An introduction to one of the most remarkable European artists of the nineteenth century to British audiences, Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light was the first major exhibition of paintings by the artist to be shown outside Denmark. A pre-eminent painter in his country, Kobke was one of the foremost talents of Denmark’s Golden Age.
Featuring around 40 of Købke's most celebrated works, the exhibition spanned a variety of genres. Giving an overview of Købke's achievement within its cultural context, it emphassied his exquisite originality and experimental outlook while focusing on the most innovative aspects of his work.
Købke's paintings demonstrate his ability to endow ordinary people and places and simple motifs with a universal significance, creating a world in microcosm for the viewer.
Exhibition organised with the National Gallery in London.
During his early years as a painter, Købke produced his main body of works at the Citadel. Home to the artist and his family from 1819 to 1833, the Citadel was a military fort situated in the countryside and a place Købke came to know in intimate detail. The paintings produced at the Citadel reflect a distinctive characteristic of Købke's art; namely his attachment to locations close at hand and to familiar surroundings. From this limited range of resources emerged a rich body of work in which Købke developed an independent style.
View Outside the North Gate of the Citadel was Købke's first commission from the Fine Arts Society, bringing the artist prestige and income. Choosing an unusual viewpoint which obscures the left side of the bridge, Købke creates a painting that appears to be a view of life preserved in one particular moment in time. Taking what he referred to as ‘little sections', Købke presents a world in microcosm.
In 1833, the Købke family moved from their home in the Citadel to grander premises in the rural outskirts of the city at Blegdammen. Whilst Købke continued with various projects, including his growing portfolios of portraiture, the works completed around Blegdammen and adjacent Dosseringen (the embankment) are regarded as an important phase in his art. His first major work at Blegdammen, View of a Street in Østerbro outside Copenhagen, was his most ambitious to date. Here, Købke attempted to define a specific time and place. The scene, close to his family's new home and the location of his grandfather's bakery, had personal significance to the artist. Completed in 1836, the work was exhibited at the Fine Arts Society in 1837 and received critical acclaim. Once criticised for the supposed triviality of his subjects, Købke had now turned scenes of ordinary life into a triumph of painting.
Købke succeeded in incorporating into his paintings the two seemingly opposed principles of the Danish Golden Age: the quest for detailed realism and the evocation of the ideal. Though rooted in a specific time and place, his detailed scenes, carefully observed and drawn from his surroundings, show nature in its most noble light.
Frederiksborg and National Romanticism
In 1831, Købke visited Frederiksborg and it was here that he first met the art historian Høyen, a powerful figure in the promotion of Danish culture. It is likely that Høyen and Købke quickly recognised their shared interests: Høyen had singled out Århus Cathedral as a site of major historical significance, and Købke had just produced a detailed architectural painting of the building.
Købke took the lessons he had learnt from the Århus interior to paint a series of architectural paintings, more directly under Høyen's influence, focusing on Frederiksborg Castle. In One of the Small Towers of Frederiksborg Castle, Købke uses bold and arresting angles to make the ordinary seem remarkable. The following year Købke completed a very different view of the castle, one more in keeping with Høyen's idea of romantic nationalism. Frederiksborg Castle in the Evening Light shows the castle silhouetted dramatically against a twilight sky and presents a powerful symbol of national pride and stability.
Throughout his career, and to the end of his life, Købke painted a large body of portraits. As commissions for other types of work were rare, portraiture offered a secure prospect of work and a potential source of income. The nature of portraiture changed during the Golden Age as the emerging middle classes sought images to confirm their new position in society. Such works often emphasised lineage and prosperity and while Købke responded to such a need, he was also drawn to penetrating the personality of the sitter.
Købke's portraits are almost all single figures in simple frontal poses, usually placed close to the front of the painting to create a direct and personal encounter between viewer and subject. In many of these portraits, there is no distinctive setting and instead, a dark background encourages the viewer to concentrate solely on the sitter. Not only did Købke rapidly develop a remarkable ability to capture likeness, he also convincingly revealed the temperament of his sitters, in which his personal intimacy with them proved a vital factor. Købke's lack of major public portraits may in part be due to his tendency to analyse personality rather than portray social status.
Italy and the Return to Denmark
Visiting Italy was seen as essential to all aspiring artists and, in 1838, Købke eventually followed his contemporaries. Købke arrived in Rome to find the city brimming with artists of many nationalities, including a small community of Danish painters.
Købke painted no finished works in Italy but this was not unusual. The purpose of travel was not always to paint but rather to record the surroundings. By gathering sketches of the major Italian sites, artists created an archive of images that could be used as a source for future finished paintings. In Naples, Købke painted several copies of Pompeian murals in the museum collection and sketched in the ruined city. In Pompeii he completed studies of the Forum which he would use in a later painting.
On his return to Denmark, Købke used his sketches from Italy to produce larger and more finished paintings of ‘academic' Italian subjects. In the 1840s, all Købke's completed works included Italian themes based on his travel archive, and nearly all resulted in much-needed sales.