- - Thursday, December 20, 2018


By Paul Lang

5 Continents Editions/National Gallery of Canada, $40 (CDN), 146 pages

Denmark is known for its quality of life, social mobility, cuisine, outdoor sports and exceedingly high taxes. Few would likely have included one of the more impressive collections of French Impressionism on their list.

Yet, it’s true. Paul Lang’s “Impressionist Treasures: The Ordrupgaard Collection” examines the magnificent French Impressionist paintings collected by Danish businessman/philanthropist Wilhelm Hansen and his wife Henny. It’s a rare opportunity for North Americans to get a bird’s-eye view of a collector who appreciated a particular art style — and helped shift public opinion in his nation so others could feel that same passion.

Ordrupgaard refers to the Hansens’ lavish home, which has displayed 19th- and early-20th century Danish and French art for a century (1918-2018). The now state-owned museum is closed for construction, so the two collections are currently on tour. The former travelled around Denmark, while the latter was exhibited in countries like Switzerland and Canada. (I visited Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada with my family earlier this year, and saw these paintings up close and personal.)

“It is undeniable that Impressionist painting arrived late in Scandinavia,” Mr. Lang notes, largely due to the negative reaction to French art touted by Carl Jacobsen, the influential founder of Copenhagen’s Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Hansen disagreed with Jacobsen, and became the first Dane to challenge his “distaste.” Although he had made his fortune in insurance, and had “no formal training in art history,” he was clearly taken by French painters and became known “for his eye for quality and his enthusiasm.”

Hansen’s first art purchase in 1892 was Johan Thomas Lundbye’s “Cow. Study” (1843). His collection of Danish artists continued until 1916, when he decided to concentrate mostly on French art. This obsession started on his first trip to Paris (a city he would visit frequently) “when he discovered Impressionism while visiting galleries and museums.” He told Swedish art historian Alex Gauffin of his plan to acquire up to 12 paintings of significant French Impressionist painters. He was also “motivated by the widely held view that the market for Impressionist art would explode” at the end of World War I.

Of note, Hansen founded the Friends of French Art Society in 1918. The goal was to “promote French art through Scandinavia,” and created retrospectives dedicated to Impressionist artists like Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. The Danish collector’s enthusiasm was a great success, and he was able to bring French art to his homeland — including works from the Louvre displayed at, believe it or not, Jacobsen’s Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in 1928.

Unfortunately, he went through some financial hardship when Den Danske Landmandshank, the banking institution that helped fund Ordrupgaard and its purchases, collapsed in 1922 due to “ill-advised loans.” The consortium Hansen had built up was swimming in debt, and his offer to the Danish government to purchase his collection for a merger sum was surprisingly turned down. So, he was forced to sell 76 paintings, or “almost half of their holding in French art” including many Cezannes and Manets, to get his finances under control. The strategy worked, and he was financially secure (again) by 1924.

Hansen would continue to collect French art until his unfortunate death in a 1936 car accident. His wife passed away in 1951, and Ordrupgaard would be converted into a national museum (which was requested in her will) in 1953.

The paintings in the French collection are magnificent.

There are vivid works by Romantic/realist artists like Honore Daumier’s “The Wrestler” (1852), Eugene Delacroix’s “Ugolimo and His Sons” (1860) and Gustave Courbet’s “The Wiremakers’ Workshops on the River Loue, near Ornans” (1861). Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot had many fine paintings on display, including “The Windmill” (1835-1840) and “The Bridge at Mantes” (1850-1854). Edouard Manet’s “Basket of Pears” (1882) and Claude Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge, Overcast” (1903) were both wonderful to see in person, too.

Hansen collected a fair amount of Camille Pissaro’s stunning monographic work, including “Plum Trees in Blossom, Eragny” (1894) and “A Corner in the Garden, Eragny (The Painter’s Home)” (1897). Other impressive paintings in this collection include Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Portrait of a Romanian Lady (Madame Iscovesco)” (1877), Edgar Degas’ “Courtyard of a House (New Orleans, Sketch)” (1873) and Alfred Sisley’s “The Flood, Banks of the Seine, Bougival” (1873).

It appears Impressionism made an impression in Denmark, thanks to the dedication and efforts of Wilhelm and Henny Hansen. In turn, the Ordrupgaard Collection is making a lasting impression on art enthusiasts across the world.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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