- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003

Visitors to the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit of 19th-century Danish painter Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg are more familiar with Danish luminaries Hans Christian Andersen and Soren Kierkegaard than Eckersberg. This is because Danish art has had little exposure outside the country until just recently.

Now, the current interest in things Scandinavian, and Denmark’s burgeoning prosperity, have fortunately brought about this important and influential painter’s first major loan exhibition in the United States — “Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1783-1853.” It marks the 150th anniversary of his death.

Too often, critics categorize Eckersberg as more of a teacher than innovative artist. This is because he’s been called the “Father of Danish Painting” and founder of its “Golden Age” as he introduced the then-revolutionary practice of working outdoors —”en plein air” to Danish art students. Eckersberg had learned the approach while working in Italy from 1813 to 1816. Before, Danish artists had worked inside studios.

Viewers will note his inspired use of light, made possible by the “plein air” approach, in the views of Rome, portraits of Copenhagen’s wealthy aristocracy and burgeoning middle class, scenes of ships and clouds at Copenhagen’s harbor, and his informal female nudes.

His varied use of both the sun-filled Mediterranean light and grayer and cooler Danish kind makes the work so remarkable and takes him far beyond his role as teacher.

The entire first gallery of the exhibit is suffused with the type of light Eckersberg used to create his pictures and reflects that of Rome during his 1813 to 1816 visit. Warm terra cotta walls painted by the National Gallery’s exhibit design staff accentuate the ambience as well. It must have been a major change for the artist after the gray Danish skies.

Before traveling to Rome, he had already studied in Paris with the famous neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David before learning his signature style in Rome. David was the most famous history painter in Europe and taught his students to paint by closely observing live models and landscapes.

Eckersberg’s “Alexander the Great on his Sickbed” (1806), an early history scene painted in David’s studio, is clearly a student effort but already shows the Dane’s liking for serene, balanced compositural-like structuring, whether with figures or enclosures.

“Hector’s Farewell to Andromache and Astyanax” (created during Eckersberg’s Roman stay), another attempt at history painting, proved less successful. It’s a stiff, emotionless rendering of an emotion-packed scene from Homer’s “Iliad” — when Hector leaves his wife and infant son for his death in a duel with Achilles.

There’s only one really lovely painting from these early years: It’s the softly lit fragment of a sleeping woman from the now destroyed, much larger “Dream of Alcyone” (1813). The exhibit catalog states it’s the best of his many classically inspired females.

The light of Rome propelled him to new heights as an artist. Eckersberg began painting landscapes, always including the Italian architecture he so admired. Several of the works are superb.

Consider “The Marble Steps Leading up to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome.” The dramatic diagonals of the stairs lead up and back to the church. He even sliced shaded sections downward to add even more intensity.

“View Through Three of the Northwestern Arches in the Third Story of the Colosseum in Rome” is the most famous of these images. The sky and clouds have a Salvador Dali-like clearness. Eckersberg gave the painting another Dali, surrealist twist by making the buildings in the distance as detailed as the Colosseum surfaces. Few artists, before or after, have captured Rome’s bright light and classical architecture as well.

Eckersberg’s portraits in the second gallery, painted after he returned to Denmark in 1816, are pleasant and frank but not outstanding. He’s most appealing with single or double figures. However, he fails when he attempts to depict a number of figures, such as the 10 children, young adults and parents of “The Nathanson Family.” The figures don’t relate to each other in a coherent way.

Dominating this room — appropriately painted dark blue — are Eckersberg’s images of ships in Copenhagen’s vibrant harbor. As with his Roman ruins, the painter emphasized the architectural qualities of the boats.

He was also a meteorologist and painted studies of clouds and skies that paralleled the more famous ones of J.M.W. Turner, his English contemporary, and anticipated those of Claude Monet, the later French impressionist.

The exhibit could have used a few less ships and more of Eckersberg’s unusual nudes. He placed his models in everyday settings — in front of a mirror, close to an Oriental rug, or slipping off a dress. By taking young women out of the more formal painters’ studio, and painting them inside the home, he gave them more casual personas.

Whether Eckersberg was painting Roman ruins, Danish ships or Copenhagen’s bourgeoisie, his fascination with all kinds of light — hot and cool, direct and subtle — is what makes the exhibit a standout. By creating almost endlessly varied lights and atmospheres, he breathed new life into the formal neoclassic painting of his time.

Eckersberg did what few artists accomplished: He combined the cool formality of academic traditionalism with forward-looking impressionistic effects that erupted with Monet and Renoir later in the century.

WHAT: “Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1783-1853”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue at Fourth Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 29. Closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215


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