Paul Gustav Fischer was born July 22nd, 1860. His ancestors, who were originally from Poland, were the fourth generation of the Fischer family to live in Denmark. His immediate family would be classed socially as upper-middle class. Paul was the son of Philip August Fischer and Gustafva Albertina Svedgren. Paul’s father had started as a painter, and later succeeded in the business of manufacturing paints and lacquers. Paul first received art tuition from his father but later went on to have formal art tuition. He was apprenticed for a year and a half at the terracotta manufacturer C. Møller and graduated from the Technical Institute to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts where he attended the general preparatory class in May 1876 but failed to complete the course, leaving in January 1878. Following on from this, he became an assistant in his father’s painting materials business and worked there for ten years. During this time he still carried on with his own painting. At the start of his artistic career, Paul completed mostly sketches and illustrations which he submitted for inclusion in a number of magazines such as Out and Home, Illustrated Journal, Juleroser and Klods-hans.
The standard of his paintings were such that he exhibited regularly at the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition between 1884 and 1902. He has also had his work exhibited at the Salon in Paris and exhibitions in Munich, Berlin, Oslo and Stockholm.
His early paintings depicted city life, and it was this genre that established him with the viewing public. His depictions were often set in overcast or winter weather, but that was to change after his Paris trips when his works took on more colours and were warmer. Paul Fischer stayed in Paris on two occasions in the 1890s and became influenced by the French Realists, Gustave Courbet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
Paul Fischer painted motifs from Queen Louise Bridge with views towards Ferdinand Meldahl’s two symmetrical palatial apartment buildings on Søtorvet – being some of the most French-influenced architecture in Copenhagen. Moreover, it was easy for him to compare the lakes on either side of the bridge with his beloved river Seine in Paris.
Especially famous are his colourful paintings, one of his most popular ones featuring the cityscape of Copenhagen is his 1900 work entitled Højbro Plads seen from Højbro. Højbro Plads (High Bridge Square) is a rectangular public square located between the adjoining Amagertorv and Slotsholmen Canal in the city centre of Copenhagen. Højbro is a bridge in central Copenhagen, which connects the city centre to the small island of Slotsholmen, on which is the Christiansborg Palace.
Paul Fischer married Dagny Grønneberg on November 24th,1886. Her father, Julius, was an art dealer and her Norwegian mother, Hulda Azora Tegner was a painter.
Paul and Dagny’s daughter, Harriet Fischer, was born on July 24th, 1890 and grew up in a busy artist’s studio and her father Paul Fischer persistently used household members as models, and often Harriet featured in some of his paintings both as a little girl and as a young girl, in portraiture and as a supporting figure in the street scenes.
Harriet was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where she was from 1915-1920. From 1920-1940 she travelled on countless study trips to most of Europe. When their daughter began painting, it is known that she and her father exhibited together during the summer stays in Båstad in the years before World War I.
Another beautiful painting featuring his daughter was his 1908 work entitled Harriet in the living room at Sofievej.
Paul Gustave Fischer was also well known for his amazingly natural sunbathers and his 1916 painting Sunbathing in the Dunes is a good example.
The models seem to be happy to pose on the beach but I am sure were reluctant to parade nude in the icy waters of the Baltic.
There are more than a dozen such works painted over a number of years, and it is interesting to note how, in the depiction, his striking bathing beauties merge so wonderfully with the sands of the beach one which almost makes ignore the erotic overtones of the paintings.
Most of Fischer’s paintings are populated with female figure, some attractive older ones but also depicting young girls such as his 1903 tender Portrait of a Young Girl.
However, my favourite works of Paul Fischer are his everyday scenes of city life featuring people of all social classes and it is his depiction of the real lives of those around him which in part explains his popularity. Take for example his 1900 painting The Fire Engine. This is a depiction of a classic everyday occurrence. It is a “busy” painting. There are so many things happening in the depiction and your eye flits from one to another. We, like the crowd, are drawn into the present dramatic happenings. The red and gold coloured fire engine takes centre stage in the painting and, in a way, it is a salute to the industrial growth of the time.
The late 19th and early 20th century in Denmark, like other European countries was rapidly changing and these changing times were captured in Paul Fischer’s cityscapes often populated with the motor cars, trams and other vehicles.
The 1927 work In the Tram Compartment by Paul Fischer is a fascinating depiction of everyday life. The man reads his newspaper whilst the woman looks outside at the cityscape they are trundling past. A bunch of flowers is on the bench next to her. Maybe a gift from the man and yet he shows no interest n her and may just be a fellow passenger. It is painting like these that you gaze at and make up a story of what you believe is going on!
Fischer depicted everyday life and tram rides on a number of occasions, such as the one above. Maybe he was fascinated with this form of transport or maybe he was interested in the interaction between the passengers. Again we have a man reading a newspaper and a woman sitting next to a bunch of flowers.
Paul Fischer travelled through a number of European countries, sketching and painting. One of his favoured countries was Italy and during the last decade of the nineteenth century he visited the area around Naples and the ruins of Pompeii. In 1894 he produced a pencil and watercolour sketch of the area which was given the name View from Pompeii.
Another painting around this time was a work in oils, simply entitled Italian Street Scene.
In the early twentieth century Fischer’s paintings were selling well. However, he was still in the shadow of his contemporary, the leading Danish painter of the time, Laurits Tuxen. However, one would have that thought the life was good for Fischer. He had a beautiful wife, Dagny, and a fine-looking and talented daughter, Harriet, but that was not the case as his marriage to Dagny ended in 1914.
On June 17th, 1914, sixty-year-old Fischer married his second wife, twenty-five-year-old opera singer, Martha Vilhelmine Jensen whom he had been dating for some time. His first wife, Dagny Grønneberg eventually went to live in Oslo where she died six years later on February 24th, 1920.
Paul Fischer died in Gentofte, a northern suburb of Copenhagen on May 1st 1934 aged 73
Today I am looking at the life and works of the Danish painter and illustrator, Frants Peter Diderik Henningsen. Henningsen was born in Copenhagen on June 26th 1850. He was the oldest of three children of Frants Christian Henningsen, a wholesaler and his wife Hilda Christine Charlotte Schou. Frants had a younger sister Euphemia and a younger brother Erik. Henningsen attended the Borgerdyd School in the Christianshavn district of Copenhagen and after graduating from there he enrolled at the Christian Vilhelm Nielsen drawing school in preparation for admission to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture which he attended from October 1870 on a five-year course. After completion of the Academy course, he, like many other aspiring painters, decided to further his art education in Paris. In 1877 he enrolled at the atelier of Léon Bonnat, which was attended by other Danish students.
Frants Henningsen, although in France and in the midst of plein air painting and Impressionism, was more of an Academic painter who created his artwork in a studio. He was very much influenced by the Realism genre of painting and the socially oriented naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage, Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton. Henningsen’s paintings often added the human dimension to the depictions of deprivation, human suffering and poverty.
One of his most famous painting is his 1893 work entitled A Funeral. It is a poignant depiction of a funeral and one which Henningsen has cleverly manipulated to add to the sense of sadness. The setting is the Assistens graveyard in the Nørrebro area of Copenhagen, which was originally a burial site for the poor and was laid out to relieve the crowded graveyards inside the walled city, but which at the start of the nineteenth century had become fashionable and many leading luminaries of the Danish Golden Age, such as Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, and Christen Købke were laid to rest here. Henningsten, using dark tones, has depicted the setting as a very gloomy winter’s day. The wall of the cemetery is grey and devoid of any colour. There seems to be only a few people who will be taking part in the funeral service. The main character is the widow, a pregnant woman who takes the arm of an elderly gentleman, whom we presume is her father. She looks down as she is about to enter the cemetery. Her face is drawn and she has a greyish-white facial complexion. In front of her are her two children. In the background we see two men, standing apart from the mourners, gazing at the family. Like them, we are merely spectators witnessing the harrowing event. Henningsen received a great deal of praise for the painting, which was immediately bought by the National Gallery of Denmark.
In the Spring of 1878 Henningsen along with fellow Danish painters, Peder Severin Krøyer, Frans Schwartz and the German artist, Julius Lange travelled to Spain,where they studied the works of the great Spanish painters such as Velazquez and Francisco de Zurbarán.
In November 1880, in Copenhagen, thirty-year-old Frants Henningsen married twenty-one-year-old, Thora Vermehren. She was the daughter of Frederik Vermehren, the genre and portrait painter in the realist style. The couple went on to have five children, four sons and a daughter.
The Second Schleswig War was the second military conflict of the nineteenth century over the Schleswig-Holstein Question . The war began on February 1st 1864, when Prussian and Austrian forces crossed the border into Schleswig. The army of Denmark fought the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Empire and Henningsen depicts a conflict between the two sides in his great 1901 work entitled A Herofrom 1864. The setting is a country road in Schleswig. In it we see a lone Danish Hussar facing a large group of the enemy invaders. His heroics are captured in the painting but we know his fate is sealed.
Another casualty of the war was depicted in Henningsen’s 1901 painting A Fallen German Hussar. Once again we see the result of battle.
In the late 18th century, it was common practice for artists from Copenhagen to spend their summers in the countryside and seaside north of the city and a number of artists began lodging in Hornbæk, either in the local inns or privately. Hornbæk is a seaside resort town on the north coast of the Danish island of Sjælland, facing the Øresund which separates Denmark from Sweden.
In 1873, twenty-two-year-old P.S. Krøyer, the celebrated Danish painter, arrived in Hornbæk along with three artist friends Frants Henningsen, Viggo Johansen and Kristian Zahrtmann. Later many other painters would follow in their footsteps. The four young artists settled along the northern coastline of Zealand, fascinated by the sea, the broad beaches, and the blue hills of Kullen on the Swedish mainland on the horizon.
They were also fascinated by the weather-beaten faces of the local fishermen and listened intently to their tales of peril on the sea. P.S. Krøyer, reported on his first time in Hornbæk with his friends:
“…I had a splendid summer this year – well, not as far as the weather was concerned, for it was stormy and restless – but rather because I was, for the first time ever, able to spend an entire summer in the countryside out in the open air, far removed from the troubles and drudgeries of the city, and with three other painters whom I count among my very best acquaintances; all this has been to me a tremendous pleasure. We enjoyed some lovely trips (being based in Hornbæk on the north coast of Zealand); we went on a sailing trip to Kullen, on excursions to Gurre, Nakkehoved, to Tisvilde on Midsummer Night and to various places besides. The way of life there was utterly attractive: to venture out into the fresh, clear water en compagnie in the mornings (I learnt to swim there); and the pleasant evenings spent either walking in the woods or the beaches or in conversation back home in our pleasant digs, speaking and smoking our pipes; a splendid, idyllic life…”
One of my favourite paintings by Henningsen is his 1888 Realist work with the strange title, Forladt. Dog ej af venner i nøden, which translates to Abandoned. However, Not By Friends in Need. Many of his paintings depict unfortunate occurrences in the lives of middle-class people living in Copenhagen during difficult times. In this work, it is all about the fate of the single mother. It is interesting to note that Frants Henningsen painted this picture in the same year as the law that allowed single mothers to receive money from absent fathers in the form of child support until the child reached the age of ten. It was not until a law was passed on May 27th 1908, that child support was to be provided until the child reached the age of eighteen. However, even around the turn of the nineteenth century, the single unmarried mother had very little chance of being able to keep her child with her and many of these children therefore went to orphanages.
One of his best loved genre pieces is his painting entitled Hos pantelåneren (At the Pawnbroker) in which he depicts a group of visitors to the emporium, both young and old, examining the goods on offer, all eager to find a bargain.
It was not just the working classes that featured in Henningsen’s paintings. The upper class lifestyle was on view in his depiction of Copenhagen café life in his 1906 painting Industricafeen (A Café in Copenhagen).
Frants Henningsen died in Copenhagen on March 20th 1908, aged 57.
In the later part of the nineteenth century, Ring concentrated on landscape painting. For Ring, painting landscapes allowed him, through the works, to communicate and find expression in the world around him. One example of this is his 1888 landscape painting entitled The Road at Mogenstrup, Zealand.Autumn. This depiction is evidence that he was fond of muted autumn colours and there is a definite hint of melancholia about the depiction which may have mirrored his mood at the time.
A similar type of “drab” work is his 1901 painting entitled Thaw. The dilapidated fence in the foreground renders the depiction even more gloomy as does the artist’s use of yellowish-brown colours. It is yet another example of what one critic called Ring’s “landscapes of the soul”— a type of psychological painting with its own poetic soberness. Ring landscapes project his personal emotions. His friend and biographer Peter Hertz, a Danish art historian and museum worker, wrote how Ring, especially in those periods from 1887 to 1893 when his depressive moods and melancholy were prevalent, discovered a way of liberating himself, by painting his many overcast and misty landscapes. Hertz wrote:
“…With such weather he has closed himself up inside his own loneliness and found a resonance in nature, echoing his own mood… In these scenes of dull, overcast weather he reaches his highest pinnacle, giving most of himself…”
Laurits Rings was in a very bad place mentally in 1892. He had broken off all contact with Alexander Wilde and his wife Johanne. He had suffered the heartbreak of his mother dying and the sudden death of his brother, Ole. These losses made him doubt his belief in God and with this doubt came another doubt, a doubt in his own artistic ability and is hope that the lot of the peasant workers would be addressed came to naught.
Salvation came to him in the form of a ceramicist, Henrik Kähler, who owned a Danish ceramics factory. Kähler Keramik was based in Næstved on the island of Zealand. He had started to experiment with more appealing designs with glazed finishes and in 1886, he succeeded in attracting a number of well-known artists to complement his designs. Laurits Ring was one as was his friend Hans Andersen Brendekilde. Through his relationship with Henrik Kähler, Laurits met his daughter, Sigrid who was also a painter as well as a ceramicist. Sigrid Kähler was the third woman who took on a special importance in Rings’ life.
She was literally his lifesaver. Friendship between them soon changed to mutual love and the couple married on July 25th 1896. Laurits was 42 and Sigrid was 21. The couple moved to a house in the harbour town of Karrebæksminde on the south-east coast of Zealand.
Sigrid featured in many of Laurits’ paintings. In his paintings of Sigrid we can depict subtle symbols of love and affection and the use of soft hues are different from his more melancholic ones he used in his Realism works. One depiction of Sigrid was his 1898 work entitled At the Breakfast Table. We see his wife seated at the breakfast table reading Politiken, the Danish daily broadsheet newspaper, which is Laurits’ way of reminding us about the world outside. The scene is lit up by the streams of sunlight which come in through the open door, and if we look outside, we can make out the lush green of summer.
Sigrid also featured in her husband’s 1897 work entitled In the Garden Door: The Artist’s Wife. The painting is housed in the Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), National Gallery of Denmark and has proved to be one of the most loved works on show. Peter Nørgaard Larsen Chief Curator, Senior Researcher at SMK says of the work:
“…It’s one of my favourite pictures, and there are several reasons for that. It is fantastically nice painted and has a very crisp and delicate colour scheme. And then it’s a picture you’ll be happy to look at. This is the summer we dream of with a fertile garden and a beautiful woman. After all, this is the woman he just married, so he’s obviously interested in portraying her as part of a world he experiences as happy. A very positive picture…”
So, is this just a depiction of his wife, Sigrid, pregnant with their first child, Ghitta Johanne, who stands before a beautiful Spring garden scene which symbolises a consummated and fertile love between the artist and his wife? Is this simply a painting honouring fertility and the up and coming new life? Or is there something else we should be contemplating as we look at the painting. Remember Laurits Ring was, besides a man dedicated to Social Realism depictions, also a Symbolist painter. Let us look a little closer at the depiction. His wife stands before us on the patio with her belly bulging with her unborn child. This is about new life. Compare that with the potted bush by her side. It looks stunted being confined to the pot. Its branches are gnarly and old. In all, it looks as if it is coming to the end of its life. The depiction is a comparison of new life and death. It is a painting depicting transience and in some way a reminder that all things come to an end. It is Ring’s appreciation that the opposite to life is death. Ironically the painting is somewhat premature as Sigrid did not give birth to her daughter until January 5th 1899 !
In 1901 Ring produced a painting featuring his wife, Sigrid and their two-year-old daughter Ghitta.
For me, his Social Realism art is his best genre. In 1890 he completed a work entitled The Drunkard. It depicts a group of angry villagers, fist-waving and shouting at an elderly man with a walking cane, some distance from them. He has been forced back to the edge of the village by the baying crowd. He has been isolated. It is a sign of rejection. However, it is not what we perceive it to be. The scene is actually part of a children’s social play. It is all about rejection and isolation of a lone figure at the hands of an unsympathetic group. The artist is testing us to think about times when we have shown little sympathy towards our fellow human beings. He wants us to examine our own conscience. The painting sadly verifies Ring’s pessimistic view of the human race.
On October 9th, 1900, Laurits and Sigrid’s second child was born, a son Anders Herman, who became a painter, silversmith and sculptor. The family moved to the old school in Baldersbrønde near Hedehuse, where on August 6th, 1902, their third and final child, a son, Ole was born. He like his father would become an accomplished artist and well-known for his local landscape works.
Laurits Ring’s interest in politics and social issues was an ever theme in his paintings. An example of this is his 1895 painting entitled A Visit to the Shoemaker’s Shop. It depicts a politician from the Social Democratic Party who has called on a pair of cobblers hoping that he would secure their support. It was through Laurits’ political convictions and his social realism depictions of workers and peasants during the early industrialization in Denmark, that he played an important role in what was termed The Modern Breakthrough. Unlike many of his contemporary artists and writers, you have to remember that Laurits Ring was not from a comfortable middle-class or upper-class background but originated from an impoverished peasant farming background and as one reviewer noted in 1886:
“…One implicitly trusts that Ring truly knows the life he portrays…”
Another of Ring’s painting, from that year, which highlights the hard work of the less well paid is his depiction of drain-layers in his 1885 work, Laying the Drains. Laurits Ring was always sympathetic with the workers’ struggle for better living conditions and throughout his life he expressed respect for the poor. Ring was always careful to depict the everyday life among workers and rural people with dignity, and avoided sentimentality, choosing to highlight a realistic view of people’s lives, notwithstanding whether his subject was a poor farm couple or a pair of ditch diggers.
My favourite three paintings by Ring are ones which show his innate ability to portray everyday life. The first is his 1914 work entitled Waiting for the Train. Level Crossing by Roskilde Highway.
The second is his true to life work entitled Has it stopped Raining
And the third is his 1884 Social Realism painting entitled A Boy and Girl Eating Lunch in which we see two children sharing a bowl of broth which focuses on the plight of poor children who often struggled to get sufficient food.
Laurits Ring led a nomadic life during his single and married years. He frequently moved house preferring to live in small Zealand villages which probably reminded him of Ring, his birthplace. This life of wandering was interspersed by periods of calm and waiting.
Looking at Laurits Ring’s work reveals the extent to which the themes of travel and waiting infuse his art. His paintings record the historical changes that took place in the decades around the turn of the century. This was a period of great change with the coming of modern life and Ring tried to capture how it affected the less well-off.
In January 1914, Laurits and his family moved to a newly built house on Sankt Jørgensbjerg in Roskilde. Nine years after that move Laurits’ wife was taken seriously ill and on May 9th, 1923, three days before her 49th birthday, Sigrid Ring died of lung cancer. After his wife’s death Laurits, then sixty-nine, went to live with his twenty-one-year old son, Ole. In September 1933, Laurits Ring suffered a brain haemorrhage with slight paralysis of his left arm. He died on Sunday, September 10th, 1933, aged 79.
ecently I gave you five blogs which were devoted to one of the great Surrealist artists of the twentieth century but today I am reverting back to what I would irreverently term “ordinary” paintings. However, there is nothing ordinary about the works of the Danish painter Laurits Andersen Ring, professionally known as L.R. Ring, one of Denmark’s foremost artists during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was a pioneer of both symbolism and social realism. I had not previously known anything about him or his work but I could not believe how beautiful his paintings were.
Laurits Andersen Ring was born Laurits Andersen on August 15th, 1854 in the village of Ring, near Næstved, in the south of the Danish island of Zealand. His father was Anders Olsen and his mother was Johanne Andersdatter. For several generations, the Anders Olsen family had been peasant farmers and Johanne was a farmer’s daughter and came from a family of smallholders. When Anders and Johanne married, he took over his father-in-law’s house in the village of Ring. However, due to his poor health, asthma, he was unable to work the land and so neighbours undertook the upkeep of the land whilst he established himself as a carpenter and wheelwright. Anders and Johanne had their first child, a son, Ole Peter on January 6th 1850 and four and a half years later Johanne gave birth to Laurits on August 15th, 1854. Laurits and his brother grew up in a family with cramped and impoverished conditions, and throughout his life Laurits was particularly concerned with the struggle of workers and peasants to get better living and working conditions. As teenagers the two boys had to help in their father’s workshop as his health was deteriorating and he was unable to work for long periods of time. Eventually Ole took over the family business.
With Ole was looking after the family business, Laurits was free to further his own ambitions, that of becoming a professional painter. In 1869, aged fifteen, Laurits became a painter’s apprentice. In 1873, while working in Copenhagen Laurits decided to enrol in painting classes and, in 1875, following two years of private study, he gained entrance to the Royal Danish Academy of Arts. It was around this time that Laurits decided to change his surname. He and his friend, fellow painter Hans Andersen, who came from the village of Brændekilde, decided to change their last names, taking the names of their native villages, in order to avoid confusion at exhibitions when they both exhibited paintings. Laurits Andersen became Laurits Ring and Hans Andersen became Hans Andersen Brendekilde. As has been the case of many young artists I have profiled, Laurits fell out of love with academic teaching and the Academy set-up. He was never satisfied with life at the Academy and loathed the strict training in classical disciplines. In 1882 Laurits had his paintings shown at his exhibition debut. It was a great triumph and through this and other exhibitions he slowly received critical acclaim for his work and within two years his artistic career had been launched successfully.
In June 1884, Laurits Ring produced a painting which finally bestowed on him the artistic recognition he deserved. The painting was entitled The Lineman. Rail transport in Denmark began in 1847 with the opening of a railway line between Copenhagen and Roskilde and for Denmark, it was the great innovation of the middle and late nineteenth century. Look at the figure in the painting. He is the Lineman or Railway Guard. He is dressed in his railway uniform. He stands looking down the line at the on-coming train. If we look more closely at the figure, we see a man whose clothes are ill-fitting. He wears old wooden clogs. His demeanour is one of tiredness with his slumped shoulders and there is a definite air of poverty about him. Although the new railways might have benefited the country, they also allowed people the opportunity to escape impoverished rural communities and find work in the cities which further worsened the predicament of the rural communities which suffered the greatest poverty.
Sadly, just as Ring’s career was taking off, tragedy struck. On June 18th, 1883, his father, Anders, died, aged 66. Laurits’ childhood home was dissolved, and his mother had to go and live with his brother. Worse was to happen three years later, on March 28th, 1886, when Laurits’ brother who had been looking after his mother, died after a short illness, aged 36. Nine years later, in 1895, Laurits’ mother died aged 81. These inevitable but tragic events occurred in a twelve-year period and greatly affected Laurits Ring. Many of his works around this time focused on death, such as his 1887 painting entitled Evening: The Old Wife and Death. Laurits, besides his Social Realism works, was also known as a symbolist painter, and depicted in this painting, we see before us an old woman resting by the roadside, exhausted after carrying her heavy burden. Her arm hangs slack. She can do no more. She is close to death. She will not get to the end of the road. She will not make it home. The sun has set and the soft light of dusk characterizes the scene. The road symbolises her road of life on which she has made the final journey. In the sky above her looms the Angel of Death. He smiles and laughs knowing he is about to harvest yet another soul.
Ten years later Laurits Ring focused on another aspect of death following his visit to Sicily in 1894. The Symbolist painting was entitled Three Skulls from Convento dei Cappucini at Palermo. It is a strange and haunting work based on the catacombs of the Cappuccin monastery in Palermo which has long placed their dead monks in catacombs, where their corpses slowly mummify.
Laurits Ring depicts just three of over eight thousand bodies there. Just a point of interest: The last monk was buried in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo in 1871. The last non-clergymen that was added to the collection dates from 1920.
Throughout Laurits Ring’s life he showed great empathy with the poor and their lot in life. He was one of the most well-known ambassadors of Social Realism in Danish art. Throughout his life he never forgot his humble and impoverished upbringing and his family’s battle to survive and this could be seen in his art. He was proud to change his surname to the name of his birthplace in the little south Zealand village and it was those surroundings and the people living in the area which became his constantly recurring subject.
In Denmark, the term The Modern Breakthrough was given to the period between 1870 and 1890 which marked a period in Danish literature and arts which focused on naturalism and realism and replaced romanticism at the end of the nineteenth century. Personal poverty, which Ring had witnessed first-hand in his family household, had inspired him to support the constant battle of peasants and workers for social and economic change. Laurits Ring was a champion of the weak and oppressed and, like many young people demanded change and even contemplated the need for a revolution. In the 1880s, Ring was active in the Rifle Movement, a group that openly advocated an armed uprising.
Laurits never forgot the poverty his family had suffered and his Social Realism paintings confronted the hardship of life for the less well-off such as the peasant farmers. There was a family connection in his 1885 painting entitled Harvest. Laurits managed to persuade his elder brother Ole Peter to model for the painting. We see his brother working on his Zealand farm near the village of Fakse. The depiction shows endless swathes of wheat fields and Laurits’ brother vigorously swinging the heavy scythe.
Another of Laurits’ rural depictions, The Gleaners, completed in 1887, is one used by many artists, and depicts the gathering of grain or other produce left behind in a field after harvest. The best-known version of this subject is probably Jean-François Millet’s 1857 painting of the same name.
Laurits Ring had three women who took on a special importance in his life. The first was his mother, Johanne Andersdatter, with whom he had a special and long-lasting bond. Around 1887, a second woman came into Laurits’ life. She was Olga Johanne Albertine Wilde, the wife of the lawyer and amateur painter, Alexander Wilde who had his studio next to that of Laurits’ residence in Frederiksberg, a district of Greater Copenhagen. She was the mother to two sons and a daughter. With a mutual interest in painting Alexander and Laurits became great friends and Laurits almost became one of the family spending Christmas and the summers with them. Despite his great friendship with Alexander, Laurits fell in love with his wife, Johanne. It was a disastrous infatuation and an unrequited love as, despite a passing back and forth between Laurits and Johanne of recurrent intimate letters, she remained faithful to her husband.
Finally, around 1892 Laurits realised that there could be no future with Johanne and he broke this circle of friendship with the Wilde family. The end of this intimate relationship caused Laurits to experience a period of great depression at his lost love. It was a traumatic time in the life of Laurits Ring. His father and only brother had died within three years of each other. He was totally disillusioned with the political struggle to better the living conditions of the poor in urban and rural areas and he was now beginning to doubt his artistic ability. In fact, he was losing faith in God and the deeper meaning of life at all. It is thought that but for the fact that his mother was still alive, he may have contemplated suicide as a way out of his depression. If that was not bad enough, his “friend” Henrik Pontoppidan, in his 1895 novel, Nattevagt (Night Watch), based his character Thorkild Drehling, a painter and failed revolutionary, who was in love with his best friend’s wife, on Laurits Ring. Ring was horrified at his friend’s betrayal, especially the publicly divulging of Ring’s infatuation with Johanne Wilde. Their friendship immediately ended.
Things had to change for Laurits, and they did, in the form of the third woman in the life of Laurits Ring.
The artist I am looking at today is George Hendrik Breitner, the nineteenth century Dutch painter, who was best known for his realistic depiction of Amsterdam street and harbour scenes. He was also of great importance in what was later termed Amsterdam Impressionism.
George Hendrik Breitner was born in Rotterdam on September 12th, 1857. He and his younger brother, Godfridus, were the children of Johan Wilhelm Heinrich Breitner and Marie Anne Henriette Gortmans. His father worked in the grain business and George, after finishing primary school, joined the Palthe & Haentjes, grain company, as a clerk. At the age of seventeen George went to the Delft Polytechnic School for vocational training. George showed a great talent for drawing and in January 1876, aged eighteen, partly because of the intercession of the artist Charles Rochussen, his father agreed to have him enrolled on a four-year course at the Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten (Royal Academy of Art) in The Hague. He was an exemplary student and won a number of awards including a second prize for composition and two years later took the first prize in a live model competition. In October 1877 he obtained his teaching certificate and during 1878 and 1879 he taught art at the Leiden Art Society (Ars Aemula Naturae), originally the Leiden Guild of St. Luke.
In 1880 Breitner was expelled from the Art Academy for misconduct, his misdemeanour said to have been that he had destroyed the regulations-board. Around that time, he shared lodgings of the Dutch landscape painter of the Hague School, Willem Marisat, at the Oud Rozenburg house in The Hague. Marisat became Breitner’s friend and tutor. It was through Marisat that Breitner was accepted as a member of the Pulchri Studio, an important artist’s society in that city.
It was here that he met fellow member Hendrik Mesdag, a one-time banker but later an accomplished artist, whose forte was his maritime paintings, one of which, Les Brisants de la Mere du Nord (The Breakers of the North Sea), gained him the gold medal at the 1870 Paris Salon. In 1880, Mesdag had been commissioned by a group of Belgian entrepreneurs to paint a panorama depicting a view over the village of Scheveningen which lay on the North Sea coast close to The Hague. It was such a large project that Mesdag put together a team of artists including his wife Sientje, Theophile de Bock, Barend Blommers and twenty-three-year-old George Hendrik Breitner. The finished work which measured 14 metres high and 120 metres around, was completed in 1881 and I talked about in my My Daly Art Display blog
In 1882, Breitner made the acquaintance of another distinguished artist, Vincent van Gogh, and the two would often go on sketching trips around the poorer and seamier side of The Hague. In a letter to his brother Theo in February 1882, Vincent wrote:
“…. At the moment I quite often go to draw with Breitner, a young painter who’s acquainted with Rochussen as I am with Mauve. He draws very skilfully and very differently from me, and we often draw types together in the soup kitchen or the waiting room &c…”
For Breitner his models were the poorer working-class folk such as labourers and servant girls who plied their trade in the lower working-class areas of the city. Breitner preferred these working-class models such as labourers, servant girls and people from the lower-class districts. Interest in the fate of the common people, which many artists felt in that period, was cultivated by the social conscience of French writers such as Émile Zola and the realism paintings of Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet. Breitner believed that through his paintings he would create history. His desire to become famous for his realistic paintings of the poor can be seen in his letter he sent to his patron, the grain merchant, Adriaan Pieter van Stolk, dated March 28th 1882. Breitner wrote:
“…Myself, I will paint the people on the street and in the houses, they built, life above all, I’ll try to be Le peintre du peuple or I’ll be better because I want to be. History I wanted to paint and I will too, but history in its most extensive sense. A market, a quay, a river, a gang of soldiers under a glowing sun or in the snow…”.
In May 1884 Breitner left The Hague and travelled to Paris. His stay in the French capital lasted only six months during which time he attended Atelier Cormon where he liked to depict the toiling workhorses or demolition scenes, using dark tones . He completed a number of paintings featuring the streets of the city with its horse and cart transportation. His desire to paint scenes of everyday life in the French capital was enhanced by his interest in and inspiration from the writings of Zola, Flaubert and especially Edmund and Jules de Goncourts with their book, Manette Salomon, being a favourite of Breitner.
In the late 1880’s, Breitner’s new hometown, Amsterdam, was beginning to expand, new industries were shooting up and it was pulsating with life. Breitner was afforded the ideal opportunity to record pictorially the changes. Now living in the city, he took the opportunity to hone his artistic talents by enrolling for a short period at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts under the tutelage of August Allebé, an exponent of realism and impressionism. Breitner’s cityscape paintings of that era, although maybe not topographically accurate, were emotional depictions, full of colour and movement. His depiction of the common people was somewhat different as he used greys and browns to portray the hard and laborious tasks, they had to perform to earn a meagre wage. His paintings were often both emotional and sensitive.
Breitner’s 1902 painting, Construction Site in Amsterdam, highlights the building boom in Amsterdam. He based the painting on a series of photographs he took of a construction site in the city. Although it may have been thought to be an en plein air work, the painting was in fact carefully created in his Prinseneiland studio. Through the use of his photographs and sketches, he was able to portray an ever-changing city.
One of the painters he liked at this time and whose work influenced him was the Dutch painter and photographer associated with the Amsterdam Impressionism movement, Willem Witsen, whose best works include serene views of Amsterdam, such as his depictions of the canal areas Herengracht and Leidsegracht.
In the late 1880’s, beside his cityscape works, Breitner embarked on painting nudes.
In 1893, he completed a series of paintings featuring Japanese girls, a beloved theme of many painters in those days. Japonism, which referred to the French term, japonisme, which denotes the assimilation of iconography or concepts of Japanese art into European art and design. Most of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists painters were influenced by this phenomenon.
Breitner was Inspired by Japanese prints he had seen between 1893 and 1896 and completed thirteen paintings featuring a girl in a kimono. In each the young woman assumes different positions and the kimono often are of different colours. In the above 1894 work, Girl in a White Kimono, what stands out the most in the depiction is the exquisitely embroidered, white silk kimono with red-trimmed sleeves and an orange sash. For this painting and many in the series, Breitner utilised the services of seventeen-year-old Geesje Kwak, a seamstress who was also one of his regular models.
In his earlier days during his time in The Hague, Breitner had been criticised in the media for his drawings and his attempts at Impressionism and even his patron had pressed him just to paint what the public wanted. Breitner baulked at this advice and his relationship with van Stolk ended. In the late 1880’s, then living in Amsterdam, there was a change in his fortune and with every passing month, he gained more and more recognition as a talented artist. In 1886 Breitner completed one of his great masterpieces, De Gele Ruiters (The Yellow Riders). It was a monumental work measuring 115 x 76 cms and featured the elite mounted artillery corps seen galloping down the sand dunes at breakneck speed. Breitner took full advantage of their black-and-red busbies and the gold braid on their uniforms, which adds to the vitality of the charge.
We witness the sand being kicked up by the hooves of the horses at the front which clouds our view of the horsemen who follow and all we can make out of them are the flashes of black, yellow and red of the following troops. In the October 16th 1886 edition of the Netherlands Spectator, the Dutch poet and art critic, Carel Vosmaer, wrote
“…But what a momentum and storm in the movement, what a feeling for the poetry of such a tingling, dusty, turbulent group!..”
In the same year Breitner was invited by the avant-garde Société des XX (Vingtistes) to show his work in Brussels. More and more was written in the press about him and his work. At the turn of the century, George Breitner was forty-two-years-old and at the high point in his artistic career. So, what was he like as a person ? In his biography of the artist, Breitner, by Arthur van Schendel, he quoted the description of the artist by people who knew him, writing:
“…often fierce and brusque in his performance, sometimes suddenly rigid and closed, living among bouts of passion and despondency and always possessed wholeheartedly for his art…”
In 1901 an exhibition of his work was held, a highly successful retrospective at Amsterdam’s Arti et Amicitiae, one of the largest clubs for artists and art lovers in the Netherlands. At this time Breitner would use his photographs as a preparation for a painting. He built up a collection of people and cityscapes form a historical document of life in the city of Amsterdam at the end of the 19th century and it was these which helped to document city life at the turn of the century. These photographs and his cityscapes often appeared in historical publications.
On September 18th, that same year, 1901, George Hendrik Breitner married Maria Catharina Josephina Jordan in Amsterdam. His wife was nine years younger than him. The couple had no children.
Breitner painted a portrait of his wife, which, in my eyes, seems less than flattering.
A more flattering portrait was done by Breitner’s friend Willem Witsen.
Witsen also completed a portrait of George Breitner.
In 1903 Breitner decided to move away from Amsterdam and relocate to Aerdenhout, a small town located in the dunes between Haarlem and the seaside town of Zandvoort, some twelve miles west of Amsterdam. His decision to move away from the city was because his friend and fellow artist, Marius Bauer, had moved there and wanted Breitner to join him. However, Breitner missed Amsterdam and in 1906 he returned to the city.
In 1904 Breitner completed his work entitled Rokin with the Nieuwezijdskapel, Amsterdam. The Rokin is a canal and major street in the centre of Amsterdam and is a recurring theme in Breitner’s works. Breitner would spend much time in this area, sketching and photographing people and buildings. The art gallery Van Wisselingh & Co. was found in this area as was his artist’s society Arti et Amicitiae which can be seen in the background. The painting fetched 415,200 euros at Christie’s Amsterdam auction in April 2005.
Although Breitner was successful as an artist and enjoyed a great reputation during his life, he did encounter financial difficulties during his life and this led to the establishment of a support committee for him and his wife. On June 5, 1923, George Hendrik Breitner died of a heart attack, aged 65. George Breitner is seen as one of the most important painters in the Netherlands at the end of the 19th century – but internationally he is less well known as an artist.
As I have said before, I choose the subject for my blogs based on having sufficient information about the artist and also access to a large selection of his or her work. Without those two criteria the blog would be somewhat empty. I also prefer to feature “unknown” (at least, to me) artists. However, once in a while, there comes a time when I look at a painting and have the overwhelming desire to share it with you, even before knowing whether my two criteria could be achieved. Today’s blog is one of those occasions.
My featured artist today is the nineteenth Danish painter Hans Andersen Brendekilde although at birth his name was simply Hans Andersen but later added to his surname the name of his birth village, Brændekilde. He was born on April 7th, 1857, on the island of Funen, the third largest Danish island,which lies five miles south-west of the island’s main town, Odense. He was brought up in an impoverished household and had to try and support the family by doing jobs, which included working in the house of a farmer doing chores. His father, Anders Rasmussen, was a maker of wooden shoes and his mother was Maren Nielsdatter.
As a child, Hans was interested in carving figures of animals out of wood. When he was attending the local school one of his teachers discovered his talent as an artist and sent him to a school in Odense. Here he became a good friend of Axel Blumensaadt, and it was Axel’s mother who helped fund Hans to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where he initially studied sculpture.
He became a friend and associate of painter Laurits Andersen, and in 1881 he left behind sculpting to take up painting. Laurits Andersen and Hans Andersen held a joint exhibition, but because of the confusion of their surnames they both decided to add their birthplace to their name and so Laurits who was born in the Zeeland village of Ring became known as Laurits Andersen Ring (L.A. Ring) and Hans took the name Hans Andersen Brendekilde (H.A. Brendekilde). Their paintings at their first exhibition now had their “new” designated surnames to avoid confusion.
In the summer of 1882 Hans and some other artists were invited to stay on a farm in Rugelund by its owner and soon an artist colony was formed. For Hans it was not just a chance to paint and mix with fellow artists it was a chance to be well-fed. It was also a chance to see first-hand the harsh working environment of the rural workers which he would later depict on many of his canvases. But all was not doom and gloom in his works for often, in comparison to his gritty social realism works, other paintings by Brendekilde highlighted the pleasures of living in the countryside.
But let us have a look at probably his most famous work, the one which drew me to looking into his life. It was his social realist painting entitled Udslidt (Worn Out) which he completed in 1889.
In this heart-rending depiction we see a day-labourer lying crumpled on the rock-strewn ground of the barren field where he had been working. His onerous task, with other peasants, would have been to remove the stones from the ground, prior to ploughing and planting, and put them in piles awaiting disposal. The field although barren takes up eighty per cent of the picture. Look at the detail Brendekilde has incorporated in his depiction of the ground. However, what is more emotive is the portrayal of the two figures in the foreground. The elderly peasant worker has stumbled and fallen to the ground. He is dressed in shabby clothes which are covered in dirt. One of his wooden clogs has fallen off during his fall. The heavy stones he had been carry in his apron, lie on the ground next to him. He had finally been overcome by exhaustion or maybe he has suffered a heart attack. A woman, maybe his wife or daughter or just a co-worker, has rushed to his aid. She is kneeling next to him and cradles his head.
Her mouth is open wide as she screams for somebody to come and help. Her impassioned plea has yet to be answered and she is both overwhelmed with fear for the man and her own helplessness. The picture was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and also at The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
It received a mixed reception. Many people lavished praise on the artist for the work whilst the “monied-people” and the bourgeois press thought the painting was over-melodramatic and condemned it for its blatant political stance about the life of the poor and downtrodden which they obviously didn’t want to be reminded about.
Another of his works with a depiction in a similar vain is his 1887 painting simply entitled Fortrykt which literally translated now means “pre-printed” but it is more likely that the artist was using the word to mean “supressed” or “subdued”. The painting was completed two years before the previous work Worn Out and again dwells on the hardship suffered by the rural peasant class, who were the social losers and who were way down the social ladder. Four people dominate the foreground and we may surmise that they are a young woman and her child along with her mother or older sister and her father. The older woman and the seated father are dressed in old clothes and have been working in the fields gathering bits of grain to take home.
They are the gleaners, as depicted in Millet’s famous 1857 painting, TheGleaners. Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. It is the Biblically-derived right to glean the fields and was reserved for the poor; a right, enforceable by law, that continued in parts of Europe into modern times. The young woman is dressed in finer clothes and has not been working in the field. She is talking to her father and her mother raises her head to listen. The father sits on a bag of grain and looks exhausted and yet there seems to be an air of resignation about him. He has accepted his lowly lot in life. Has his daughter told him something he didn’t want to hear? Is it something to do with young child who, whilst amusing herself, is sitting on a pile of coats?
At the end of the nineteenth century Brendekilde painted several cutting social-realist works. At other times he depicted the everyday life of poor people without critical undertones. These were more to do with the happier memories Brendekilde had of rural life when lack of money could not detract from the pleasures of immersing oneself in nature such as his 1889 springtime painting, The First Anemones.
Again, we see a similar setting in his work A Spring Day when the villagers, dressed in their “Sunday-best” clothes take a pleasurable walk through the forest.
Another fascinating and evocative work is his 1908 oil painting, Autumn. It is a combination of a landscape and sombre realist style painting in which we see an elderly lady standing by an open grave in a cemetery. It is a dark autumn day and we see the leaves from the nearby trees lying all around. There is a gale blowing which is stripping the leaves from the trees which are leaning over due to the ferocity of the wind. In the middle ground one can see the church and the green grass of the graveyard. Two black crosses have been blown over and lie abandoned against a hillock. Some graves seem to have been tended whilst others look abandoned. The old woman through her age and the strength of the wind is bent over and she clutches at her dress whilst holding on to her walking cane. She gazes into the excavated hole in the ground. The question the artist poses is what are her thoughts. Has she lost a loved one who will be buried in this plot or is she contemplating her own end of life. Could this even be termed a vanitas painting? One of the pleasures of looking at a painting is to try and decide for ourselves what we see in a depiction and work out what the artist was trying to convey.
The autumn season often featured in Brendekilde’s painting. He enjoyed depicting this colourful time of the year. A time when the normally green leaves of many deciduous trees and shrubs slowly turn to various shades of red, yellow, purple, black, orange, pink, magenta, blue and brown, during a few weeks in the autumn season, before they fall to the ground. Brendekilde beautifully captures that moment in his 1902 painting entitled A Wooded Path in Autumn.
Elderly people often featured in Brendekilde’s paintings and another of my favourites is his painting entitled A Short Respite in which we see an old man taking a rest from his gardening chores looked on by his wife.
It was not just the elderly who featured in Brendekilde’s works of art, nor were the subjects of his painting always sombre. In later life, he would concentrate on idyllic village scenes often depicting happy children, innocent children, and these proved very popular with the public.
In many of his paintings featuring children he also included one or two elderly people. Maybe he remembered his childhood days and how elderly relatives and neighbours played a part in his life. It seems strange now that some look upon paintings depicting an older person with a child as something suspicious and unnatural. Gone are the days when we accept unconditionally that our young children and an elderly person such as a relative can form a bond and in some ways learn from each other.
Brendekilde died on 30 March 1942, aged 84, in Jyllinge, a town located on the eastern shores of Roskilde Fjord, some 40 km west of Copenhagen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Peder Mønsted besides being an exceptional landscape painter was also a talented portraitist as we can see in his 1917 work, simply entitled Olga.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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 society. Her success guaranteed a degree of fame and soon she was the primary breadwinner of the couple.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
If there is one other thing I have learnt since taking an interest in art is that by reading up on the paintings and the artists one learns a lot about history, whether it be European or American. One picks up on things which should have been learnt at school but sadly passed one by. Today’s look at the work and life of Christoffer Eckersberg is a good example of this in the way I have learnt a little about Danish history.
In 1807 the British shelled the Danish capital, Copenhagen. This was the second ferocious onslaught on the Danish city as six years earlier a similar attack had been made. It was all to do with the Napoleonic War and the Franco-Russian alliance secret agreement to ensure that Denmark and Sweden would assist them in a naval blockade of British trade. British diplomats went to Copenhagen to ask the Danish government to put their naval ships under British command until the Napoleonic War had ended but the Danes would not agree and so on September 2nd 1807, the British army landed in Denmark and attacked the Danish capital. The Danes finally surrendered and their naval ships were taken over by British sailors and sailed to England that October.
My first painting I am looking at today by Christoffer Eckersberg, The Fire of the Church of Our Lady, records the terrible onslaught on Copenhagen and is a prime example of history through art. The work shows the burning of the church steeple of the cathedral of Copenhagen, during the night of September 4th 1807. The steeple eventually fell to the ground. In the painting we see the pandemonium in the neighbouring street due to the fierce assault and the resulting blitz.
Another of Eckersberg’s painting depicting the bombardment of Copenhagen can be seen in his 1807 work The Bombardment of Copenhagen.View from Østervold. Shortly after the British naval bombardment of the Danish capital, Eckersberg, who was living in Copenhagen, made many drawings, for prints, of the conflagration of the most famous landmarks of the city and by doing so captured for posterity the terrible events. He managed to capture the feeling of panic which gripped the citizens of Copenhagen when the first shells fell on their beloved city. Works like this were in general demand and brought about a patriotic stirring that swept through the Danish population in the wake of this British bombardment.
When Eckersberg returned to Denmark in 1816 after his stays in Paris and Rome he lost contact with most of the international artists of the time, with one exception, the Norwegian painter J C Dahl. Johan Christian Dahl lived in Norway but spent much time in Dresden and would pass through Copenhagen on his journeys between there and his homeland. It is known that J C Dahl was fascinated by clouds and their formation and had produced many works featuring this natural phenomenon, one of which was his 1825 painting, Cloud Study, Thunder Clouds over the Palace Tower at Dresden. For Dahl, the sky was an integral part of a landscape painting, and he would spend many hours observing cloud formations and watch as they crossed over land.
Eckersberg and Dahl developed a lasting friendship and it could have been Dahl’s fascination with clouds and his interest in meteorology that infected Eckersberg, so much so that Eckersberg began a twenty-five year hobby of keeping a daily meteorological diary and would regularly sketch cloud formations. J C Dahl would also have informed Eckersberg about how both artists and art theorists in Dresden were showing great interest in cloud formations. Eckersberg was also fascinated by the work of Luke Howard the English manufacturing chemist and amateur meteorologist who in 1802 classified the various tropospheric cloud types and believed that the changing cloud forms in the sky could unlock the key to weather forecasting.
In 1826 Eckersberg decided to master the art of painting clouds and he took himself off to Kalkbraenderibugten, a bay just north of Copenhagen so that he could paint a range of studies of clouds over water and the painting above, Study of Clouds over the Sea, is one he completed that year
Looking at Eckerberg paintings so far I have concentrated on his mythological and biblical works along with some of his portraiture and nude studies but another genre of works favoured by Eckersberg was his marine works which also featured cloud depictions. A prime example of this is a work he completed in 1827 entitled A Russian Fleet at Anchor near Elsinore.
The next marine painting by Eckersberg I am featuring could well have come about from a visit he made to the atelier of Casper David Friedrich in Dresden in 1816, on his way home from Rome. It is quite possible that during that meeting he saw Friedrich’s newly completed work View of a Harbour.
This marine painting by Eckersberg is one of my favourites and also one of his best known marine works. It is his magnificent 1828 painting entitled The Russian Ship of the Line “Asow” and a Frigate at Anchor in the Elsinore Roads. It is a triumph of detail, not just of the vessel itself and the way he has truthfully represented all the details of the rigging but how he has painstakingly depicted the cloud formation. So can we look at this as a mastering of plein air painting? Actually, no ! This is an idealised marine painting made up from a number of Eckersberg’s sketches done at different times and different locations. He may have been able to see some Russian ships at the Elsinore Roads in 1826, but at a great distance away, and it was not until sometime later that he observed a number of Russian ships at close quarters when they were at anchor in the Copenhagen Roads and it was during that fleet’s visit that he was able to go aboard the admirals’ ship, Azob, (although he later called it Asow !). He started the painting in 1828 and for accuracy got hold of some constructional drawings of the vessels from the naval dockyard. He even went as far as consulting his meteorological diary to check the weather conditions on the day the Asow was at anchor off Elsinore, and so the completed 1828 painting is not what Eckersberg saw on that day at Elsinore in 1826 but what he would have seen if he had been able to set off from land in a boat to witness, close up, the mighty Asow.
Eckersberg loved marine painting and in his later years concentrated on this genre at the expense of his once favoured landscape works.
A View towards the Swedish Coast from the Ramparts of Kromborg Castle by Eckersberg is another example of his marine/cloud painting. From his diary we know that this plein air work was started in September 1826 but was not completed until January1829 . The artist had positioned himself on the ramparts of the castle looking out across the Øresund towards the coast of Sweden, which was just four kilometres away. The castle which is on the extreme north-eastern tip of the island of Zealand is in the town of Helsingor and was immortalised as Elsinore in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. It is a painting which doesn’t just focus on ships and clouds but looks at life going on inside the castle. We see two maids tending to newly-washed clothes. We can also see military personnel looking out at the warship in the Øresund strait. They are engaged in guarding the castle and stand by the gun emplacements. A Danish flag flutters in the wind as a reminder of the importance of the fortification to the country
My final look at Eckersberg’s marine paintings is one he completed in 1839 with the title The Corvette Galathea in a Storm in the North Sea. Eckersburg had been a passenger on the vessel in the May of that year when it was crossing the North Sea on its way to Dover and encountered a fierce storm, which lasted two whole days. On his return home he wrote up about this dramatic voyage in his diary which he later translated into this painting. In his diary he wrote:
“…hideously rough waters, in which the ship veered horribly, now up and down, now to one side or the other, making it difficult to hold on tight………when the sun was shining the sea had the most extraordinary beautiful colour, pure blue and green, with glittering white foam….”
Eckersberg’s depiction of the Galathea is as if he had been witnessing the event from another vessel. The sketches he made in the diary of the event were full of blues and greens of the sea, interrupted by the white of the foam which topped the waves.
The painting was completed in a month, on his return home from Hamburg.
Another of my favourite Eckersberg painting has a nautical theme and yet there is no sign of a ship. It is a quirky work entitled A Sailor Taking Leave of His Girl which he completed in 1840. He recorded the completion of this work in a diary on June 25th 1840, in which he wrote that he had “completed a small painting depicting a sailor taking leave of his girl”. It was Eckersberg’s interest in depicting everyday scenes and quite ordinary events in his art which resulted in a work like this. This type of work featuring scenes from the streets of Copenhagen was favoured by him back in the days when he was attending as a student at the Royal Danish Academy of Art. In this small work Eckersberg has offered a small part of a relationship story between a sailor and a lady and has left us to fill in the background to the happening we see before us. He referred to this type of depiction as a “fleeting moment”. Look at the shadows on the wall. In the painting we see the man and woman drifting apart and yet the shadow shows them merged. Maybe these two images are asking us to decide what comes next. Is it a final parting or will there be a reunion? Look how the sailor points to the shadow. Is this a reassuring gesture to the woman that one day they will be “as one”? Maybe that is just too romantic a reasoning. Maybe it is simply a sailor on leave from his ship wanting to seduce the young woman and take her off to a more secluded place. I will leave you to decide !
My final offering is also a “fleeting moment” depiction. Eckersberg completed Langebro, Copenhagen, in the Moonlight with Running Figures in 1836. This is what is termed as one of Eckersberg’s “unresolved narratives”. The idea for this work came to Eckersberg in October 1836 when he was taking a stroll along the waterfront. He decided to paint a depiction of the bridge, not in the daytime but he decided to make it part of a nocturnal moonlight scene. To the depiction of the bridge he has added a number of people running along it, towards us. As was the case in the previous work, Eckersberg has depicted a scene and let us, the observers, work out what is going on. Are the people running away from something, such as a fire or are they running towards something? There are certainly signs of desperation in the way the people have been portrayed. Look at the woman by the bridge railing. What is she pointing at? The painting poses many questions. One line of thought is that in the same year Eckersberg completed the work the Danish novelist Carl Bernhard published his new work Dagvognen (The Stagecoach), the climax of which is set on the Langebro and told of a young man rescuing a young woman who is trying to drown herself.
Christoffer Eckersberg was married three times. In the Part 1 of this blog I talked about his first and somewhat disastrous marriage to Christine Rebecka Hyssing the father of his first child. This ended in divorce in 1816 after just three years. The following year he married Julie Juel, the daughter of his great mentor, the Danish portrait painter, Jens Juel. Julie died in 1827. A year later, in 1828, Eckersberg, aged 45 married Julie’s sister Sanne. They were married for twelve years until her death in 1840. Eckersberg fathered eleven children.
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg died in 1853 of cholera. He was seventy years of age.
If we remark on how we enjoy the beauty of landscape paintings or admire the skills of a portraitist, there is often very little comment from our listener. If however we extol the beauty of nude paintings our listeners often look at us askance as if we have revealed an unhealthy interest in a taboo subject. In Kenneth Clarke’s 1972 book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, he looks at the art of the Greeks to that of Renoir and Moore, and it surveys the ever-changing fashions in what has constituted the ideal nude as a basis of humanist form. The book came out of a series of lectures he gave at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. which was a part of the A. W. Mellon Lectures. In his lectures, and in this book, Clarke traces the development of the nude in art from several viewpoints, and categorizes the various influences that civilization at the time had on its representation. It opens with his observations on the terms “nude” and “naked”.
“…The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word “nude,” on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed. In fact, the word was forced into our vocabulary by critics of the early eighteenth century to persuade the artless islanders [of the UK] that, in countries where painting and sculpture were practiced and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of art…”
It was also he who claimed in his 1956 book, The Nude, that there is a difference between nudity and nakedness. He said that a naked human body is exposed, vulnerable, embarrassing. He further stated that, on the other hand, the word ‘nude’, carried, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image the word projected into one’s mind is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but of a balanced, prosperous and confident body.
In this fourth instalment looking at the work of the Danish painter, Christoffer Wilhem Eckersberg I am going to take a look at his works of art which feature nude depictions.
Eckersberg had arrived in Paris in 1810 and it was during his three year stay in the French capital that he studied the art of painting the nude form in life drawing classes. We know about this through a letter he wrote in July 1811 and sent to a professor of art at the Royal Danish Academy, Johan Frederik Clemens. He wrote about his life in Paris:
“…Together with several German painters I am holding a kind of academy here, where we drew alternatively after the very best models of both genders, as is the common here, enabling me to carefully study the figures I use for my paintings…”
We know that Eckersberg attended Jacques-Louis David’s atelier in September 1811 and we also know that David only employed male models for the life classes. It was for that reason that Eckersberg, at his own personal expense, employed his own female model, Emilie.
During this time with David, Eckersberg spent much time practicing life drawing and history painting and worked on a series of paintings depicting episodes from Homer’s Odyssey. In this painting, Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus, we see the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, who had been blinded by Ulysses, moving blindly around the cave checking a sheep, searching for Ulysses and his companions. Ulysses and his men had escaped beneath the bellies of the flock and we observe Ulysses, on the right of the painting, looking furtively behind him at the monster. He is the last of his band of men to exit the cave and he is desperate to join his companions who have made it to safety outside. Outside the cave is beautifully lit with the Mediterranean light. However it is the contrast between extreme darkness of the cave and the well lit exterior which adds to the menace and tension. The painting showcases Eckersberg’s interest in perspective, his acute observation of nature, and his nuanced treatment of light.
In October 1811 he again wrote to Clemens describing his work at David’s atelier:
“…We paint by life and have the choicest and most exquisite models at the studio; one is the very image of Hercules, another of a gladiator, a third quite the likeness of a young Bacchus or Antinous…”
It was not just the availability of top-class models that pleased Eckersberg it was the fact that the life classes took place during the day in favourable light conditions and he was able not to just study the physical form of the models but what he considered just as important, their colouring and the shades of skin resting on top of the muscle, bones and tissues underneath.
One of his early paintings which art historians believe approximates the style of his tutor, David, is one he completed in 1812. It is entitled A Young Bowman Sharpening his Arrow. The painting depicts a strong, beautiful and theatrically posed man à la Neoclassicism. The differentiation between areas of light and shade on the model’s body is exquisite and the colour and tonal differences we see between the reddish tones on the rear of the thigh, the left knee, hands and face are in contrast to the bluish-grey of the rib and shoulder areas and this adds to the beauty of the painting. It is the intrinsic flesh tones that Eckersberg has added which makes this a very special work.
Eckersberg’s painting, Two Shepherds, was completed in 1813 around about the time he was about to leave Paris and head for Rome. The work seems to have started off as a simple figure study which was then converted into a painting of two shepherds back in antiquity. We see the two men sitting on blocks of stone which could at the preliminary stage been wooden crates which were used by artists in a studio and which formed part of the set up whilst trying to position the models in what was considered the best poses. It is also a study of the male body at different stages of life. The shepherd on the left being much older than his companion. In this work Eckersberg is mindful of the strict, albeit generally accepted limits of correctness when it comes to depicting genitalia and has ensured that such is hidden by draperies which fell across the thighs of the two men. Like the previous work, Eckersberg is very conscious of the effects of shade and light on the two male bodies and in this depiction the man on the right is bathed in light on his front whereas it is the back of the older man which has been lit whilst his chest and abdomen are in the shade.
Probably the best known of his male nude paintings as it has been used in the massive posters publicising his current exhibition, is one he completed in 1837, entitled Male Model holding a Staff. Carl Frørup, 18 years. It was in 1837 that Eckersberg set about a five painting series featuring nude depictions of two were of men, two of women and one of an eleven year old girl. The reasons for completing the series was that they would be used by students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. This factor could be part of why we never look on the depiction as a voyeur as we know the reason for the work is an aid for students who are studying life paintings. Probably for that reason Eckersberg has painted five works which are in no way idealised classical versions of the human body. There is no attempt to tag them with some mythological or historical story. The five works were all completed in a studio. All are overwhelming in size and nature. In each case the model avoids eye contact with the viewer. The work above features Carl Frørup, a relative of the academy porter.
Eckersberg also completed many nude depictions of women. Standing Female Nude against a Green Background was completed by Eckersberg in 1837 and was another of his series of five nude depictions. The use of female models in the life classes in academies was forbidden up until 1822 and it was not until eleven years later, in 1833, that the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts sanctioned the use of female models for their life drawing classes.
This, along with its companion piece, Standing Female Nude against a Red Background, were both completed in 1837 part of the five nude studies. The models used for these paintings were nineteen year old Dorothea Petersen and eighteen year old Juliane Wittenborg. Both these works look as if they were painted during life classes but Eckersberg has given the two women different facial expressions. Whilst one looks introverted and worried. The other looks detached and consumed by her own thoughts. Neither model looks us in the eye. Again as are the other paintings in the series, these were simply paintings that young art students at the Academy could study so as to formulate their own artistic techniques when it came to depicting nudes. All the paintings in the series belonged to Eckersberg during his lifetime and upon his death were bequeathed to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen by his children who wanted to carry out their father’s last request.
Eckersberg completed his small work, Reclining Female Nude, in 1813, whilst in Paris. It is thought that he had worked on this painting whilst taking part in one of the “private academy” sessions he and some of his contemporary German artist friends would hold on a regular basis. We see that he has taken pains to depict the varying tones in the woman’s skin. Look at the variations. The blue veins we see over her ribs, the reddish areas of skin around the neck and the red work-worn hands and the slight tanning of the skin above her breastbone which would have been due to the neckline of her dresses.
Another small nude painting completed around the same time (1813) was Nude Reclining on a Bed. There is sensuousness about this work in comparison to most of his other female nude paintings. What makes the work sensuous? Could it be the rumpled state of the unmade bed, which gives rise to speculation that an intimate situation may just have happened? Maybe it is the closed eyes and flushed cheeks of the woman which makes us believe that she too may be recalling the previous events.
Eckerberg’s Morgentoilette which is sometimes known as Woman in Front of a Mirror which he painted in 1841. It was while he was professor at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen that he conducted classes in life drawing and painting from the nude model, male and female. This painting by Eckersberg, to me, emphasises the argument that a female body partly clothed is far more erotic and sensuous in comparison to complete nudity, such as we see in Egon Schiele’s paintings. The woman has her back to us and we see in the mirror the reflection of her face and her upper chest, just revealing a small amount of cleavage. She stands before us with a towel slung loosely around her waist but letting us view the swell of her hips and the upper curvature of her buttocks. Her body is like polished marble. Our eyes move upwards from the towel and we observe the slimness of her waist and the well defined muscles of her back. Her hair, which is tied back in a bob, is held by her right hand. This upward positioning of her right arm allows us to look upon the sensuous curve of her shoulders and neck. In the mirror we can just catch a glimpse of her face which appears flushed. Maybe she is embarrassed by the pose and the gaze of the artist or maybe it is because she realises that in times to come we will be staring at her beauty.
My final painting for this blog is Female Nude. Florentine, which Eckersberg completed in 1840. In 1833, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where Eckersberg was professor and director, introduced female models to its life drawing classes. Prior to this date the Academy had only used male models for reasons of propriety. This decision, to allow female models to be used, renewed Eckersberg interest in life drawing, a genre which he had first practiced while studying with Jacques-Louis David in Paris.
During 1840 Eckersberg produced some of his most important and moving paintings and drawings of the female nude, including the one I am now showcasing. Many of his nude paintings at this time featured the same model, a woman named Florentine who he mentioned in his diary in the September of that year. A year later he produced his best-known painting using the same model, Woman in front of a mirror.
This work was painted between September 5th and 10th 1840 during his life classes at the Academy’s Model School. Unlike some of Eckersberg’s female nude painting of 1837, which I have shown earlier, the model Florentine flaunts her body more openly and the diffuse shading of her body lends to eroticism of this work. There is no eye contact between Florentine and us and by avoiding this, the artist kept a robust degree of judicious deliberation.
In my fifth and final look at the life and works of Christoffer Eckersberg I will be looking at among other works, some of his exquisite seascapes