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

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

If we remark on how we enjoy the beauty of landscape paintings or admire the skills of a portraitist, there is often very little comment from our listener.  If however we extol the beauty of nude paintings our listeners often look at us askance as if we have revealed an unhealthy interest in a taboo subject.  In Kenneth Clarke’s 1972 book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, he looks at the art of the Greeks to that of Renoir and Moore, and it surveys the ever-changing fashions in what has constituted the ideal nude as a basis of humanist form.  The book came out of a series of lectures he gave at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. which was a part of the A. W. Mellon Lectures. In his lectures, and in this book, Clarke traces the development of the nude in art from several viewpoints, and categorizes the various influences that civilization at the time had on its representation. It opens with his observations on the terms “nude” and “naked”.

“…The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word “nude,” on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed. In fact, the word was forced into our vocabulary by critics of the early eighteenth century to persuade the artless islanders [of the UK] that, in countries where painting and sculpture were practiced and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of art…”

It was also he who claimed in his 1956 book, The Nude, that there is a difference between nudity and nakedness. He said that a naked human body is exposed, vulnerable, embarrassing.  He further stated that, on the other hand, the word ‘nude’, carried, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image the word projected into one’s mind is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but of a balanced, prosperous and confident body.

In this fourth instalment looking at the work of the Danish painter, Christoffer Wilhem Eckersberg I am going to take a look at his works of art which feature nude depictions.

Eckersberg had arrived in Paris in 1810 and it was during his three year stay in the French capital that he studied the art of painting the nude form in life drawing classes.  We know about this through a letter he wrote in July 1811 and sent to a professor of art at the Royal Danish Academy, Johan Frederik Clemens.  He wrote about his life in Paris:

“…Together with several German painters I am holding a kind of academy here, where we drew alternatively after the very best models of both genders, as is the common here, enabling me to carefully study the figures I use for my paintings…”

We know that Eckersberg attended Jacques-Louis David’s atelier in September 1811 and we also know that David only employed male models for the life classes.  It was for that reason that Eckersberg, at his own personal expense, employed his own female model, Emilie.

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

During this time with David, Eckersberg spent much time practicing life drawing and history painting and worked on a series of paintings depicting episodes from Homer’s Odyssey.  In this painting, Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus, we see the one-eyed giant Polyphe­mus, who had been blinded by Ulysses, moving blindly around the cave checking a sheep, searching for Ulysses and his companions. Ulysses and his men had escaped beneath the bellies of the flock and we observe Ulysses, on the right of the painting, looking furtively behind him at the monster.  He is the last of his band of men to exit the cave and he is desperate to join his companions who have made it to safety outside.  Outside the cave is beautifully lit with the Mediterranean light. However it is the contrast between extreme darkness of the cave and the well lit exterior which adds to the menace and tension.  The painting showcases Eckersberg’s interest in perspective, his acute observation of nature, and his nuanced treatment of light.

In October 1811 he again wrote to Clemens describing his work at David’s atelier:

“…We paint by life and have the choicest and most exquisite models at the studio; one is the very image of Hercules, another of a gladiator, a third quite the likeness of a young Bacchus or Antinous…”

It was not just the availability of top-class models that pleased Eckersberg it was the fact that the life classes took place during the day in favourable light conditions and he was able not to just study the physical form of the models but what he considered just as important, their colouring and the shades of skin resting on top of the muscle, bones and tissues underneath.

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

One of his early paintings which art historians believe approximates the style of his tutor, David, is one he completed in 1812. It is entitled A Young Bowman Sharpening his Arrow.  The painting depicts a strong, beautiful and theatrically posed man à la Neoclassicism.  The differentiation between areas of light and shade on the model’s body is exquisite and the colour and tonal differences we see between the reddish tones on the rear of the thigh, the left knee, hands and face are in contrast to the bluish-grey of the rib and shoulder areas and this adds to the beauty of the painting.   It is the intrinsic flesh tones that Eckersberg has added which makes this a very special work.

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

Eckersberg’s painting, Two Shepherds, was completed in 1813 around about the time he was about to leave Paris and head for Rome.  The work seems to have started off as a simple figure study which was then converted into a painting of two shepherds back in antiquity.  We see the two men sitting on blocks of stone which could at the preliminary stage been wooden crates which were used by artists in a studio and which formed part of the set up whilst trying to position the models in what was considered the best poses.   It is also a study of the male body at different stages of life.  The shepherd on the left being much older than his companion.  In this work Eckersberg is mindful of the strict, albeit generally accepted limits of correctness when it comes to depicting genitalia and has ensured that such is hidden by draperies which fell across the thighs of the two men.  Like the previous work, Eckersberg is very conscious of the effects of shade and light on the two male bodies and in this depiction the man on the right is bathed in light on his front whereas it is the back of the older man which has been lit whilst his chest and abdomen are in the shade.

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

Probably the best known of his male nude paintings as it has been used in the massive posters publicising his current exhibition, is one he completed in 1837, entitled Male Model holding a Staff.  Carl Frørup, 18 years.   It was in 1837 that Eckersberg set about a five painting series featuring nude depictions of two were of men, two of women and one of an eleven year old girl.  The reasons for completing the series was that they would be used by students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.  This factor could be part of why we never look on the depiction as a voyeur as we know the reason for the work is an aid for students who are studying life paintings.  Probably for that reason Eckersberg has painted five works which are in no way idealised classical versions of the human body.  There is no attempt to tag them with some mythological or historical story.  The five works were all completed in a studio.  All are overwhelming in size and nature.  In each case the model avoids eye contact with the viewer.  The work above features Carl Frørup,  a relative of the academy porter.

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

Eckersberg also completed many nude depictions of women.  Standing Female Nude against a Green Background was completed by Eckersberg in 1837 and was another of his series of five nude depictions.  The use of female models in the life classes in academies was forbidden up until 1822 and it was not until eleven years later, in 1833, that the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts sanctioned the use of female models for their life drawing classes.

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

This, along with its companion piece, Standing Female Nude against a Red Background, were both completed in 1837 part of the five nude studies. The models used for these paintings were nineteen year old Dorothea Petersen and eighteen year old Juliane Wittenborg.  Both these works look as if they were painted during life classes but Eckersberg has given the two women different facial expressions.  Whilst one looks introverted and worried.  The other looks detached and consumed by her own thoughts.  Neither model looks us in the eye.   Again as are the other paintings in the series, these were simply paintings that young art students at the Academy could study so as to formulate their own artistic techniques when it came to depicting nudes.   All the paintings in the series belonged to Eckersberg during his lifetime and upon his death were bequeathed to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen by his children who wanted to carry out their father’s last request.

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

Eckersberg completed his small work, Reclining Female Nude, in 1813, whilst in Paris.  It is thought that he had worked on this painting whilst taking part in one of the “private academy” sessions he and some of his contemporary German artist friends would hold on a regular basis.  We see that he has taken pains to depict the varying tones in the woman’s skin.  Look at the variations.  The blue veins we see over her ribs, the reddish areas of skin around the neck and the red work-worn hands and the slight tanning of the skin above her breastbone which would have been due to the neckline of her dresses.

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

Another small nude painting completed around the same time (1813) was Nude Reclining on a Bed.  There is sensuousness about this work in comparison to most of his other female nude paintings.  What makes the work sensuous?  Could it be the rumpled state of the unmade bed, which gives rise to speculation that an intimate situation may just have happened?  Maybe it is the closed eyes and flushed cheeks of the woman which makes us believe that she too may be recalling the previous events.

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

Eckerberg’s  Morgentoilette which is sometimes known as  Woman in Front of a Mirror which he painted in 1841.  It was while he was professor at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen that he conducted classes in life drawing and painting from the nude model, male and female.   This painting by Eckersberg, to me, emphasises the argument that a female body partly clothed  is far more erotic and sensuous in comparison to complete nudity, such as we see in Egon Schiele’s paintings.  The woman has her back to us and we see in the mirror the reflection of her face and her upper chest, just revealing a small amount of cleavage.   She stands before us with a towel slung loosely around her waist but letting us view the swell of her hips and the upper curvature of her buttocks.  Her body is like polished marble.  Our eyes move upwards from the towel and we observe the slimness of her waist and the well defined muscles of her back.  Her hair, which is tied back in a bob, is held by her right hand.  This upward positioning of her right arm allows us to look upon the sensuous curve of her shoulders and neck.  In the mirror we can just catch a glimpse of her face which appears flushed.  Maybe she is embarrassed by the pose and the gaze of the artist or maybe it is because she realises that in times to come we will be staring at her beauty.

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

My final painting for this blog is Female Nude.  Florentine, which Eckersberg completed in 1840.  In 1833, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where Eckersberg was professor and director, introduced female models to its life drawing classes.  Prior to this date the Academy had only used male models for reasons of propriety. This decision, to allow female models to be used, renewed Eckersberg interest in life drawing, a genre which he had first practiced while studying with Jacques-Louis David in Paris.

During 1840 Eckersberg produced some of his most important and moving paintings and drawings of the female nude, including the one I am now showcasing. Many of his nude paintings at this time featured the same model, a woman named Florentine who he mentioned in his diary in the September of that year.  A year later he produced his best-known painting using the same model, Woman in front of a mirror.

This work was painted between September 5th and 10th 1840 during his life classes at the Academy’s Model School.  Unlike some of Eckersberg’s female nude painting of 1837, which I have shown earlier, the model Florentine flaunts her body more openly and the diffuse shading of her body lends to eroticism of this work.  There is no eye contact between Florentine and us and by avoiding this, the artist kept a robust degree of judicious deliberation.

In my fifth and final look at the life and works of Christoffer Eckersberg I will be looking at among other works, some of his exquisite seascapes

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Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Part 1. Early life

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

Let me start this blog with a question.  When you look around a large art gallery how long do you stand before each painting?  Is it just a cursory glance or do you study the artistic technique of the artist and examine the brush strokes which many artists believe are like the painter’s fingerprints?   I suppose a lot depends on the size of the gallery with all the works on show at the major ones being impossible to see in one visit and of course one has to also take into account whether one is likely to return to the gallery on another occasion.  The reason for this question is that a fortnight ago we were in Hamburg, staying for three nights in a hotel opposite the Hamburger Kunsthalle which is said to be the largest art museum in Germany.  Such a large collection and such a limited time to feast our eyes on the many paintings so what was to be the strategy – rush and see as many as possible or be selective and miss out on many unknown painters?  Fortunately, I didn’t have to decide as when we arrived and looked out the hotel bedroom window there were many large signs unfurled telling people that the museum was still closed and would not open until May 1st after seventeen months of renovations!!!

Hamburger Kunsthalle Exhibition
Hamburger Kunsthalle Exhibition

However all was not lost as a small number of rooms had been opened for a visiting collection of the Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and this turned out to be one of the best exhibitions I had ever seen.  The exhibition entitled Eckersberg – Fascination with Reality contained about 90 paintings and 40 drawings and prints from all the artist’s creative periods, and included all of the artist’s major works.  Because people may have been waiting for the official re-opening of the museum to visit the exhibition, there were no crowds and it allowed time to study each one of Eckersberg’s works without any “gallery rage” caused by hordes of people pushing to get better views.  In my next few blogs I will look at the life of Eckersberg and showcase some of his historical paintings, his portraits, seascapes and landscapes which made him one of Denmark’s greatest artists.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg was born in 1783 in Blåkrog, a small Danish town in the parish of Varnæs in Southern Jutland.  Later the family moved a short distance to the town of Blans.  He lived with his mother, Ingeborg Nielsdatter and his father, Henrik Eckersberg, who was a carpenter and house painter.  Christoffer studied as a painter for three years from the age of fourteen under the guidance of Jes Jessen of Aabenraa, who was well known for his a floral paintings, portraiture and historical works.  When Eckersberg was seventeen, Christoffer became apprenticed to the Flensborg artist, John Jacob Jessen.  During these early years of training Christoffer had one goal in mind – to be accepted as a pupil at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen, which was inaugurated in 1754, and was the leading artistic establishment of Denmark.  During his early training he had put together a portfolio of his work and that along with some money given to him by local people of the village, he set off in 1803 for Copenhagen.  The entrants’ panel of the Academy were impressed by his portfolio of work, so much so that he was accepted into the Academy without having to pay a fee.

Whilst studying at the Academy Eckersberg was influenced by the works of the late portrait and landscape painter, Jens Juel, a court painter and professor at the Academy but who had died a year before Eckersberg’s arrival.  The other great influence was one of Eckersberg’s professors, Nickolai Abildgaard, a neo-classical and royal history painter.  The highlight of Eckersberg’s six year stay at the Academy came in his final year, 1809, when he was awarded the academy’s Gold Medal and with that came a stipend for travel to Rome which he received in 1812.  After completing his studies he concentrated on completing a number of historical, mythological and biblical paintings.

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

One such work was entitled Loki and Sigyn who were husband and wife characters in Norse mythology.  Sigyn was a goddess and the wife of Loki and the tale is about her role in assisting Loki during his period of captivity. The mythology around this pair of characters is rather gruesome.  The story goes that when the gods captured Loki, they turned one of Loki’s sons, Vali into a wolf. The wolf then ripped apart Narfi, Loki and Sigyn’s son. The boy’s entrails hardened into an iron chain, and the gods used this grotesque fetter to bind Loki in a cave deep beneath the earth. The gods then placed a snake above Loki that would drip venom onto his head.  In order to save her husband from the dripping venom from the snake’s mouth, Sigyn sat by Loki’s side with a bowl to catch the drops of venom so that they wouldn’t touch her husband’s head. Every so often, however, she would have to leave the cave to pour out the bowl. In her absence, a few drops of poison would fall onto Loki’s forehead. This caused him to writhe in agony, which in turn caused earthquakes on the earth’s surface.

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

Prior to his European travels Eckersberg completed a commission for Frantz Christopher von Bülow, Chief of the General Staff for King of Denmark, Frederick VI.  The commission was a set of twelve scenes of the island of Møn, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea.  One of these paintings was entitled Farm in Spejlsby on Møn, a depiction of a rainbow over the farmstead in a small village on the north of the island.  The farm has been hit by a rainstorm and yet the farm itself is bathed in sunlight.  Neither of the milkmaids in the foreground seems to be phased by the storm as they chat away, nor is the man with the basket who casually strolls along the path towards the farmhouse.  It is thought that Eckersberg completed the work in his Copenhagen studio from a sketch he made the previous year.

View of Møns Klint and Sommerspiret by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1809)Another landscape Eckersberg completed in 1809 featuring the island was entitled The Cliffs of the Island of Møn. View of the Summer Spire.  The chalk cliffs on the eastern coast of the island, known as Møns Klint, and the surrounding woodlands and pasture lands has attracted an estimated quarter of a million visitors every year and is the favourite location for artists as it was in the nineteenth century.  Christopher von Bülow had his Nordfeld estate near the cliffs so this was probably the reason for Eckersberg depiction.  It gave the artist the chance to depict the elements of nature which made the area so loved.  The high white limestone peak we see in the background is the Sommerspirit or Summer spire which rises to a height of 102 metres.  Unfortunately this natural wonder can no longer be seen as in January 1988 it crashed into the sea due to coastal erosion below its base.  Maybe there is a touch of humour in the painting as we Eckersberg depicting a petrified woman shrink back from the edge of the cliff in fear, despite the soothing overtones from her male companion.

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

Another of his paintings depicting a scene on the island of Møn was View of the Park of Liselund Manor on the Island of Møn. This is acknowledged as one of the most romantic and picturesque views of the gardens at Liselund Manor.  Liselund is a landscaped park, in which there are several exotic buildings and monuments. The park is situated close to Møns Klint on the northeast side of the island.  The park was created in the 1790s by French nobleman Antoine de Bosc de la Calmette for his wife Elisabeth, commonly known as Lisa, and Liselund, roughly translated, means Lise’s grove.  The park is considered to be one of the finest examples in Scandinavia of Romantic English gardening.  Before us we see the cleft with the small waterfall which is framed by luxuriant trees.  In the foreground we see three visitors to the park fascinated by what they see before them.  The format of this landscape painting is unusual with it being portrait format instead of the usual landscape format.

Having completed his paintings of the island of Møn, Eckersberg set off on his Grand Tour of Europe, the first stop of which was Paris.  What Eckersberg soon learnt was that the new contemporary French painting of the time was so radically different to that of his Danish role models, Juel and Abildgaard. French paintings had a greater clarity of colour, bright light and clear-cut contours.  One of the stars of French art at this time was Jacques-Louis David and Eckersberg, through his patron had not only arranged for him to meet the great Neoclassical-style painter but had also had arranged for Eckersberg to be tutored by him in his life classes where students were taught how best depict the human body and the resulting change in a manifest change to Eckersberg’s style of history painting.

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

Eckersberg’s time spent in Jacques-Louis David’s life classes must have honed his skill for that type of art as in 1812 he produced Three Spartan Boys.  This was one of the first paintings in which he translated what he had learnt at those life classes of David.  A year after completion, the painting was exhibited in Copenhagen with the title, Three Spartan Youths Practicing Archery.  Etude from Nature.  The first part of the title ensures the painting is looked upon as a history painting but the second part of the title alludes to the fact that it is a modified and elaborated figure study.  See how the three youths strike different poses and we, as viewers, see them from different angles and thus admire the artist’s skill at his depiction of their bodies.  Note to the inclusion of a landscape background to this work.

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

Such an inclusion could be the result of Eckersberg having studyed the works of Jacques-Louis David who would also add landscape backgrounds to his historical paintings, one example of which was his painting entitled Leonidas at Thermopylae which Eckersberg probably only saw an unfinished version as it was not completed until 1814.

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

Another of Eckersberg’s historical paintings at this time was one entitled Odysseus’ Homecoming. Scene from the Odyssey XIX song, which he completed around 1812.  Book XIX of the Odyssey tells of the return of Odysseus, in disguise as a poor beggar to his home and to his erstwhile wife Penelope.  Odysseus continually refers to Penelope as the honourable wife of Lord Odysseus.   Odysseus has a bath and helped by his old nurse Eurykeia who recognizes a scar on Odysseus’ thigh and therefore knows the beggar is her lost master. Odysseus grabs her by the throat and tells her to keep what she saw from all others or else he will kill her.   In his painting, Eckersberg captures the moment when the old nurse is about to blurt out Odysseus’ name and so he covers her mouth with his hand as he looks over to Penelope to see if she has been alerted to the nurse’s discovery but she has her head in her hand still grieving for her lost husband.

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

Whilst in Paris Eckersberg did complete a number of historical paintings but his love for landscape work was not forgotten and in November 1812 he produced a beautiful painting entitled Pont Royal seen from the Quai Voltaire from sketches he made that summer.  It is a view from the Left Bank of the Seine looking across the river towards the Louvre and the Tuilleries.  As a landscape it is a change of style for him. It is an early example of his use of linear perspective which allowed him to give a sense of depth to the depiction.  As an artist and recorder of a view, he has adopted a very soberly observed position.  The details in the work are given to us in far greater detail than his usual landscape style.  He portrays light shining in from the left casting numerous shadows and his depiction of the clouds bears witness to his careful inspection of nature.  The painting was exhibited at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen in 1814.

In my next blog I will follow Eckerberg’s journey to Rome and look at more of his works of art.