Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 5. Clouds and marine paintings

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.

The Fire of the Church of Our Lady by Christoffer Eckersberg (1807) The Royal Library, Copenhagen
The Fire of the Church of Our Lady by Christoffer Eckersberg (1807)
The Royal Library, Copenhagen

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.

The Bombardment of Copenhagen. View from Ostervold by Christoffer Eckersberg (1807) (50 x 60cms) Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle
The Bombardment of Copenhagen. View from Ostervold by Christoffer Eckersberg (1807)
(50 x 60cms)
Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle

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.

Cloud Study, Thunder Clouds over the Palace Tower at Dresden by J C Dahl (1822) (21 x 22cms) Nationalgalerie Berlin
Cloud Study, Thunder Clouds over the Palace Tower at Dresden by J C Dahl (1822)
(21 x 22cms)
Nationalgalerie Berlin

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.

C.W. Eckersberg (1783-1853), Studie af skyer over havet, 1826
Study of Clouds over the Sea by Christoffer Eckersberg (1826) (20 x 31cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

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

A Russian Fleet at Anchor near Elsinore by Christoffer Eckersberg (1826) (32 x 59cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
A Russian Fleet at Anchor near Elsinore by Christoffer Eckersberg (1826)
(32 x 59cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

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.

View of a Harbour by Casper David Friedrich (1816)
View of a Harbour by Casper David Friedrich (1816)

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.

The Russian Ship of the Line “Asow” and a Frigate at Anchor in the Elsinore Roads (1828) (63 x 51cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The Russian Ship of the Line “Asow” and a Frigate at Anchor in the Elsinore Roads (1828)
(63 x 51cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

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 Kronborg Castle by Christoffer Eckersberg (1829)
A View towards the Swedish Coast from the Ramparts of Kronborg Castle by Christoffer Eckersberg (1829)

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

The Corvette Galathea in a Storm in the North Sea by Christoffer Eckersberg (1839) (48 x 64cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The Corvette Galathea in a Storm in the North Sea by Christoffer Eckersberg (1839)
(48 x 64cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

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.

A Sailor Taking Leave of His Girl by Christoffer Eckersberg (1840) (35 x 26cms) Ribe Art Museum
A Sailor Taking Leave of His Girl by Christoffer Eckersberg (1840)
(35 x 26cms)
Ribe Art Museum

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 !

Langebro, Copenhagen, in the Moonlight with Running Figures by Christoffer Eckersberg (1836) (45 x 33cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
Langebro, Copenhagen, in the Moonlight with Running Figures by Christoffer Eckersberg (1836)
(45 x 33cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

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.

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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/