Danish landscapes, portraits at the Getty

“Refsnæs, Coastscape” (1844), by Johan Thomas Lundbye (Danish, 1818-1848), pen and brown and gray ink, brush and watercolor; SMK-The National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen. Image: SMK Photo/Jakob Skou-Hansen

Less gold, but still aglow

Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in 19th-Century Danish Art

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Don’t let the subtitle (identity and place?) keep you from this modest but solid exhibition of drawings and oil sketches, most of the work created during the 1820s-1840s with the notable exception of Vilhelm Hammershøi, who came along half a century later. He’s here in part, I think, because the Getty recently acquired one of his works and this is as good a chance as any to show it off to the public.

We often hear about the “golden age” of Danish painting, and indeed that was the title of an exhibition that came to LACMA nearly 30 years ago. But was it really so golden? The introduction to the catalogue for “Beyond the Light” downplays it by focusing on Denmark’s turmoil during that era, pointing out that the times were “neither idyllic nor optimistic for most of its nation’s citizenry, and (with an obligatory wink at woke) certainly not for enslaved peoples in the Danish West Indies.”

Therefore, as noted in the Directors’ Foreword by Max Hollein of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (where this show originated) and Timothy Potts here in L.A. at the Getty, “the exhibition offers a nuanced, more personal history than the official one often represented by the finished paintings exhibited in public and acquired by patrons. It also moves away from the familiar idea of a Danish golden age to take a closer look at the political, philosophical, cultural, and social upheavals that shaped artistic production in nineteenth-century Denmark just as the nation was facing economic ruin and marginalization in Europe.”

“A Group of Danish Artists in Rome” (1837), by Constantin Hansen (Danish, born Italy 1804-1880), oil on canvas; SMK-The National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen. Image: SMK Photo/Jakob Skou-Hansen

Not that you would glean any of this from a stroll through the galleries, because while the essays in the book speak about this the artists themselves are out in the open air with their sketchbooks or carousing with their friends. Most of them, in their 20s and 30s, seem to have died fairly young, but at least they tended to immortalize one another in portraits, of which quite a few are on view.

Also, they weren’t at home, moping about and fretting over “political, philosophical, cultural, and social upheavals,” but loading up their backpacks and traveling far afield. Although, prior to the 1830s when railroads first appeared, travel was limited to walking or horse drawn carriages, many of these young artists headed to Germany and France and especially Italy. Travel was considered integral to a young man’s education. You’ve heard of the Grand Tour and all that, haven’t you? Rome and the surrounding countryside was one favorite destination, as the show makes evident. A few went farther, to Greece and Turkey. I’ve always wondered where the Italian artists went, but that isn’t addressed here.

“At a Window in the Artist’s Studio” (1852), by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (Danish, 1783-1853), pen and gray ink, brush and brown wash over graphite, framed in light-blue watercolor, with white heightening; SMK-The National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen. Image: SMK Photo/Jakob Skou-Hansen

This may be slightly off-topic, but if I was a young painter residing for a few months in a foreign city, I’d be asking the local girls to pose and maybe romancing a few of them on the side. But there’s no indication of any of that in this exhibition. Were these fellows always so serious?

At any rate, since Denmark is mostly surrounded by water, the ocean and the coast figure in many of the works. We can sum up Freyda Spira’s essay, “Denmark and the Sea,” by quoting its closing sentence, which states that “Danish identity is connected to the seas and waterways that define the boundaries of the nation.”

And, sure enough, many of the artists in the show, such as Johan Thomas Lundbye, purposely set out to capture the beauty of the land before it vanished. As Gry Hedin points out, people at the time were not yet fully aware of “the irreversible impacts of human activity,” although they didn’t fail to notice how deforestation and urbanization were changing the landscape. What they couldn’t yet conceive of was that eventually the entire planet would suffer.

Caspar David Friedrich’s dolmen in “A Walk at Dusk” is in the Getty’s permanent collection

Lundbye also was intrigued by and painted several dolmens, which consist of three or four megaliths, often with one larger stone set horizontally on top, which were placed in the landscape as funeral markers by ancient people. If you’ve seen the Getty’s “A Walk at Dusk,” by Caspar David Friedrich, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Friedrich, over in Germany, painted or sketched lots of dolmens.
Gry Hedin also writes that “The sensitivity that nineteenth-century Danish artists brought to their work still resonates for contemporary audiences through our connections to the past, especially as we look with trepidation to the future and to what it holds for the natural world.”

“Copenhagen Harbor by Moonlight” (1846), by Johan Christian Dahl; (Norwegian, born Denmark, 1788-1857), oil on canvas; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Christen Sveaas, in celebration of the Museum’s 150th Anniversary, 2019 (2019.167.2). Image: www.metmuseum.org

I’m guessing that very few of these artists are household names in the United States. Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783-1853) was perhaps the most influential early on, partly because from 1818 he was a professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and a stickler for both mathematical perspective and drawing from nature. Others you should know something about include Christen Købke (1810-1848), whose “The Forum, Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Distance” (1841) hangs in the Getty, as well as Martinus Rørbye (1803-1848), and Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857), whose “Copenhagen Harbor by Moonlight” (1846) is a fairly recent acquisition (2019) by the Met in New York. It’s one of the atmospheric standouts of the show, but I should mention that Dahl was Norwegian and this impressive painting was probably influenced by his neighbor in Dresden, Caspar David Friedrich, he of the dolmens and “A Walk at Dusk”.

Well, I think that’s enough for now. This show won’t razzle-dazzle you like “Tim Walker: Wonderful Things”, also on view, but there are some beautiful pieces that may even have you thinking about a few days in Denmark while planning your next European vacation.

Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in 19th-Century Danish Art is on view through August 20 in the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Hours, Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Monday. Free (parking is usually $20), but reservations for timed entries are required. Somewhat related is the lecture by Dr. Bridget Alsdorf, “Hammershøi’s Shadow,” scheduled for July 16. Hammershøi is perhaps more of a Symbolist painter, closer to Fernand Khnopff and J.W. Waterhouse than to Eckersberg, but he does seem to cap Danish art as it segued into the 20th century. Visit getty.edu. ER


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