Peder Mork Mønsted – The great Danish landscape artist.

By The River, Brondbyvester by Peder Mønsted (1922)

Landscape and seascape painting must be the most popular art genre. Like all painting genres there are many good examples and some exceptional examples of such paintings. In today’s blog I want to highlight the exceptional landscape work of the nineteenth century Danish painter, Peder Mork Mønsted, who due to his naturalistic plein-air depictions, was considered the foremost landscape painter of his day in Denmark.

The Red Umbrella by Peder Mønsted (1887)

Mønsted was born on December 10th, 1859, a few years following the end of what was known as Den danske guldalder (The Danish Golden Age). This period of Danish history straddles the first half of the nineteenth century and is a period of outstanding creative production in Denmark. The start of the nineteenth century had been a disastrous period for Denmark and especially its capital, Copenhagen which had suffered from fires, bombardment and national bankruptcy, but it was also a period when the arts took on a new period of inspiration and originality brought on by the Romanticism movement of Germany, which was at its peak in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was a period when much of Copenhagen had to be rebuilt and this saw the development of Danish architecture in the Neoclassical style. The city took on a new look, with buildings designed by Christian Frederik Hansen and by Michael Gottlieb Bindesbøll.

The Gatehouse in the Park of Villa Borghese, Rome, by Christoffer Eckersberg (1816)

This Golden Age was most commonly associated with the Golden Age of Danish Painting from 1800 to around 1850 which included the work of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (see My Daily Art Display five-part blog starting August 5th, 2016) and his students, such as Wilhelm Bendz, Christen Købke, Martinus Rørbye, Constantin Hansen and Wilhelm Marstrand. Eckersberg taught at the Academy in Copenhagen from 1818 to 1853, and became its director from 1827 to 1828. He was an important influence on the following generation, in which landscape painting came to the fore. He taught most of the leading artists of the period.

A Summer Day at the Dyrehaven by Peter Skovgaard

Peder Mork Mønsted was born near Grenå in eastern Denmark. He was the son of Otto Christian Mønsted, a prosperous ship-builder, and Thora Johanne Petrea Jorgensen. He had an elder brother, Niels. He was a pupil at the Crown Prince Ferdinand’s Drawing School in Aarhus where he studied under Andries Fritz, the Danish landscape and portrait painter. After leaving the Drawing School in 1875, Mønsted moved to Copenhagen and enrolled on a three-year art course at the Royal Academy of Art where he received tuition in many facets of art including the tutoring in figure painting by the Danish genre painter, Julius Exner. It was at the Academy that he began to learn about, and be influenced by, the art of Christen Købke and Pieter Christian Skovgaard, a romantic nationalist painter and one of the main figures associated with the Golden Age of Danish Painting. Skovgaard is particularly known for his large-scale depictions of the Danish landscape.

Summer Evening on Skagen’s Southern Beach with Anna Ancher and Marie Krøyer by Peder Severin Krøyer (1893)

In 1878 Mønsted left the Academy to study under the artist Peder Severin Krøyer. Krøyer was one of the best known and the most colourful of the Skagen Painters, who were a community of Danish and Nordic artists living and painting in Skagen, Denmark. Krøyer was the unofficial leader of the group.

In the Shadow of an Italian Pergola by Peder Mønsted (1884)

In his early twenties, Mønsted travelled extensively. In 1882 he journeyed through Switzerland and on to Italy where he visited the isle of Capri. During these journeys he would constantly sketch the people and the landscapes. One such painting to come from that Italian trip was completed in 1884 entitled In the Shadow of an Italian Pergola. Before returning to his home in Denmark he visited Paris and stayed there for four months during which time he studied at the studio of William-Adolphe Bougureau, the French academic painter.

The Smoking Moor by Peder Mønsted (1898)

Mønsted was a habitual traveller constantly seeking places and people to paint. In 1884, he first visited North Africa returning to Algeria in 1889. One of his later paintings, a portrait entitled The Smoking Moor, came from his time in North Africa.

Olga by Peder Mønsted (1917)

Peder Mønsted besides being an exceptional landscape painter was also a talented portraitist as we can see in his 1917 work, simply entitled Olga.

The Cloister, Taormina by Peder Mork Mønsted (1885)

In 1885 his journeys took him to Sicily and Taormina, the commune in the Metropolitan City of Messina, which lies on the east coast of the island. It was from this visit that Mønsted completed his painting The Cloister, Taormina.

Unloading Stone from a Barge at Ouchy by Peder Mork Mønsted (1887)

Mønsted visited Switzerland on several occasions and his 1887 painting Unloading Stone from a Barge at Ouchy recalled the time he visited the port of Ouchy which is situated south of the city of Lausanne, on the edge of Lake Léman.

On March 14th, 1889, at Frederiksberg, Peder Mork Mønsted married Elna Mathilde Marie Sommer. Nine years later the couple had a son, Tage.

King George I of Greece by Peder Monsted

In 1892, Mønsted travelled to Greece, where he was a guest of King George I, who was Danish. While there, he completed portraits of the Royal Family including one of the king himself at the top of a ship’s gangway.

With his royal invitation to Greece, he also took the opportunity to depict the ancient sites. The above large-scale work (80 x 137cms) is one of his finest paintings of the last decade of the nineteenth century. It is thought that the two finely-dressed people depicted to the left in the mid-ground are King George I and his wife, Queen Olga of Greece. Further to the left are members of the famous Presidential Guard known as the Evzones.  From Greece, Mønsted travelled to Egypt and Spain.

Landscape with River by Peder Mønsted

However, Peder Mork Mønsted will always be remembered for his beautiful landscape works often featuring his native countryside. It is hard to describe the works in a single word but if one had to then words like serene, placid, and tranquil come to mind. His depiction of water in the form of rivers and brooks and the surface reflections are breathtakingly beautiful.  One good example of this is his painting Landscape with River.

Creek North of Copenhagen by Peder Mønsted

Mønsted continued all his life to paint the Danish and Scandinavian landscapes and coastlines. His depictions of nature were poetic, even romantic. His forte as far as his landscape works are concerned is his discerning eye for the grandeur of nature and his unerring ability to record both detail and colour.

Spring Landscape in Saeby by Peder Mork Mønsted (1912)

Of all the motifs within the landscape theme, water seems to be one that arouses the greatest admiration when depicted with serene beauty. It is in such landscape works that there is a multitude of conditions that challenge and stimulate an artist, whether they be beginners or the most experienced painters. It is known that many famous Impressionists had real problems when it came to the representation of water in their compositions and ended up with their depictions, concentrating much more on the effects 0f light on a scene rather than on a realistic representation.

A Tranquil Forest Lake by Peder Mork Mønsted (1904)

The onset of World War I caused Mønsted to curtail his European travels but the 1920’s and 1930’s once again saw him journeying around the Mediterranean countries.

A Sleigh Ride Through a Winter Landscape by Peter Mønsted (1915)

His travels produced numerous sketches that later became paintings which he presented at several international exhibitions. Most of his landscapes were, however, devoted to Scandinavia. He was especially popular in Germany, where he held several shows at the Glaspalast in Munich. During his later years, he spent a great deal of time in Switzerland and travelling throughout the Mediterranean. Most of his works are now held in private collections. In 1995, a major retrospective, called “Light of the North”, was held in Frankfurt am Main.

The Community of Hoje Taastrup, outside Copenhagen by Peder Mønsted

Philip Weilbach’s artistic icon, Weilbach Dansk Kunstnerleksikon often just referred to as Weilbach, is the largest biographical reference book of Danish artists and artists and the entry on Peder Mønsted sums up the work of this great man:

“…[Mønsted’s] great success was largely a consequence of his ability to develop a series of schematic types of landscape, which could each individually represent the quintessence of a Scandinavian, Italian, or most frequently Danish landscape. In motifs, built up around still water, trees, and forest, he specialised in portraying the sunlight between tree crowns and the network of trunks and branches of the underwood, the reflections on the water of forest and sky and snow-laden winter landscape paintings with sensations of spring, often all together in the same painting. Insofar as Mønsted included figures in his paintings, these were principally used as ornaments with a view to emphasising the idyllic character of the motif; and only rarely were the figures and the anecdotal element given as prominent a role as in traditional genre paintings…

Peder Mork Mønsted died in his Danish homeland on June 20th 1941, aged 81.

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Gerda Gottlieb and Einar Wegener

Gerda and Einar
Gerda and Einar

The artist I am looking at today was unknown to me.  The more I read about her the more I realise I should have been aware of her especially after the recent publicity.  Howeve,r so that I am not cast alone as the “unknowledgeable one” I wonder how many of you have heard of Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb.  Well, have you?   I am not going to totally give away why you, like me, should have known her until a little later in the blog.  Today’s blog is not just about her but also about her first husband Einar Wegener.

Gerda Wegener (née Gottlieb)
Gerda Wegener (1886 – 1940)

Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb was born on March 15th 1886 in the small rural town of Hammelev in the eastern part of central Jutland. She was the daughter of Emil Gottlieb, a clergyman in the Catholic Church and Justine Gottlieb (née Osterberg). Although she had three other siblings they all died before adulthood.  Life as the daughter of a clergyman was a very conservative one.  Probably, because of her father’s profession, the family moved around the country.  Whilst still a child the family moved the short distance south from Hammelev to the coastal town of Grenaa and later to the central Jutland town of Hobro.

Gerda showed a love of art and an unusual artistic talent at a young age and began to receive some local artistic training. In 1903, when she was seventeen years of age, and had completed her schooling, she managed, after a lot of cajoling, to have her parents agree to allow her to carry on with her art studies and enrol at the newly opened women’s college at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.  Gerda proved to be a very talented student and in 1904 some of her work was exhibited in the Kunsthal Charlottenborg which is the official gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art.  It was at this artistic academy that fate was going to change her life for it was here that she met and fell in love with a fellow Academy student Einar Wegener.

Einar Wegener
Einar Wegener

Einar Mogens Andreas Wegener was born a male (important to note!) on December 28th 1882 in the small Danish town, Vejle, which is situated in the southeast of the Jutland Peninsula and lies at the head of Vejle Fjord.  He was the youngest of four children. By all accounts Einar was a precocious child who, like Gerda, showed an early artistic talent. He trained as a painter at the Vejle Technical School, and on graduating in 1902 enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen.

Capri, Italy by Einar Wegener (c.1920)
Capri, Italy by Einar Wegener (c.1920)

In his own works Einar Wegener often painted landscapes from the place where he came from, and later scenes from the countryside in France. Einar Wegener received Neuhausens prize in 1907 and exhibited at Kunstnernes Efteraarsudstilling (the Artists Fall Exhibition), Vejle Art Museum and in the Saloon and Salon d’Automme in Paris . These two aspiring young artists would often paint together although their interest in art differed.

Landscape by Einar Wegener (1908)
Landscape by Einar Wegener (1908)

Einar liked to paint landscapes whereas Gerda preferred illustrative work, the type she would have seen in fashion magazines.  Her main influences derived from her love of French eighteenth century Rococo art depicting well dressed women in luxurious and colourful clothes painted by the great French artists of that time such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, Francois Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard.  Having a love of illustrative work she also admired the work of a contemporary of hers, the British Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley

The Morning Dream, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley
The Morning Dream, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Beardsley, a major figure in Aestheticism and Art Nouveau, was influenced by the pre-Raphaelite painter and illustrator, Edward Burne-Jones and the woodcuts of the Ukiyo-e movement in Japanese art.  He had a distinctive style contrasting the subtle use of line with bold masses of black.  Many of his illustrations were classed as decadent and as an author he wrote an erotic novel, Under the Hill, and illustrated it with pornographic pictures.

Costumes Parisiens - illustration by Gerda Wegener (1914)
Costumes Parisiens – illustration by Gerda Wegener (1914)

Gerda Weneger had a refined and decadent character style, inspired by the English illustrator and her paintings split the views of the critic and public, some of who were excited with her work whilst it offended others, believing it to be simply pornographic. However in a lot of her erotic work Wegener often ensured that the ladies depicted had a disarming and somewhat enchanting twinkle in their eyes which countered the possible pornographic nature of the work. There is a distinct sense of fun and joie de vivre in Wegener’s work.

Lesbian illustration by Gerda Wegener
Lesbian illustration by Gerda Wegener

Gerda now lived in a bohemian area of Copenhagen populated by actors and dancers as well as artists her early works often depicted long-limbed heavily made-up, colourfully dressed exuberant females who were full of joie de vivre rather than art’s normal depictions of somewhat lifeless women.  In some way this could have been her challenge to the art establishment’s depiction of women, even challenging society’s concepts of women and challenge the standards of the time. Her book and magazine illustrations included ones which focused on high fashion and which were acceptable and loved by the public but she also produced illustrations featuring lesbianism and erotica which were often frowned upon my many parts of society.  There was a belief that Gerda herself was a lesbian.

Lili Elbe (1926)
Lili Elbe (1926)

Although I had never heard of Gerda and Einar Wegener they have become well-known not for their art but his sexuality which was brought to life in the 2016 biographical romantic film, The Danish Girl, which was based on the fictional book, of the same name, written in 2000 by David Ebershoff.    The book and the film also derived their information from a 1931 book about Einar.   The biography of Einar Wegener (Lili Elbe) was published in Denmark in 1931 under the title Fra mand til kvinde (From Man to Woman).  This was actually an autobiography edited by Niels Hoyer (real name Ernst Ludwig Hathom Jacobson) who had put together many manuscripts and letters after Lili’s death.  So when did the problematic sexuality of Einar first surface?  The Danish Girl film and book probably over simplified the beginnings of Einar’s doubt about his own sexuality but they refer to the day when he was asked to pose for his wife.  He described the occasion:

“…About this time Grete painted the portrait of the then popular actress in Copenhagen, Anna Larsen. One day Anna was unable to attend the appointed sitting. On the telephone she asked Grete, who was somewhat vexed: ‘Cannot Andreas pose as a model for the lower part of the picture? His legs and feet are as pretty as mine…”

Einar was very reluctant but Gerda finally persuaded him.   When Anna turned up unexpectedly at their studio she was very impressed with Einar’s portrayal of her and nicknamed him Lili.  On seeing (Einar, whose middle name was Andreas), she reportedly said:

 “…You know, Andreas, you were certainly a girl in a former existence, or else Nature has made a mistake with you this time…”

Two Cocottes with Hats (Gerda and Lili) by Gerda Wegener
Two Cocottes with Hats (Gerda and Lili) by Gerda Wegener

Gerda was so pleased with Einar as a female model she persuaded him to model for her on a number of future occasions.  Wegener’s fashion industry paintings featured beautiful women dressed in chic attire, one of the most popular of which was a captivating lady with a stylish short bob, full lips, and haunting almond-shaped brown eyes. Who would have believed that this exquisite beauty was her husband, Einar, who posed as her fashion model while donning women’s clothing. It was through these experiences that her husband Einar came to realize his true gender identity and began living his life as a woman. Einar’s sexuality became even more complicated when he and Gerda would go to parties as two females and often Gerda would introduce Lili Elba as Einar’s sister.

Gerda and Einar married in 1905 whilst they were still students at the Academy.  She was nineteen and he was twenty-two.

Portrait of Ellen von Kohl by Gerda Wegener
Portrait of Ellen von Kohl by Gerda Wegener

In 1907, Gerda completed a portrait entitled Portrait of Ellen von Kohl but although as we look at it now you will be surprised to know it caused quite a controversy and sparked the Peasant Painter Feud which was a national debate covered in the pages of the Danish newspaper Politiken.  It was all about ‘distasteful’ paintings of excess, (the smouldering look of Ellen von Kohl was seen as being too lascivious!) for the favoured norm at the time was for realism favoured representations of ‘ordinary people in the countryside’. The debate became so heated that the portrait was rejected by both the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, which was the official gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art, and also the Den Frie gallery, which was founded by the Association of Danish Artists, in protest against the admission requirements for the Kunsthal Charlottenborg.

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener
Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Gerda completed her art course at the Academy in 1907 and once again fate was going to play a part in her future as in 1908, soon after leaving the Academy she entered and won a drawing competition organised by the leading Danish broadsheet newspaper Politiken. It was competition to draw ‘Copenhagen Woman’.  The newspaper was so pleased by her winning entry that they offered her a job as a regular contributor and soon she established herself as a capable cartoonist and illustrator.  This was just the start of her career as the recognition launched her into the fashion magazine industry and soon she became a leading illustrator of women’s high fashion in the Art Deco style of the time

Although the bohemian quarter of Copenhagen, where the couple lived, had a somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards life, the pair eventually moved to the more liberal Paris and soon Gerda and Einar began to live as two women.  In the French capital, Gerda was able to further her art career and, some would have us believe that she became a more active lesbian.

Lili and Gerda by Gerda Wegener
Lili and Gerda by Gerda Wegener

Besides posing as a woman for his wife’s paintings, Einar only dressed as Lili and was a tremendous hit on the bourgeois Parisian scene, with all its decadence, art, and sex. It soon became common knowledge that Lili and Einar were the same person but for Einar he had the satisfaction in knowing he would not be ridiculed.

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener
Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Sadly for Einar simply dressing as a woman was not enough and he was suffering mental torment as Lili slowly took over his life.  For him, Einar was slowly dying and Lili was taking control.  Einar viewed himself as an artist but, as his alter-ego Lili, he viewed things very differently.  He described Lili as:

 “…thoughtless, flighty, very superficially-minded woman”, prone to fits of weeping and barely able to speak in front of powerful men…”

Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the magazine La Baionette
Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the magazine La Baionette

Life in Paris was good for Gerda who found success as a portrait painter, fashion illustrator and caricaturist and received many commissions for illustrations from La Vie Parisienne, a French weekly magazine founded in Paris in 1863, Le Rire, the successful humour magazine, La Baïonnette, the magazine which started a few years after Gerda and Einar moved to Paris, as well as the elite Journal des Dames et des Modes, a favourite of artists, intellectuals, and high societyHer success guaranteed a degree of fame and soon she was the primary breadwinner of the couple.

Self portrait by Gerda Wegener
Self portrait by Gerda Wegener

Andrea Rygg Karberg, art historian and curator at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Denmark has no doubt about the artistic ability of Gerda Wegener, saying:

“…Gerda was a pioneer who spent two decades as part of the Parisian art scene and revolutionised the way women are portrayed in art.  Throughout history, paintings of beautiful women were done by men.  Women were typically seen through the male gaze. But Gerda changed all that because she painted strong, beautiful women with admiration and identification – as conscious subjects rather than objects…”

Café by Gerda Wegener
Café by Gerda Wegener

With her new lesbian lifestyle in the avant-garde French capital, Gerda Wegener’s art became considerably more racy and scandalous. In addition to her fashion world portraiture that was featured in many fashion magazines, Wegener completed paintings featuring nude women often depicted in erotic, some would say lewd, poses. These paintings were termed “lesbian erotica,” and were published in art books, the most notorious being the Adventures of Casanova.  Some of these risqué paintings were exhibited publicly and the erotic nature and lesbian theme of the works often led to a public outcry.  Far from being taken aback by such vociferous criticism of her work by sections of the public, Gerda revelled in the notoriety.

Illustration by Gerda Wegener
Illustration by Gerda Wegener

The phrase “there is no such thing as bad publicity” may be correct as far as the sale of her work but for Gerda there was a price to pay.  Christian X, the King of Denmark, became aware of Gerda’s marriage to Einar Wegener when he, Lili Elba, had legally become a woman, and so the king declared their marriage invalid in October 1930. Maybe the time had come to an end for Gerda and Einar’s marriage anyway but in 1930 following the annulment, the couple parted ways amicably.

Femme a la Rose by Gerda Wegener
Femme a la Rose by Gerda Wegener

Gerda Wegener following the end of her marriage to Einar married an Italian military officer, Major Fernando Porta, and the couple went to live in Morocco. She continued to paint and would sign her paintings as ‘Gerda Wegener Porta’. The marriage was not a happy one and did not last long with couple divorcing in 1936.

Indian couple seated on a balcony by Gerda Wegener Porta
Indian couple seated on a balcony by Gerda Wegener Porta

She returned to Denmark in 1938, but by then, her paintings and illustrations were no longer in demand and sadly Gerda just managed to eke out a meagre living by painting and selling postcards.  She managed to exhibit her work one last time in 1939.  She had no children and her latter years were spent alone in relative obscurity and with the loneliness came her reliance on alcohol.  Gerda Wegener died on July 28th 1940 in Frederiksburg, Denmark aged 54, a few months after the German army marched into Denmark.  She was buried alone at Solbjerg Park cemetery in Copenhagen.

Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe (1882 - 1931)
Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe
(1882 – 1931)

Einar Wegener continually struggled with his sexuality and believed that Lili Elba was his true self.  It was no longer enough to dress as a woman, he believed that the only way to be at peace with himself was to undergo revolutionary sex reassignment surgery and for that he had to travel to Germany.  In 1930 he attended Dr Ludwig Levy-Lenz clinic in Berlin where he was castrated and had his penis surgically removed.  The following year, 1931, he underwent further surgery, vaginoplasty, which was a procedure that results in the construction of the vagina.  Sadly for Einar these surgical procedures were carried out at a time before antibiotics and he died in Dresden of an infection on September 13th 1931, aged 48.

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.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 4. Between the Nude and the Naked

Portrait of C.W. Eckersberg by Johna Vilhelm Gertner (1850) (83 x 59 cms) Det Kongelige Akademi For De Skønne Kunster, Copenhagen
Portrait of C.W. Eckersberg by Johna Vilhelm Gertner (1850)
(83 x 59 cms)
Det Kongelige Akademi For De Skønne Kunster, Copenhagen

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.

Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)
Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812) (80 x 64 cms) Princeton University Art Museum

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.

A Young Bowman Sharpening his Arrow by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812) Ny Carlsberg Glypotek, Copenhagen
A Young Bowman Sharpening his Arrow by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)
Ny Carlsberg Glypotek, Copenhagen

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.

Two Shepherds by Christoffer Eckersberg (1813) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
Two Shepherds by Christoffer Eckersberg (1813)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

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.

Male Model holding a Staff. Carl Frørup, 18 Years (1837) The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen
Male Model holding a Staff. Carl Frørup, 18 Years (1837)
The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen

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.

Standing Female Model with a Green Background, by Christoffer Eckersberg (1837) (126 x 77cms) The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen
Standing Female Model with a Green Background, by Christoffer Eckersberg (1837)
(126 x 77cms)
The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen

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.

Standing Female Nude against a Red Background by Christoffer Eckersberg (1837) (125 x 77cms) The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen
Standing Female Nude against a Red Background by Christoffer Eckersberg (1837)
(125 x 77cms)
The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen

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.

Reclining Female Nude by Christoffer Eckersberg (1813) (30 x 27 cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
Reclining Female Nude by Christoffer Eckersberg (1813)
(30 x 27 cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

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.

Nude reclining on a bed by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810-1813) (22 x 27 cms) Christian Panbo, Aabenraa
Nude reclining on a bed by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810-1813)
(22 x 27 cms)
Christian Panbo, Aabenraa

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.

Woman Standing In Front Of A Mirror by Christoffer Eckersberg (1841) The Hirschsprung Collection
Woman Standing In Front Of A Mirror by Christoffer Eckersberg (1841)
The Hirschsprung Collection

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.

Female Nude, Florentine by Christoffer Eckersberg (1840) Oil on copper (23 x 23 cms) BRANDTS-Museum of Art and Visual Culture, Odense
Female Nude, Florentine by Christoffer Eckersberg (1840)
Oil on copper (23 x 23 cms)
BRANDTS-Museum of Art and Visual Culture, Odense

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

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 3. Patrons and portraiture

In May 1816, Christoffer Eckersberg left Rome and headed home to Copenhagen.  During his homeward journey he stopped off at Dresden where he met up with the German Romantic painter, Casper David Friedrich.  Eckersberg finally arrived back in Copenhagen in August 1816.  His reputation as a leading painter of his time was all he could have wished for and soon commissions were rolling in.  Probably the most prestigious of these was a commission to paint four large works for the Throne Chamber of the magnificent baroque palace of Christiansborg which showed scenes from the history of the House of Oldenburg.  This commission earned him the nomenclature of “court painter”.

Duke Adolf declines the offer to be Danish king by Christoffer Eckersberg (1821) (43 x 39cms) Private collection
Duke Adolf declines the offer to be Danish king by Christoffer Eckersberg (1821)
(43 x 39cms)
Private collection

One of these works was Duke Adolf declining the offer to be King of Denmark which he completed in 1819.  The story behind this event is that in January 1448, King Christopher of Denmark, Sweden and Norway died suddenly and had no natural heirs. His death resulted in the break-up of the union of the three kingdoms, with Denmark and Sweden going their separate ways. Denmark had now to find a successor to the vacant Danish throne and so the Council of the Realm turned to to Duke Adolphus of Schleswig, as he was the most prominent feudal lord of Danish dominions. However Adolphus, who by that time was forty-seven years old and childless, declined the offer but instead supported the candidacy of his sister’s son, the Count Christian of Oldenburg.  Christian was elected King Christian I of Denmark and his coronation followed a year later in October 1449. In the painting we see Duke Adolphus declining the offer as he points to the portrait of his nephew, Christian, which is hanging on the wall in the background.

Mendel Levin Nathanson by Christoffer Eckersberg (1819) (32 x 28cms) Museum of National History at Fredericksborg Castle
Mendel Levin Nathanson by Christoffer Eckersberg (1819)
(32 x 28cms)
Museum of National History at Fredericksborg Castle

In October 1817 Eckersberg became a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.  This allowed him to apply for any position as professor at the Model School of Charlottenborg, which was the home of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.  Whilst Eckersberg had been travelling around Europe he had been funded by a number of patrons and on his return home he decide to repay their generosity by completing portraits of them and their family.  One of Eckersberg’s most important and generous benefactors was Mendel Levin Nathanson.   He had arrived in Copenhagen aged twelve as a poor Jewish immigrant.  Nathanson rose to become a wealthy Danish merchant, editor, and economist who from an early age established himself in business.  At the age of twenty-six he became associated with the large Copenhagen banking firm of Meyer & Trier.  He was also a leading patron of the arts.   He was an author of books on economics as well as the country’s mercantile history but was probably best known for his advocacy of the Jewish cause. Nathanson was editor of the Berlingske Tidende one of the big three national newspapers from 1838 to 1858 and from 1865 to 1866.  Eckersberg completed the portrait of Nathanson in 1819.

The Nathanson Family by Christoffer Eckersberg (1818) (126 x 173cms) Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The Nathanson Family by Christoffer Eckersberg (1818)
(126 x 173cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Another of Nathanson’s commissions for Eckersberg was to get the artist to complete a group family portrait, a task he completed in 1818.  The depiction was of Nathanson, his wife and their eight children.  It was simply entitled The Nathanson Family and the portrait was the most densely peopled and involved work ever attempted by Eckersberg.  Nathanson was quite specific about what he wanted the painting to reveal about himself and his family.  It was to be a depiction which would tell of his affluence and status in the country.

The Nathanson Family (Preliminary sketch) by Christoffer Eckersberg (1818)
The Nathanson Family (Preliminary sketch) by Christoffer Eckersberg (1818)

Eckersberg’s original idea, as seen in a preliminary sketch, was to depict the whole family dancing, highlighting a close and harmonious family connection,  a family who enjoyed each other’s company but this idea failed to satisfy Nathanson.  For Nathanson the depiction must depict a family of stature and wealth.  It was paramount to depict his own prominent position in Danish society as a merchant and an integrated Jew.  He again spoke to Eckersberg to remind him how he wanted the family to be depicted.   The family members in the finished painting are shown, in a line, blatantly parading themselves before us in a stage-like manner.  On the left hand side the depiction focuses on the private life of the children, at play, dancing and one daughter is seen playing the piano.  The children’s activity is interrupted by the arrival home of Nathanson and his wife from an audience with the Queen having enjoyed the family tradition of some royal entertainment.  There is a sartorial elegance about the velvet-like clothing Nathanson and his wife are wearing and this of course brings home to the viewer of the painting the social and financial class of the couple.  The whole scene is a juxtaposition of two visual aspects of Nathanson’s life – the loving husband and father with his happy children and the successful businessman who has access to the Royal Court.  In the portrait Nathanson stares out at us inviting us into his house to witness all that belongs to him.  His wife stands next to him, somewhat aloof, as the children, who have  interrupted their playing to run and greet her.

Bella and Hanna. Mendel Levin Nathanson's Elder Daughters by Christoffer Eckersberg (1820) (125 x 85cms) Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen
Bella and Hanna. Mendel Levin Nathanson’s Elder Daughters by Christoffer Eckersberg (1820)
(125 x 85cms)
Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen

In 1820 Eckersberg completed another portrait for Nathanson.  This time it is one depicting his two daughters, Bella and Hanna.   For many artists who have been asked to complete a portrait the decision as to how the sitter should be portrayed is a question which has to be carefully answered.  Should it be an en face depiction or a profile depiction?  In this work Eckersberg has solved the problem by having the daughter, who is standing, portrayed en face whilst the seated daughter is shown in profile.   Although it would not be that unusual to see the likeness of the two daughters in this case, could it be that Eckersberg has emphasized the similarities to such a degree that it almost looks as it is the portrait of a single person seen from two different angles.  On the table we see a parrot in a cage.  Is this just an additional ornamentation which lacks meaning?  Actually many believe it is symbolic and that it is all about the two young ladies who are at an age when marriage is on the horizon whilst other believe there is a definite similarity between the shape of the cage and the shape of the girls’ faces

Hans Christian Ørsted by Christoffer Eckersberg (1822) (53 x 43cms) Danish Museum of Science and Technology, Helsingør
Hans Christian Ørsted by Christoffer Eckersberg (1822)
(53 x 43cms)
Danish Museum of Science and Technology, Helsingør

Another of Eckersberg’s interesting portraits is Hans Christian Ørsted which he  completed in 1822.  It is a medium sized head and shoulder portrait which can now be found at the Danish Museum of Science and Technology in the eastern Danish town of Helsingør.  This is a good example of Eckersberg’s ability as a portraitist as to how he precisely and truthfully depicts his sitter.  It is a realistically accurate depiction of the man, as confirmed by his wife. The depiction of Ørsted facial expression is one of contemplation which concurs with the views that Ørsted was a great “thinker”.  Other than that expression on Ørsted’s face, it disregards the modus operandi of many portrait artists past and present who feel the need to incorporate into the portrait their perceived notion of the sitter’s psychological persona and by doing so they are happy to lose some of the physical accuracy of the person.   I know I am in the minority when I say, that for me, a portrait needs to be real and recognisable.   I am often told that as I am not an artist I do not understand portraiture !

Hans Christian Ørsted was an acclaimed international scientist born in 1777 who made the discovery that electric currents created magnetic fields which would later be known as Ørsted’s Law.  Eckersberg tells us more about the man, not by the way he “adjusts” the portrait but by using the tried and trusted method of including items in the portrait which relate to the man.  In his hand we see Ørsted holding a metal Chladni plate on which is sprinkled powder.  The powder has now formed a pattern on the surface of it, which is the result of a violin bow,  which can be seen on the table in the left foreground, being scraped against the edge of the plate.  The catalogue raisoneé of Eckersberg works does not indicate any payment for the portrait and it was probably a gift from Eckersberg to Ørsted as the two endured a long friendship after they had met in Paris years earlier.

Portrait of Bertel Thorvaldsen wearing the habit and Insignia of the San Luca Academy by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814) (91 x 74cms) The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts
Portrait of Bertel Thorvaldsen wearing the habit and Insignia of the San Luca Academy by Christoffer Eckersberg (1814)
(91 x 74cms)
The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts

When Eckersberg stayed in Rome we know he stayed in a lodging house which also accommodated the great Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and the two became good friends.  One of Eckersberg’s most famous and inspired portraits, which he completed in 1814, was of Thorvladsen.  It was entitled Portrait of Bertel Thorvaldsen wearing the habit and Insignia of the San Luca Academy.  At the time, Thorvaldsen was regarded as the most important sculptor in Rome and in 1804 he became a member of the Florence Academy of Art and a year later a member of the Danish Art Academy.  In this portrait, we see Thorvaldsen bedecked in the official robes of the Academia di San Luca in Rome, of which he had been a member since 1808. This prestigious academy was founded in 1577 and as such  is among the oldest academies in Europe with its roots being traced to the first statutes written in 1478 for the guild of painters named Compagnia di San Lucca. The robes we see Thorvaldsen wearing provide the portrait with the nuance of an artist who is continuing the work of a long Roman tradition.  There is no doubt that the message we can take from the way Eckersberg depicted his friend is the artist’s great admiration for the sculptor and all that he had achieved.  Eckersberg, like many admirers of Thorvaldsen, looked upon him as a visionary and the artist has tried to capture that aspect in the sculptor’s contemplative facial expression.  Such admiration for Thorvaldsen’s work can be seen by the way Eckersberg has included Thorvaldsen’s most famous piece of sculpture, the Alexander Frieze, which can be seen in the background.  Eckersberg was so happy with the finished portrait that he sent it to Denmark as a gift to the Copenhagen Academy.  This generous gesture probably had a more ulterior motive, that of proving of his artistic ability to the academicians.

The Double Portrait of Count Preben Bille-Braheand his second wife Johanne Caroline neé FalbeZ by Christoffer Eckersberg (1817) (61 x 50cms) Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
The Double Portrait of Count Preben Bille-Braheand his second wife Johanne Caroline neé FalbeZ by Christoffer Eckersberg (1817)
(61 x 50cms)
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Eckersberg’s many portraits were not just of male sitters.  Portraiture was a great way of making money and many commissions came to him when he returned to Copenhagen.  The next painting I am showcasing is The Double Portrait of Count Preben Bille-Braheand his second wife Johanne Caroline neé Falbe which he completed in 1817 and is now housed in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.  Eckersberg had been awarded the Academy’s Gold Medal in 1809 and with it came funds to cover the cost of European travel.  However the money did not become available to him until 1812 but he wanted to set off to Paris immediately and so had to turn to some wealthy sponsors to lend him the money he needed to start his journey.  One such benefactor was Count Preben Bille-Brahe, a wealthy Danish landowner.  On his return to Copenhagen Eckersberg repaid Count Preben Bille-Brahe’s generous support for his European journey by painting a double portrait of the count and his second wife, Double Portrait of Count Preben Billie-Brahe and his Second Wife, Johanne Caroline, neé Falbe.  Although their social status was to be part of the aristocracy, Eckersberg has managed a more commonplace depiction of the couple, which he used when he depicted the middle-class in his portraiture, enhancing the view that they were just real people.  Having said that, the male sitter with the ruddy cheeks looks resplendent in his brown tailcoat, the buff waistcoat with its lower fastening unbuttoned.

Jesus and the Little Children by Christoffer Eckersberg (c. 1810) Altarpiece for the Home Church at Funen
Jesus and the Little Children by Christoffer Eckersberg (c. 1810)
Altarpiece for the Home Church at Funen

Eckersberg had met Count Preben Bille-Brahe in 1810 during the first part of his European journey to Paris.  He stopped off at his benefactor’s estate on the island of Funen and received a commission from Count Preben Bille-Brahe to create an altarpiece for the Home Church which was part of the estate.  Eckersberg completed the painting for the altar whilst in Paris.  It was a biblical scene entitled Jesus and the Little Children.

Home Church Funen
The interior of Home Church Funen

In my fourth look at the life and work of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg I will concentrate on some of his female portraiture and his large number of nude paintings.

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.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 1. Early life

Self Portrait by Christoffer Eckersberg (1811)
Self Portrait by Christoffer Eckersberg (1811)

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!!!

Hamburger Kunsthalle Exhibition
Hamburger Kunsthalle Exhibition

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.

Loke and Sigyn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)
Loke and Sigyn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)

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.

Farm in Spejlsby on Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)
Farm in Spejlsby on Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg (1810)

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.

View of Møns Klint and Sommerspiret by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1809)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.

View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg ( 1809)
View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn by Christoffer Eckersberg ( 1809)

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.

Three Spartan Boys by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)
Three Spartan Boys by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)

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.

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David
Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David

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.

Odysseus' Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, by Christoffer Eckersberg (ca. 1812)
Odysseus’ Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, by Christoffer Eckersberg (ca. 1812)

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.

Pont Royal seen from Quai Voltaire by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)
Pont Royal seen from Quai Voltaire by Christoffer Eckersberg (1812)

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.