The Golden Age of Danish Painting

An Island of Calm in a Sea of Romanticism

October 14, 2020By Heidi EllisonExhibitions
"Outside the North Gate of the Citadel" (1834), by Christen Købke.
“Outside the North Gate of the Citadel” (1834), by Christen Købke.

The brilliance of the Dutch Golden Age is universally known and appreciated, but who gives a thought to the Danish Golden Age? Luckily, Paris’s Petit Palais is educating us with the delightful and comprehensive exhibition, “L’Âge d’Or de la Peinture Danoise.”

Painting flourished in Denmark from 1801 to ’64 – the period covered by the exhibition (14 years longer than the commonly accepted period) – thanks to the rise of a middle class able to afford artworks and the corresponding increase in the popularity of individual and family portraits. As the painters prospered, they started making larger works and began to travel and learn from the artists of Italy, France and the other Scandinavian countries.

The instigator and great star of this Golden Age was Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, who was not only a great painter himself but also influenced a whole generation of artists as a teacher at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

As a budding artist, Eckersberg traveled to France, where he studied with neoclassical French painter Jacques-Louis David in Paris for a year, and to Rome, where he practiced painting en plein air and developed a more naturalistic style. As the exhibition’s curators say of the 30 studies he brought home from Italy: “With their pure naturalism and their treatment of light, nature and architecture, they had the effect of a bombshell on Copenhagen’s art scene.”

While outside influences are apparent in the 200 works in the show – the special light of Italy illuminates Eckersberg’s paintings and those of his followers – they have a particular style that strikes the eye immediately, with their precisely painted subjects and a kind of cool approach that contrasts with the emotionalism and drama of the Romantic movement, then flourishing in other European countries. It all conspires to create a feeling of tranquility and well-being that must have reflected the comfort of the Danish bourgeoisie at the time.

"View through Three Arches of the Third Story of the Colosseum" (1815), by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. © SMK Photo/Jakob Skou-Hansen
“View through Three Arches of the Third Story of the Colosseum” (1815), by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. © SMK Photo/Jakob Skou-Hansen

Naturally, Eckersberg is well-represented in the show, with everything from portraits to street scenes, mythological scenes and landscapes. While he usually painted outdoors, this view of Rome seen through the arches of the Coliseum was actually painted in his studio and based on three different studies of the monument.

"Oat Field in Vejby" (1843), by Peter Christian Skovgaard. © SMK Photo/Jakob Skou-Hansen
“Oat Field in Vejby” (1843), by Peter Christian Skovgaard. © SMK Photo/Jakob Skou-Hansen

Some of the paintings here have atypical subject matter. Christen Købke, for example, depicts a workman dusting the base of a plaster cast of an Antique sculpture in a painting dating from 1830. Others seem very modern in the simplicity of their subject matter as the painters moved outdoors to paint from life: a water-filled ditch (Lorenz Frølich), a field of oats (Peter Christian Skovgaard) or a rough wooden bridge over a stream (Dankvart Dreyer).

In one very creepy scene, inspired by Henry Fuseli’s painting of the same name, “The Nightmare” (1846), by Ditlev Blunck, a demon in the form of a half-human rabbit sits on the stomach of a sleeping woman who appears to be in a state of ecstasy, staring at her exposed breasts. The floor beside the bed is littered with flowers, shoes, an open book and some sheet music.

"A Girl, Elise Købke, with a Cup" (1850), by Constantin Hansen. © SMK Photo/Jakob Skou-Hansen
“A Girl, Elise Købke, with a Cup” (1850), by Constantin Hansen. © SMK Photo/Jakob Skou-Hansen

Among the portraits, I was especially impressed by Constantin Hansen’s “A Girl, Elise Købke, with a Cup” (1850), in which the subject is captured as she looks up from stirring her drink and gazes with curiosity at the viewer. I was also struck by the incredible sensitivity of many of the drawings on show. It’s hard to single out just one, but there are a number of exceptional pieces by Købke, who was the real star of this exhibition for me, although so many other talented painters are on show.

As always, the Petit Palais has done a beautiful job with the scenography for the exhibition, with colored walls, photographic blowups and even a reconstructed studio based on images found in some of the paintings, where visitors can try out the perspective technique invented by Eckersberg and make their own drawings.

One gets the impression that these artists were truly reveling in their work during their Golden Age. Make sure you go and revel in it, too.


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