegrams and postcards.
In 1908 Holmboe participated in a hunting expedition to Spitsbergen and Hopen where he painted hunting and wildlife. Particularly popular were the pictures of polar bears that “sail” on ice floes (see the Porsgrund vase above).
The first decade of the twentieth century proved a difficult time for Holmboe to sell his works of art and despite his huge popularity at home he could not establish himself internationally and so he relied financially on his book illustration work and decoration designs. However it was not all gloom for him in that first decade as he did receive good reviews of his marine paintings when they were exhibited in Antwerp in 1903 and 1904 and in Berlin in 1907 and 1909. Things changed after the First World War with their being a greater demand for works of art and Holmboe was ready having built up a large collection of his paintings. The subjects of these works were varied and included bathing scenes, marine life, still lifes, interiors and garden landscapes. Thorolf Holmboe was appointed Knight of the 1st Class Order of St. Olav in 1900 and he was knighted by the French Legion of Honour.
Thorolf Holmboe died in Oslo in March 1935, aged 68.
If there is one other thing I have learnt since taking an interest in art is that by reading up on the paintings and the artists one learns a lot about history, whether it be European or American. One picks up on things which should have been learnt at school but sadly passed one by. Today’s look at the work and life of Christoffer Eckersberg is a good example of this in the way I have learnt a little about Danish history.
In 1807 the British shelled the Danish capital, Copenhagen. This was the second ferocious onslaught on the Danish city as six years earlier a similar attack had been made. It was all to do with the Napoleonic War and the Franco-Russian alliance secret agreement to ensure that Denmark and Sweden would assist them in a naval blockade of British trade. British diplomats went to Copenhagen to ask the Danish government to put their naval ships under British command until the Napoleonic War had ended but the Danes would not agree and so on September 2nd 1807, the British army landed in Denmark and attacked the Danish capital. The Danes finally surrendered and their naval ships were taken over by British sailors and sailed to England that October.
My first painting I am looking at today by Christoffer Eckersberg, The Fire of the Church of Our Lady, records the terrible onslaught on Copenhagen and is a prime example of history through art. The work shows the burning of the church steeple of the cathedral of Copenhagen, during the night of September 4th 1807. The steeple eventually fell to the ground. In the painting we see the pandemonium in the neighbouring street due to the fierce assault and the resulting blitz.
Another of Eckersberg’s painting depicting the bombardment of Copenhagen can be seen in his 1807 work The Bombardment of Copenhagen.View from Østervold. Shortly after the British naval bombardment of the Danish capital, Eckersberg, who was living in Copenhagen, made many drawings, for prints, of the conflagration of the most famous landmarks of the city and by doing so captured for posterity the terrible events. He managed to capture the feeling of panic which gripped the citizens of Copenhagen when the first shells fell on their beloved city. Works like this were in general demand and brought about a patriotic stirring that swept through the Danish population in the wake of this British bombardment.
When Eckersberg returned to Denmark in 1816 after his stays in Paris and Rome he lost contact with most of the international artists of the time, with one exception, the Norwegian painter J C Dahl. Johan Christian Dahl lived in Norway but spent much time in Dresden and would pass through Copenhagen on his journeys between there and his homeland. It is known that J C Dahl was fascinated by clouds and their formation and had produced many works featuring this natural phenomenon, one of which was his 1825 painting, Cloud Study, Thunder Clouds over the Palace Tower at Dresden. For Dahl, the sky was an integral part of a landscape painting, and he would spend many hours observing cloud formations and watch as they crossed over land.
Eckersberg and Dahl developed a lasting friendship and it could have been Dahl’s fascination with clouds and his interest in meteorology that infected Eckersberg, so much so that Eckersberg began a twenty-five year hobby of keeping a daily meteorological diary and would regularly sketch cloud formations. J C Dahl would also have informed Eckersberg about how both artists and art theorists in Dresden were showing great interest in cloud formations. Eckersberg was also fascinated by the work of Luke Howard the English manufacturing chemist and amateur meteorologist who in 1802 classified the various tropospheric cloud types and believed that the changing cloud forms in the sky could unlock the key to weather forecasting.
In 1826 Eckersberg decided to master the art of painting clouds and he took himself off to Kalkbraenderibugten, a bay just north of Copenhagen so that he could paint a range of studies of clouds over water and the painting above, Study of Clouds over the Sea, is one he completed that year
Looking at Eckerberg paintings so far I have concentrated on his mythological and biblical works along with some of his portraiture and nude studies but another genre of works favoured by Eckersberg was his marine works which also featured cloud depictions. A prime example of this is a work he completed in 1827 entitled A Russian Fleet at Anchor near Elsinore.
The next marine painting by Eckersberg I am featuring could well have come about from a visit he made to the atelier of Casper David Friedrich in Dresden in 1816, on his way home from Rome. It is quite possible that during that meeting he saw Friedrich’s newly completed work View of a Harbour.
This marine painting by Eckersberg is one of my favourites and also one of his best known marine works. It is his magnificent 1828 painting entitled The Russian Ship of the Line “Asow” and a Frigate at Anchor in the Elsinore Roads. It is a triumph of detail, not just of the vessel itself and the way he has truthfully represented all the details of the rigging but how he has painstakingly depicted the cloud formation. So can we look at this as a mastering of plein air painting? Actually, no ! This is an idealised marine painting made up from a number of Eckersberg’s sketches done at different times and different locations. He may have been able to see some Russian ships at the Elsinore Roads in 1826, but at a great distance away, and it was not until sometime later that he observed a number of Russian ships at close quarters when they were at anchor in the Copenhagen Roads and it was during that fleet’s visit that he was able to go aboard the admirals’ ship, Azob, (although he later called it Asow !). He started the painting in 1828 and for accuracy got hold of some constructional drawings of the vessels from the naval dockyard. He even went as far as consulting his meteorological diary to check the weather conditions on the day the Asow was at anchor off Elsinore, and so the completed 1828 painting is not what Eckersberg saw on that day at Elsinore in 1826 but what he would have seen if he had been able to set off from land in a boat to witness, close up, the mighty Asow.
Eckersberg loved marine painting and in his later years concentrated on this genre at the expense of his once favoured landscape works.
A View towards the Swedish Coast from the Ramparts of Kromborg Castle by Eckersberg is another example of his marine/cloud painting. From his diary we know that this plein air work was started in September 1826 but was not completed until January1829 . The artist had positioned himself on the ramparts of the castle looking out across the Øresund towards the coast of Sweden, which was just four kilometres away. The castle which is on the extreme north-eastern tip of the island of Zealand is in the town of Helsingor and was immortalised as Elsinore in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. It is a painting which doesn’t just focus on ships and clouds but looks at life going on inside the castle. We see two maids tending to newly-washed clothes. We can also see military personnel looking out at the warship in the Øresund strait. They are engaged in guarding the castle and stand by the gun emplacements. A Danish flag flutters in the wind as a reminder of the importance of the fortification to the country
My final look at Eckersberg’s marine paintings is one he completed in 1839 with the title The Corvette Galathea in a Storm in the North Sea. Eckersburg had been a passenger on the vessel in the May of that year when it was crossing the North Sea on its way to Dover and encountered a fierce storm, which lasted two whole days. On his return home he wrote up about this dramatic voyage in his diary which he later translated into this painting. In his diary he wrote:
“…hideously rough waters, in which the ship veered horribly, now up and down, now to one side or the other, making it difficult to hold on tight………when the sun was shining the sea had the most extraordinary beautiful colour, pure blue and green, with glittering white foam….”
Eckersberg’s depiction of the Galathea is as if he had been witnessing the event from another vessel. The sketches he made in the diary of the event were full of blues and greens of the sea, interrupted by the white of the foam which topped the waves.
The painting was completed in a month, on his return home from Hamburg.
Another of my favourite Eckersberg painting has a nautical theme and yet there is no sign of a ship. It is a quirky work entitled A Sailor Taking Leave of His Girl which he completed in 1840. He recorded the completion of this work in a diary on June 25th 1840, in which he wrote that he had “completed a small painting depicting a sailor taking leave of his girl”. It was Eckersberg’s interest in depicting everyday scenes and quite ordinary events in his art which resulted in a work like this. This type of work featuring scenes from the streets of Copenhagen was favoured by him back in the days when he was attending as a student at the Royal Danish Academy of Art. In this small work Eckersberg has offered a small part of a relationship story between a sailor and a lady and has left us to fill in the background to the happening we see before us. He referred to this type of depiction as a “fleeting moment”. Look at the shadows on the wall. In the painting we see the man and woman drifting apart and yet the shadow shows them merged. Maybe these two images are asking us to decide what comes next. Is it a final parting or will there be a reunion? Look how the sailor points to the shadow. Is this a reassuring gesture to the woman that one day they will be “as one”? Maybe that is just too romantic a reasoning. Maybe it is simply a sailor on leave from his ship wanting to seduce the young woman and take her off to a more secluded place. I will leave you to decide !
My final offering is also a “fleeting moment” depiction. Eckersberg completed Langebro, Copenhagen, in the Moonlight with Running Figures in 1836. This is what is termed as one of Eckersberg’s “unresolved narratives”. The idea for this work came to Eckersberg in October 1836 when he was taking a stroll along the waterfront. He decided to paint a depiction of the bridge, not in the daytime but he decided to make it part of a nocturnal moonlight scene. To the depiction of the bridge he has added a number of people running along it, towards us. As was the case in the previous work, Eckersberg has depicted a scene and let us, the observers, work out what is going on. Are the people running away from something, such as a fire or are they running towards something? There are certainly signs of desperation in the way the people have been portrayed. Look at the woman by the bridge railing. What is she pointing at? The painting poses many questions. One line of thought is that in the same year Eckersberg completed the work the Danish novelist Carl Bernhard published his new work Dagvognen (The Stagecoach), the climax of which is set on the Langebro and told of a young man rescuing a young woman who is trying to drown herself.
Christoffer Eckersberg was married three times. In the Part 1 of this blog I talked about his first and somewhat disastrous marriage to Christine Rebecka Hyssing the father of his first child. This ended in divorce in 1816 after just three years. The following year he married Julie Juel, the daughter of his great mentor, the Danish portrait painter, Jens Juel. Julie died in 1827. A year later, in 1828, Eckersberg, aged 45 married Julie’s sister Sanne. They were married for twelve years until her death in 1840. Eckersberg fathered eleven children.
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg died in 1853 of cholera. He was seventy years of age.
If we remark on how we enjoy the beauty of landscape paintings or admire the skills of a portraitist, there is often very little comment from our listener. If however we extol the beauty of nude paintings our listeners often look at us askance as if we have revealed an unhealthy interest in a taboo subject. In Kenneth Clarke’s 1972 book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, he looks at the art of the Greeks to that of Renoir and Moore, and it surveys the ever-changing fashions in what has constituted the ideal nude as a basis of humanist form. The book came out of a series of lectures he gave at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. which was a part of the A. W. Mellon Lectures. In his lectures, and in this book, Clarke traces the development of the nude in art from several viewpoints, and categorizes the various influences that civilization at the time had on its representation. It opens with his observations on the terms “nude” and “naked”.
“…The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word “nude,” on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed. In fact, the word was forced into our vocabulary by critics of the early eighteenth century to persuade the artless islanders [of the UK] that, in countries where painting and sculpture were practiced and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of art…”
It was also he who claimed in his 1956 book, The Nude, that there is a difference between nudity and nakedness. He said that a naked human body is exposed, vulnerable, embarrassing. He further stated that, on the other hand, the word ‘nude’, carried, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image the word projected into one’s mind is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but of a balanced, prosperous and confident body.
In this fourth instalment looking at the work of the Danish painter, Christoffer Wilhem Eckersberg I am going to take a look at his works of art which feature nude depictions.
Eckersberg had arrived in Paris in 1810 and it was during his three year stay in the French capital that he studied the art of painting the nude form in life drawing classes. We know about this through a letter he wrote in July 1811 and sent to a professor of art at the Royal Danish Academy, Johan Frederik Clemens. He wrote about his life in Paris:
“…Together with several German painters I am holding a kind of academy here, where we drew alternatively after the very best models of both genders, as is the common here, enabling me to carefully study the figures I use for my paintings…”
We know that Eckersberg attended Jacques-Louis David’s atelier in September 1811 and we also know that David only employed male models for the life classes. It was for that reason that Eckersberg, at his own personal expense, employed his own female model, Emilie.
During this time with David, Eckersberg spent much time practicing life drawing and history painting and worked on a series of paintings depicting episodes from Homer’s Odyssey. In this painting, Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus, we see the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, who had been blinded by Ulysses, moving blindly around the cave checking a sheep, searching for Ulysses and his companions. Ulysses and his men had escaped beneath the bellies of the flock and we observe Ulysses, on the right of the painting, looking furtively behind him at the monster. He is the last of his band of men to exit the cave and he is desperate to join his companions who have made it to safety outside. Outside the cave is beautifully lit with the Mediterranean light. However it is the contrast between extreme darkness of the cave and the well lit exterior which adds to the menace and tension. The painting showcases Eckersberg’s interest in perspective, his acute observation of nature, and his nuanced treatment of light.
In October 1811 he again wrote to Clemens describing his work at David’s atelier:
“…We paint by life and have the choicest and most exquisite models at the studio; one is the very image of Hercules, another of a gladiator, a third quite the likeness of a young Bacchus or Antinous…”
It was not just the availability of top-class models that pleased Eckersberg it was the fact that the life classes took place during the day in favourable light conditions and he was able not to just study the physical form of the models but what he considered just as important, their colouring and the shades of skin resting on top of the muscle, bones and tissues underneath.
One of his early paintings which art historians believe approximates the style of his tutor, David, is one he completed in 1812. It is entitled A Young Bowman Sharpening his Arrow. The painting depicts a strong, beautiful and theatrically posed man à la Neoclassicism. The differentiation between areas of light and shade on the model’s body is exquisite and the colour and tonal differences we see between the reddish tones on the rear of the thigh, the left knee, hands and face are in contrast to the bluish-grey of the rib and shoulder areas and this adds to the beauty of the painting. It is the intrinsic flesh tones that Eckersberg has added which makes this a very special work.
Eckersberg’s painting, Two Shepherds, was completed in 1813 around about the time he was about to leave Paris and head for Rome. The work seems to have started off as a simple figure study which was then converted into a painting of two shepherds back in antiquity. We see the two men sitting on blocks of stone which could at the preliminary stage been wooden crates which were used by artists in a studio and which formed part of the set up whilst trying to position the models in what was considered the best poses. It is also a study of the male body at different stages of life. The shepherd on the left being much older than his companion. In this work Eckersberg is mindful of the strict, albeit generally accepted limits of correctness when it comes to depicting genitalia and has ensured that such is hidden by draperies which fell across the thighs of the two men. Like the previous work, Eckersberg is very conscious of the effects of shade and light on the two male bodies and in this depiction the man on the right is bathed in light on his front whereas it is the back of the older man which has been lit whilst his chest and abdomen are in the shade.
Probably the best known of his male nude paintings as it has been used in the massive posters publicising his current exhibition, is one he completed in 1837, entitled Male Model holding a Staff. Carl Frørup, 18 years. It was in 1837 that Eckersberg set about a five painting series featuring nude depictions of two were of men, two of women and one of an eleven year old girl. The reasons for completing the series was that they would be used by students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. This factor could be part of why we never look on the depiction as a voyeur as we know the reason for the work is an aid for students who are studying life paintings. Probably for that reason Eckersberg has painted five works which are in no way idealised classical versions of the human body. There is no attempt to tag them with some mythological or historical story. The five works were all completed in a studio. All are overwhelming in size and nature. In each case the model avoids eye contact with the viewer. The work above features Carl Frørup, a relative of the academy porter.
Eckersberg also completed many nude depictions of women. Standing Female Nude against a Green Background was completed by Eckersberg in 1837 and was another of his series of five nude depictions. The use of female models in the life classes in academies was forbidden up until 1822 and it was not until eleven years later, in 1833, that the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts sanctioned the use of female models for their life drawing classes.
This, along with its companion piece, Standing Female Nude against a Red Background, were both completed in 1837 part of the five nude studies. The models used for these paintings were nineteen year old Dorothea Petersen and eighteen year old Juliane Wittenborg. Both these works look as if they were painted during life classes but Eckersberg has given the two women different facial expressions. Whilst one looks introverted and worried. The other looks detached and consumed by her own thoughts. Neither model looks us in the eye. Again as are the other paintings in the series, these were simply paintings that young art students at the Academy could study so as to formulate their own artistic techniques when it came to depicting nudes. All the paintings in the series belonged to Eckersberg during his lifetime and upon his death were bequeathed to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen by his children who wanted to carry out their father’s last request.
Eckersberg completed his small work, Reclining Female Nude, in 1813, whilst in Paris. It is thought that he had worked on this painting whilst taking part in one of the “private academy” sessions he and some of his contemporary German artist friends would hold on a regular basis. We see that he has taken pains to depict the varying tones in the woman’s skin. Look at the variations. The blue veins we see over her ribs, the reddish areas of skin around the neck and the red work-worn hands and the slight tanning of the skin above her breastbone which would have been due to the neckline of her dresses.
Another small nude painting completed around the same time (1813) was Nude Reclining on a Bed. There is sensuousness about this work in comparison to most of his other female nude paintings. What makes the work sensuous? Could it be the rumpled state of the unmade bed, which gives rise to speculation that an intimate situation may just have happened? Maybe it is the closed eyes and flushed cheeks of the woman which makes us believe that she too may be recalling the previous events.
Eckerberg’s Morgentoilette which is sometimes known as Woman in Front of a Mirror which he painted in 1841. It was while he was professor at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen that he conducted classes in life drawing and painting from the nude model, male and female. This painting by Eckersberg, to me, emphasises the argument that a female body partly clothed is far more erotic and sensuous in comparison to complete nudity, such as we see in Egon Schiele’s paintings. The woman has her back to us and we see in the mirror the reflection of her face and her upper chest, just revealing a small amount of cleavage. She stands before us with a towel slung loosely around her waist but letting us view the swell of her hips and the upper curvature of her buttocks. Her body is like polished marble. Our eyes move upwards from the towel and we observe the slimness of her waist and the well defined muscles of her back. Her hair, which is tied back in a bob, is held by her right hand. This upward positioning of her right arm allows us to look upon the sensuous curve of her shoulders and neck. In the mirror we can just catch a glimpse of her face which appears flushed. Maybe she is embarrassed by the pose and the gaze of the artist or maybe it is because she realises that in times to come we will be staring at her beauty.
My final painting for this blog is Female Nude. Florentine, which Eckersberg completed in 1840. In 1833, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where Eckersberg was professor and director, introduced female models to its life drawing classes. Prior to this date the Academy had only used male models for reasons of propriety. This decision, to allow female models to be used, renewed Eckersberg interest in life drawing, a genre which he had first practiced while studying with Jacques-Louis David in Paris.
During 1840 Eckersberg produced some of his most important and moving paintings and drawings of the female nude, including the one I am now showcasing. Many of his nude paintings at this time featured the same model, a woman named Florentine who he mentioned in his diary in the September of that year. A year later he produced his best-known painting using the same model, Woman in front of a mirror.
This work was painted between September 5th and 10th 1840 during his life classes at the Academy’s Model School. Unlike some of Eckersberg’s female nude painting of 1837, which I have shown earlier, the model Florentine flaunts her body more openly and the diffuse shading of her body lends to eroticism of this work. There is no eye contact between Florentine and us and by avoiding this, the artist kept a robust degree of judicious deliberation.
In my fifth and final look at the life and works of Christoffer Eckersberg I will be looking at among other works, some of his exquisite seascapes