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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus, 1812, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
Self-portrait, 1803, age 20.
For quite some time I've been writing intermittently about the Dutch Golden Age of painting during the 17th century. I guess it never occurred to me that other countries might have such a "Golden Age" as well. I suppose much of the 20th century might be considered the "Golden Age" of American painting while the French might claim the whole of the 19th century. Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg was Danish, and is said to have presided over the Danish Golden Age, the first half of the 19th century. He's also been dubbed the "Father of Danish Painting." Eckersberg taught at the Royal Danish Academy of Art and was its head for two years (1827-29) until his eyesight failed him. However, one man does not a "Golden Age" make. Eckersberg counted as his students outstanding Danish artists such as Wilhelm Bendz, Christen Købke, Martinus Rørbye, Constantin Hansen, Wilhelm Marstrand, and the sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of any of them. Except for Bendz, I never had either.

View Through Three Northwest Arches of the Coliseum in Rome,
Storm Gathering Over the City, 1815, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg.
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg was born in 1783 in the Jutland area of Denmark, his father being a painter and carpenter. Growing up in one of the most picturesque areas in the world, it's not surprising that, as a child artist, young Christoffer gravitated toward landscape painting and drawing. His family was not wealthy, but many who recognized his prodigious talents were. At the age of twenty (above) he enrolled in the Danish Academy tuition free. Numerous awards and stipends enabled him to paint and study in Copenhagen for seven years. Then, around 1810, he got a girl pregnant. In what must have been something akin to the Danish version of an American "shotgun wedding," Eckersberg married the baby's mother then three days later, set sail with a friend to go paint in Germany, and eventually, Paris, Florence, and Rome. His paintings of ancient Roman ruins, such as his View Through Three Arches of the Coliseum (above), and The Marble Steps Santa Maria Aracoeli Fachada (below), are among his best landscape works. In Italy too, he also picked up a fascination for painting mythology as seen in his Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus (top) from 1812.

Marble Steps Santa Maria Aracoeli Fachada, Rome, ca. 1813-16,
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
Julie Eckersberg, 1817, Christoffer
Wilhelm Eckersberg, his second wife.
Eckersberg returned to Copenhagen in 1816, shortly after his divorce from his son's mother was finalized. (The boy grew up to also become an artist.) Shortly thereafter he was made a member of the Academy and subsequently began teaching there. In 1817 Eckersberg married again, Julie Juel, the daughter of one of his colleagues (left). They had two sons and four daughters before her death in 1827, at which time he married his wife's sister, Suzanne. They had several more children. Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg died at the age of 70 in the great cholera epidemic of 1853.

Eckersberg's painting during his academic years centered around the nude figure, often times closely bordering on the naked, even the erotic. And unlike many such academicians (particularly in France) at the time, Eckersberg seemed to have no preference as to gender, his male nudes quite as plentiful and just as graphically explicit as his females. But then, Eckersberg, all his life, had been something of a stickler for details (as can be seen in his lengthy painting titles). For example, his painting of Marble Steps Santa Maria Aracoeli Fachada (above), is surprisingly accurate as compared to the photo of the same scene today (below).

Santa Maria Aracoeli Fachada today. Except for the encroachment of the
Vittoriano Palace (museum) on the left, built in 1911, the scene is much the same as painted by Eckersberg while studying in Rome between 1813 and 1816.
(I'd sure hate to climb that many steps to church every Sunday morning.)


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