Let me start this blog with a question. When you look around a large art gallery how long do you stand before each painting? Is it just a cursory glance or do you study the artistic technique of the artist and examine the brush strokes which many artists believe are like the painter’s fingerprints? I suppose a lot depends on the size of the gallery with all the works on show at the major ones being impossible to see in one visit and of course one has to also take into account whether one is likely to return to the gallery on another occasion. The reason for this question is that a fortnight ago we were in Hamburg, staying for three nights in a hotel opposite the Hamburger Kunsthalle which is said to be the largest art museum in Germany. Such a large collection and such a limited time to feast our eyes on the many paintings so what was to be the strategy – rush and see as many as possible or be selective and miss out on many unknown painters? Fortunately, I didn’t have to decide as when we arrived and looked out the hotel bedroom window there were many large signs unfurled telling people that the museum was still closed and would not open until May 1st after seventeen months of renovations!!!
However all was not lost as a small number of rooms had been opened for a visiting collection of the Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and this turned out to be one of the best exhibitions I had ever seen. The exhibition entitled Eckersberg – Fascination with Reality contained about 90 paintings and 40 drawings and prints from all the artist’s creative periods, and included all of the artist’s major works. Because people may have been waiting for the official re-opening of the museum to visit the exhibition, there were no crowds and it allowed time to study each one of Eckersberg’s works without any “gallery rage” caused by hordes of people pushing to get better views. In my next few blogs I will look at the life of Eckersberg and showcase some of his historical paintings, his portraits, seascapes and landscapes which made him one of Denmark’s greatest artists.
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg was born in 1783 in Blåkrog, a small Danish town in the parish of Varnæs in Southern Jutland. Later the family moved a short distance to the town of Blans. He lived with his mother, Ingeborg Nielsdatter and his father, Henrik Eckersberg, who was a carpenter and house painter. Christoffer studied as a painter for three years from the age of fourteen under the guidance of Jes Jessen of Aabenraa, who was well known for his a floral paintings, portraiture and historical works. When Eckersberg was seventeen, Christoffer became apprenticed to the Flensborg artist, John Jacob Jessen. During these early years of training Christoffer had one goal in mind – to be accepted as a pupil at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen, which was inaugurated in 1754, and was the leading artistic establishment of Denmark. During his early training he had put together a portfolio of his work and that along with some money given to him by local people of the village, he set off in 1803 for Copenhagen. The entrants’ panel of the Academy were impressed by his portfolio of work, so much so that he was accepted into the Academy without having to pay a fee.
Whilst studying at the Academy Eckersberg was influenced by the works of the late portrait and landscape painter, Jens Juel, a court painter and professor at the Academy but who had died a year before Eckersberg’s arrival. The other great influence was one of Eckersberg’s professors, Nickolai Abildgaard, a neo-classical and royal history painter. The highlight of Eckersberg’s six year stay at the Academy came in his final year, 1809, when he was awarded the academy’s Gold Medal and with that came a stipend for travel to Rome which he received in 1812. After completing his studies he concentrated on completing a number of historical, mythological and biblical paintings.
One such work was entitled Loki and Sigyn who were husband and wife characters in Norse mythology. Sigyn was a goddess and the wife of Loki and the tale is about her role in assisting Loki during his period of captivity. The mythology around this pair of characters is rather gruesome. The story goes that when the gods captured Loki, they turned one of Loki’s sons, Vali into a wolf. The wolf then ripped apart Narfi, Loki and Sigyn’s son. The boy’s entrails hardened into an iron chain, and the gods used this grotesque fetter to bind Loki in a cave deep beneath the earth. The gods then placed a snake above Loki that would drip venom onto his head. In order to save her husband from the dripping venom from the snake’s mouth, Sigyn sat by Loki’s side with a bowl to catch the drops of venom so that they wouldn’t touch her husband’s head. Every so often, however, she would have to leave the cave to pour out the bowl. In her absence, a few drops of poison would fall onto Loki’s forehead. This caused him to writhe in agony, which in turn caused earthquakes on the earth’s surface.
Prior to his European travels Eckersberg completed a commission for Frantz Christopher von Bülow, Chief of the General Staff for King of Denmark, Frederick VI. The commission was a set of twelve scenes of the island of Møn, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea. One of these paintings was entitled Farm in Spejlsby on Møn, a depiction of a rainbow over the farmstead in a small village on the north of the island. The farm has been hit by a rainstorm and yet the farm itself is bathed in sunlight. Neither of the milkmaids in the foreground seems to be phased by the storm as they chat away, nor is the man with the basket who casually strolls along the path towards the farmhouse. It is thought that Eckersberg completed the work in his Copenhagen studio from a sketch he made the previous year.
Another landscape Eckersberg completed in 1809 featuring the island was entitled The Cliffs of the Island of Møn. View of the Summer Spire. The chalk cliffs on the eastern coast of the island, known as Møns Klint, and the surrounding woodlands and pasture lands has attracted an estimated quarter of a million visitors every year and is the favourite location for artists as it was in the nineteenth century. Christopher von Bülow had his Nordfeld estate near the cliffs so this was probably the reason for Eckersberg depiction. It gave the artist the chance to depict the elements of nature which made the area so loved. The high white limestone peak we see in the background is the Sommerspirit or Summer spire which rises to a height of 102 metres. Unfortunately this natural wonder can no longer be seen as in January 1988 it crashed into the sea due to coastal erosion below its base. Maybe there is a touch of humour in the painting as we Eckersberg depicting a petrified woman shrink back from the edge of the cliff in fear, despite the soothing overtones from her male companion.
Another of his paintings depicting a scene on the island of Møn was View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn. This is acknowledged as one of the most romantic and picturesque views of the gardens at Liselund Manor. Liselund is a landscaped park, in which there are several exotic buildings and monuments. The park is situated close to Møns Klint on the northeast side of the island. The park was created in the 1790s by French nobleman Antoine de Bosc de la Calmette for his wife Elisabeth, commonly known as Lisa, and Liselund, roughly translated, means Lise’s grove. The park is considered to be one of the finest examples in Scandinavia of Romantic English gardening. Before us we see the cleft with the small waterfall which is framed by luxuriant trees. In the foreground we see three visitors to the park fascinated by what they see before them. The format of this landscape painting is unusual with it being portrait format instead of the usual landscape format.
Having completed his paintings of the island of Møn, Eckersberg set off on his Grand Tour of Europe, the first stop of which was Paris. What Eckersberg soon learnt was that the new contemporary French painting of the time was so radically different to that of his Danish role models, Juel and Abildgaard. French paintings had a greater clarity of colour, bright light and clear-cut contours. One of the stars of French art at this time was Jacques-Louis David and Eckersberg, through his patron had not only arranged for him to meet the great Neoclassical-style painter but had also had arranged for Eckersberg to be tutored by him in his life classes where students were taught how best depict the human body and the resulting change in a manifest change to Eckersberg’s style of history painting.
Eckersberg’s time spent in Jacques-Louis David’s life classes must have honed his skill for that type of art as in 1812 he produced Three Spartan Boys. This was one of the first paintings in which he translated what he had learnt at those life classes of David. A year after completion, the painting was exhibited in Copenhagen with the title, Three Spartan Youths Practicing Archery. Etude from Nature. The first part of the title ensures the painting is looked upon as a history painting but the second part of the title alludes to the fact that it is a modified and elaborated figure study. See how the three youths strike different poses and we, as viewers, see them from different angles and thus admire the artist’s skill at his depiction of their bodies. Note to the inclusion of a landscape background to this work.
Such an inclusion could be the result of Eckersberg having studyed the works of Jacques-Louis David who would also add landscape backgrounds to his historical paintings, one example of which was his painting entitled Leonidas at Thermopylae which Eckersberg probably only saw an unfinished version as it was not completed until 1814.
Another of Eckersberg’s historical paintings at this time was one entitled Odysseus’ Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, which he completed around 1812. Book XIX of the Odyssey tells of the return of Odysseus, in disguise as a poor beggar to his home and to his erstwhile wife Penelope. Odysseus continually refers to Penelope as the honourable wife of Lord Odysseus. Odysseus has a bath and helped by his old nurse Eurykeia who recognizes a scar on Odysseus’ thigh and therefore knows the beggar is her lost master. Odysseus grabs her by the throat and tells her to keep what she saw from all others or else he will kill her. In his painting, Eckersberg captures the moment when the old nurse is about to blurt out Odysseus’ name and so he covers her mouth with his hand as he looks over to Penelope to see if she has been alerted to the nurse’s discovery but she has her head in her hand still grieving for her lost husband.
Whilst in Paris Eckersberg did complete a number of historical paintings but his love for landscape work was not forgotten and in November 1812 he produced a beautiful painting entitled Pont Royal seen from the Quai Voltaire from sketches he made that summer. It is a view from the Left Bank of the Seine looking across the river towards the Louvre and the Tuilleries. As a landscape it is a change of style for him. It is an early example of his use of linear perspective which allowed him to give a sense of depth to the depiction. As an artist and recorder of a view, he has adopted a very soberly observed position. The details in the work are given to us in far greater detail than his usual landscape style. He portrays light shining in from the left casting numerous shadows and his depiction of the clouds bears witness to his careful inspection of nature. The painting was exhibited at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen in 1814.
In my next blog I will follow Eckerberg’s journey to Rome and look at more of his works of art.