"Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1783-1853," Nov. 23, 2003-Feb. 29, 2004, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The four fathers of the Golden Age of Denmark -- Soren Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Andersen, August Bournonville and Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg -- are regarded variously today. Kierkegaard probably carries the most intellectual weight; but as influential as this philosopher has been in theological circles and among Existentialists, can you remember the last time you read Fear and Trembling? As for Andersen, other than occasionally invoking the image of the emperor's new clothes, the closest most of us have come to his literary output in recent years would be The Little Mermaid.
Then there's Bournonville, a towering figure in dance lore whose three-act ballets are better known from books than from modern day performances (though last spring you may have been lucky to catch his charming Napoli at the Royal Danish Ballet). Lastly, what about Eckersberg, a painter active during the first half of the 19th century who never made it into Janson? This former director of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts is currently the subject of a wonderful retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
You don't want to miss it. To paraphrase Bette Davis, you're going to be seeing a lot more of him. There are only 50 paintings in the show; but it seems more copious because Eckersberg's cityscapes, portraits, seafaring views, narratives and nudes are small and absorbing. For the most part, they are modest pictures made for homes in Copenhagen once belonging to successful merchants and manufacturers such as Mendel Levin Nathanson, who commissioned pictures of his family, and Heinrich Hirschsprung, whose eponymous museum features major works by Eckersberg, his students Kobke and Lundbye, and Hammershoi. While there are larger works, including a score of altarpieces, they weren't available.
This smorgasbord, to borrow the Swedish term, encompasses the array of subjects Eckersberg treated between 1803, the year he arrived in Copenhagen at the age of 20 to become an artist -- and 1844, nine years before his death. Early on, he absorbed important lessons from the landscapes of Jens Juel, his future father-in-law, and his studies with neo-classicist Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, whose amazing The Wounded Philacetetes was included in The Splendor of 18th Century Rome a few seasons back.
Eckersberg spent three years in Paris, where he was a pupil of Jacques-Louis David; and then he went to Rome on a travel grant that came with the gold medal he'd won. Three years later, in 1816, the well-trained artist returned to Copenhagen with history paintings he executed in France in the stately neo-classical style and plein-air paintings he did in Italy that call to mind early Corot.
From the outset of his career, Eckersberg revealed a gift for rendering the effects of light and creating an affecting composition. Coming from a country where night can fall at three in the afternoon and it can be bitter cold for weeks on end, how did the fledgling painter respond to the long days and comforting warmth of Italy? With radiant blues and unusual perspectives. He transformed temples, cloisters and views of the city and the campagna into intricate geometric designs. The Marble Steps Leading up to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli may even remind you of Giorgio di Chirico on acid.
This great Dane obviously loved being out-of-doors. It's often hard to tell what's going on in Eckersberg's narratives. They're utterly convincing in terms of light, atmosphere, action and locale, as well they should be given their relationship to illustrations he made for his 1841 treatise on perspective. But they're not your typical genre pictures. What are their story lines? Why are these people running? Where are they going? And are they based on fact (actual events) or fiction (pace Hans Christian Andersen)? Was there something odd in the state of Denmark? The scenario of Bournonville's Napoli seems cut from the same cloth. Acts I and III are animated village scenes that suggest genre paintings come to life; but Act II takes place in a grotto where, as in any good fairy tale, the heroine turns into a mermaid and then is restored to her former self.
Eckersberg painted straightforward portraits. Or did he? Take a second look and you'll notice there's something disconcerting about the people who sat for him. While you'll love the fashionable waistcoats, ornamental necklines, bonnets and such, these ruddy cheeked men and women mostly range from dignified to dour. With the exception of his smiling first wife, most convey bottled-up emotions.
When Eckersberg returned home, he painted what he found in the harbor of Copenhagen with the same appreciation for light and color that he brought to bear on his views of Rome. He made portraits of Danish vessels, Russian ships and American naval brigs the way another artist might picture a cow in a field or a vendor in a market.
Nevertheless, these works are tinged with melancholy. The academician's country was suffering financial reversals and the loss of Norway as he was executing these paeans to the commercial character of his maritime nation.
As impressive as all this work is, Eckersberg's ultimate reputation rests on his astonishing nudes. Women plaiting their hair, putting on a slipper, and standing before a mirror are depicted in various modes of undress. All are absorbed by what they are doing. Quiet and subdued, these canvases include a touch of bright, emphatic color or an interesting pattern introduced here and there. They are exacting compositions. The woman whose bare back is to the viewer, her face and arm reflected in the looking glass, was positioned with infinite care. And they are boldly lighted. With parts of the picture darkened, there's never any question where attention should be focused. It's a shame more of these nudes could not have been borrowed.
Once you've seen Eckersberg's work in depth, you'll wonder why he's not better known in the United States. He's an artist who sticks in your mind. In this way, the painter is a bit like his native land. People seem to feel two ways about Denmark: either they love it or they've never been there.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.